PORTLAND, Maine — As a title, “Rose Marasco: Index” does double duty. The show runs through Dec. 6 at the Portland Museum of Art.
On one level, the title aptly describes the retrospective. Marasco’s body of work, the product of four decades and counting as a photographer, is large and varied and full of surprises. She’s equally at home with black and white and color, interiors and exteriors, urban and rural, observation and arrangement, discrete photographs and series. If her photographs were pages in a book, they’d cry out for an index, the better to dip into and savor, comprehend and make connections. In that sense, the “index” that the PMA has given Marasco is a fine example of the form. This is a very rich and appealing show, which happily sprawls over two floors.
On another level, the title is a protest or joke. This plays off of something Marasco says in an interview with the show’s curator, Jessica May. “People are OK about understanding that music can be all sorts of things, and that writing can be all sorts of things, but that photography is about one thing, you know? The index. It’s about this thing in the world that I’m pointing a device at.”
Seen that way, every photograph is its own index — an index of reality, an index of perception, an index of a specific there and specific then. Yet there have been many (many) theres and thens in Marasco’s career, more than enough to render meaningless that particular idea of an index — yet also to cry out for the other idea of an index.
Marasco was born in 1948 and grew up in Utica, N.Y. She moved to Maine 35 years ago. Two early photographs neatly connect the two. A Utica facade from the early ’70s bears a cryptic syllable, “DA.” The corner of a building in Brunswick has a sign for a paint shop, D.A. Favreau & Sons. More important than the repetition of letters is the way both images demonstrate Marasco’s talent for elegant, off-center framing. That framing can feel as classically straight-on as a Walker Evans photograph and as inexplicable as something shot by a Paris Surrealist. Marasco’s Surrealist bent is very much on display in a 2010 series of black-and-white silhouettes that combine vintage female fashion with New York landmarks.
The Utica and Brunswick photographs also share something with many of her other images, something Marasco touches on in that interview. “I am interested in the tone of the image,” she says. “Tone or voice — I use those interchangeably sometimes.” There’s a cool grace to the surface of so many of these images. They speak, to use Marasco’s vocal metaphor, in a precisely enunciated murmur. Is that a contradiction? Of course it is, but squaring circles — and circling squares — is what art can do.
Circles and squares (or at least rectangles) figure throughout Marasco’s “Diary” and “Tender Buttons” series, from the ’90s. Both employ everyday domestic items, their attractiveness made apparent by her singling them out. In “Diary,” she juxtaposes actual vintage diaries with an egg or tableware or popcorn. “Tender Buttons” are arrangements of buttons. They pay tribute to the hard particularity of objects — and life.
Both series are like squashed, two-dimensional versions of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, sharing with the latter a slightly unearthly beauty and sense of the magical. They also are feminist statements, not just declaring but demonstrating the aesthetic power to be found in the kitchen and at the sewing table. With the latter series, there’s also the allusion to Gertrude Stein’s novel “Tender Buttons.”
Fecundity is one of Marasco’s many interests. That interest takes a very different form in her series of Grange halls throughout Maine. The show includes 25 of them. Stalwart yet unassuming, both buildings and photographs would have delighted Evans. Yet they could hardly differ more from another Marasco series, “Dice Book,” which show a die or dice arrayed on colored paper in a loose-leaf binder, variously accompanied by cut-outs or hand-written texts. Squares and rectangles abound. The only circles are the little white ones on the dice. Here geometry hardly matters. It’s the element of chance. As Marasco says of the creative process, “Nothing is ever right or wrong. . . . If it’s not working at all, it brings me somewhere else.” When it’s working it brings her somewhere else, too. Maybe there’s a third level to “index”: the sum of those somewhere elses.
ROSE MARASCO: Index
At: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Dec. 6, 207-775-6148, www.portland museum.orgMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.