Love Handles: Liz Maugans’s Beautiful Mess at HEDGE
Liz Maugans, known over the past twenty five years as a power-house of inspiration and sustained effort behind the developing Cleveland arts scene, is also one of the region’s most admired visual artists. Her prints, collages, and drawings document her commitment to personal freedom and the complex emotional and cognitive problems of life in our times – as a woman, a citizen, and as a loving human being. Her exhibit Beautiful Mess is on view now at HEDGE Gallery.
If the truest art is the purest autobiography, marking the conflicts and sins, growth-spurts and passions of a life, then Maugans is an artists’ artist for our often contradictory, too often absurd times. Her plain-spoken, sharply observant images are typically composed from a shifting glossary of improvised symbols, tracking new developments in her busy, passionate daily life. Many of her prints and collages invoke the blandly anonymous personae of modern informational signage (like her use of a blue-clad figure she calls “PT Man,” adopted from a recurring mascot on physical therapy packaging). Downshifting from the deadpan speech of medical bureaucracies to a less-than-reverent personal patois all her own, Maugans’ mercurial works read as a series of observations poised between the quick flow of irony and the hard commitments of critique.
Maugans can be mischievous, intense, funny, and/or heartrendingly serious, sometimes all at once. Among her most characteristic gambits is the oxymoron, which (of course) in classical Greek means “sharp/dull.” As she pointed out to me, even the title of her current, sweeping one person, 60 (or more) object exhibit at HEDGE Gallery is an example of that figure of speech: Beautiful Mess it’s called, and if that seems a little shy of an absolute contradiction perhaps that’s because Maugans goes on to explore the ways that conflict produces growth and transformation. In her work a clash of opposites invariably gives rise to sense of burgeoning change — to beauty, you could say, but even more importantly, Maugans reminds the viewer of the possibility of beauty, makes way for it. Beautiful Mess is all about life, and therefore about change and death. Over the past few years Maugans lost several key family members, most recently her mother, Fern Maugans. Images of ferns, collaged or printed with paper lithography techniques, are everywhere at the Hedge Gallery show, but otherwise Maugans chooses to represent not the woman herself, but the circumstances surrounding her illness, and the way that caring for a loved one in extremis alters the souls of both.
Three loose groups of studies, provisionally referred to by the artist as “Catch Up, “Baggage”, and “Notes from Fern,” fill the walls. Many explore a secondary theme of recycling, like the ten foot long “Girl-nica,” which dominates a white-painted brick wall. The work shows a dense tangle of geometric forms — hands knotted tightly in prayer, geodesic webs, diamond shapes, parachutes, dots and ropes, pennants and knots, Neolithic-looking concentric circles, even a face or two, plus a few of words and phrases (“I don’t know how you do it,” “readmit,” “lost iphone”). Then there’s a short fleet of navy-style anchors, weighing down the bottom of the rectangle up toward its bow, and a few faces. In a short notice, Maugans explains that her Guernica-esque images here (relating to Picasso’s enormous masterwork of mourning and outrage, painted during the Spanish Civil War) were layered on top of a much earlier drawing dating back more than 30 years, produced when she was a young art student. Inspired by a Jasper Johns work called “the Seasons,” it represented her shadow at different times of the day. She rolled it up long ago and put it away, until it became part of her life again in the course of hard times, bringing her young shadows here to serve as foundation for the chaos of effort and expectation in the present. She writes: “To everyone who sees this – those that there are anchors and lighthouses, the ones that parachute into lives of others, the people holding the rope or the others barely hanging on – this work is about how we clutch our hands together, praying we see another day, another moment that can be shared with those we love.”
Maugans’ “Baggage” pieces also began with a gesture of recycling, using the paper bags that flowed into her house, filled with all the transient paraphernalia of illness, needful things for patient and caretaker. As with “Girl-nica,” the idea of recycling at “Beautiful Mess” grounds the artist’s images in past life and experience, acknowledging how every creative act begins with a reconfiguration of materials and ideas; there is nothing new under the sun. The “Baggage” images employ the full range of Maugans’ motifs, including teardrop/raindrop floods, stormy passages of calligraphic, rhythmic wave-shapes, anchors (symbolic here of stability and strength), and lighthouses. A five-foot tall cardboard and plywood model of a lighthouse even stands in one corner, near “Girl-nica.” This object, which itself was rescued from basement storage, and the painted images of lighthouses in Maugans’ depictions, evoke recurring promises of renewal and restoration, gleams of meaning shining from towers of kindness.
Maugans show is anything but dark, despite being a sustained reaction to personal hardship and loss. The presentation and installation at HEDGE has an informal, at times deliberately child-like, home-made quality, making its difficult realizations easier to accept. Rough, dripping streaks of pink, yellow, and orange paint on the walls around some otherwise unframed pieces are not only informal gestures. They continue the show’s recycling theme, since the paint used was left over from the recent “Rooms To Let” project in Slavic Village, where homes slated for demolition by the Cuyahoga Land Bank became armatures for a number of basement-to-attic art projects. In this sixth edition of the yearly event, Maugans and many other Cleveland-based artists turned parts of the central city into short-lived, bittersweet monuments to a distressed neighborhood. Some installations read as memorials to the emotional complexities of home, but many also commented on the savagely destructive social and economic trends that continue to erode Rust Belt cities.
Everything ties together at Maugans’ show, in an organic flow that follows the rapidly altering contours of middle-age. Children leave home, marriages are tested (and often fail), parents become ill, sometimes die. And everyone gets older, all the rules change, the personalities wear down into different shapes, people become more who they always were, but in other ways diminish, disappoint. One disappoints oneself, yet celebrates unforeseen triumphs, perhaps on the same day. Maugans describes all this ebbing and flowing, the inescapable sturm und drang of ordinary existence. In self defense she also stations a few figures of recurring certainty, people, places, things that she can hang on to. Among these I find the imagery of “This Job Blows” to be especially reassuring, and oddly lovely. Painted on a single unfolded and flattened brown paper grocery bag, it sports a single handle, poking from the upper right edge of the work like an arch (which is another of Maugans’ symbols, indicating Victory). At the bottom are five more arch-shapes of different sizes, but black, like the entrances to tunnels. Most of the work is a gray-tinged blue – a night, and joined across this night in a sort of “U” shape are two lighthouses. The lighthouse on the right is taller, made of white stones, like a tower, and shines its light to the right edge of the bag. There the light-cone seems to congeal, weeping down in big drops like a guttering candle. And the lighthouse on the opposite side of the piece depicts a shorter, black-and-white checkerboard style structure, beaming its own cone. Right in the middle of the composition, inscribed in neat cursive, appear the words, “This Job Blows.” Referring to pulmonary therapy techniques and equipment, Maugan’s images here combine references to the body with a broader semiotics of aid and comfort. These visual ideas are enriched by the work’s gouache-flat, dry textures of water-based paint and paper bag. Together these elements conjure a blueprint of a kind, a map for getting through the night.
“Beautiful Mess” is a show with a hundred quirks and details, rough spots and weird excesses, that bond with the textures, the scar tissue and secret pleasures of the subconscious. It also is a tribute to the artist’s family so important and true that one hopes they can somehow take it in.