Dark side

Following up on Beth Wittenberg’s controversial

pop-up show in Rochester

Over the past four months, Beth Wittenberg has created roughly 250 drawings, halfway to her target of 500, for a series of artwork she calls “Beasts, Buildings, and Storms.”

The work is dark, and not just because it’s primarily drawn in black. There are menacing creatures and distorted nudes, accompanied by text that is often poetic, but sometimes profane. The subject matter is often violent, and sometimes sexual.

Wittenberg says she creates without preconceptions, just raw emotion and self-expression. “The drawings sort of explode out of me,” the local artist said. The process is fitting of the product, since the work tends to deal with rage.

“I don’t censor myself,” Wittenberg said.

But, some have claimed that she was a victim of censorship in downtown Rochester.

“What we’re doing with this is trying to brighten up some of these dark storefronts that have been dark for a long time.” — Matt Wyatt of the Rochester Museum of Fine Art

The Rochester Museum of Fine Art (RMFA) invited Wittenberg to be the first artist featured in a rotating exhibition, seen through the lighted windows of a vacant commercial space at 32 North Main St. Although there was no set end date to the pop-up show, it caused some commotion when it lasted less than a week.

All parties involved have agreed that the content was inappropriate for the street-facing windows, which allows for all ages viewing. The museum does not have its own space, and works with the city and others to promote the arts. The building is owned by Holy Rosary Credit Union, which supports the pop-up shows along with Rochester Main Street.

Matt Wyatt, chair of the RMFA, said the shows not only provide an opportunity for artists, but are also intended to help revitalize the downtown area by demonstrating the potential of empty spaces.

“What we’re doing with this is trying to brighten up some of these dark storefronts that have been dark for a long time,” he said.

Wyatt said some of the smaller lettering on Wittenberg’s drawings turned out to be more graphic than he realized. He responded to complaints, but does not consider it censorship. “It was really just out of respect,” he said.

Paintings by Liz Wilson, of the Salmon Falls Mills, have been on display in the pop-up space since March 16.

ART_CourtesyRMFA2Paintings by Liz Wilson are on display in the windows of a vacant building on North Main Street in Rochester.

Right across the street, a couple of panels from Wittenberg’s show are now on view at The Franklin Gallery, which is a part of RiverStones Custom Framing. Owner Kris Ebbeson inherited the gallery name and sign from Ben Franklin Crafts.

And, in Dover, some of the larger drawings that were part of the pop-up show are on display at Pinnacle Piercing, through May.

Wittenberg acknowledges that the language in her “Beasts, Buildings, and Storms” series is not suitable for everyone or every space. “I knew it was going to come down,” she said.

She said the series is a catharsis for her, but that she’s tapping into something deep inside the collective unconscious.

“I’m hoping to get people to think about their humanity. We all have a beast,” she said.

Wittenberg said we all struggle with human desires and are hedonists at heart, but that we can learn from confronting our demons.

“In looking at the darkness, we can find the light. You can’t have one without the other,” she said. “Hopefully people can see what I’m not saying. We have a dark side, but in direct contrast to that, we also have a light side.”

The work is tempered with pink highlights that she says represent “moments of pretty.”

“The pink is the other side of the beast. It’s not dark; it’s loving. It balances it,” she said. “And it’s a good compositional element.”

art_CK2Above and at top: work by Beth Wittenberg is now on display at The Franklin Gallery.

While the controversy surrounding her pop-up show has led to other opportunities, Wittenberg is no stranger to the local art scene. Other examples of her work can currently been seen at The Gallery at 100 Market in Portsmouth, and as part of the aRtPM Challenge exhibition at Buoy in Kittery. She is represented by Blackbird Studio and Gallery in North Berwick.

Likewise, the pop-up shows have called attention to the RMFA, but Wyatt said it’s only a small part of what they do. The four-year-old organization exhibits selections from its permanent collection as well as featured artists in four public libraries and in Rochester City Hall. Recently, Rochester Community Center was added to that list, with the largest exhibit yet.

Wyatt said the RMFA has invited Wittenberg to exhibit again, but with different work.

A reception for Beth Wittenberg’s “Beasts, Buildings, and Storms” exhibit is planned for Saturday, April 11, from noon to 2 p.m., at The Franklin Gallery in RiverStones Custom Framing, located at 33 North Main St., Rochester.