Cynthia Lahti

“Daughter,” a recent exhibition by Cynthia Lahti, a long-underrecognized artist’s artist based in Portland, included works in a variety of media, all addressing the bonds of love and grief as experienced by girls in the same family tree. Lahti’s purposefully raw, emotionally direct objects bring to mind the accidental elegance of childhood craft projects, but here the results are fraught with disturbing nuances that make a viewer wonder: Can one feel nostalgia for pain?

The Kip Twins, 2007, for example, is a small plaster sculpture composed of two busts of twin girls set side by side. At first glance, they have near-identical facial features and sport identical French-twist hairdos. On closer inspection, however, differences appear out of the girls’ small-scale flaws—a broken nose on one, a long mouth on the other. In a different artist’s hands the not-quite-identical twins might suggest an arch, Baudrillardian comment on the simulacral—genetic copies without an original—but here the effect is more plainspoken, a declarative, Diane Arbus–like observation on human identity as a systematic proliferation of imperfections.

Ruthless 2, 2007, a sculpture made of porcelain that looks more like white plaster, similarly skirts conceptual heavy-handedness on the way to deeper emotional terrain, depicting a girl in a simple pinafore lying flat against the wall, such that the wall is reimagined as the floor. Akin to Lahti’s past sculptural works featuring only the backs of figures—a girl running or a woman with a cane—this work deploys a controlled crudeness to plumb feelings of aching loss and unfocused anxiety. As always in Lahti’s work, an insistent emotional logic drives the conceptual innovation, rather than the other way around.

Among the most physically satisfying pieces in the show is Annette, 2007, a portrayal of a matronly Victorian woman with sunbonnet and plunging neckline, holding a kitten to the bosom of her frothy thumbed-clay dress. The centerpiece, though, is surely Cousins, 2006, a collection of raku-fired sculptures of young girls sharing a single large pedestal, some on posts, some on white plinths, one with her legs overhanging the main platform itself. The figures’ skin is lusciously colored from its fast, hot firing, fading from charcoal to tan to cream, and the poses describe a variety of moods, some frivolous, some anguished, some private. Taken together, the gang of girls suggests a crosscut of a spreading family tree, a web of one-off relations haunted by the missing generations above and below.

Some levity arrives in the gracefully hung show, which also includes unfussy ink drawings, with the sculpture Up on Puddy Tat Mountain, a collection of lumpy white porcelain cats in frisky poses, displayed on a circle of slender pikes. Nearby, the sense of catlike playfulness and the use of time-lapse serialization are picked up in “Black Beauty” (2007), a series of photographs featuring a woman’s hand fidgeting with a black crepe-paper ribbon. The works’ balancing of diversion and mourning, simple fun and dry worry, is distinctly precarious.

Lahti’s art, while far from cleverly allusive, does bring some influences to mind. Louise Bourgeois is one, in the recurring representations of the female body informed and deformed by a surreal imagination. Another is Hilda Morris, the late Portland-based AbEx sculptor whose hoary, indelible shapes seemed retrieved directly from a dark, existentialist void. Other predecessors might include Rodin, Giacometti, Dubuffet, and even Portland-bred cartoonist Lynda Barry—all artists, like Lahti, who make rough-hewn imperfection an eloquent virtue.

Jon Raymond