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McClain Gallery is delighted to announce an exhibition of new works by Mara Held (b. 1954, New York). Gates of Cilicia presents gouache and egg tempera works on paper from the artist’s latest series, ‘Straight Lines.’  Also on view are several recent paintings on linen that evidence the elegant tension of a practice that pulls inspiration from the convergence of ancient thought to modern physics. This is Held’s third solo exhibition at McClain Gallery. 

Held’s interest in ancient cultures, specifically the language and artmaking of early mankind, led to the exhibition’s title: Gates of Cilicia. The phrase refers to a pass in the high mountains of Taurus in present-day Turkey that has served as an essential gateway between the east and the west for millennia. This passage was used by the earliest human civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, eventually developing into a significant cultural nexus point. Held sees the Gates of Cilicia both as a gateway through landscapes and epochs and as a symbolic magical space whence humans created civilization.

Held is fascinated by cave paintings by early people, which she considers to be sacred paintings. These ancient artists would travel deep into the earth with no light source other than a moss lantern to create paintings of animals and abstract images including meditative symbols such as spirals and grids on cave walls. Held often uses similar shapes and patterns with the understanding that their presence in human art-making is a pervasive constant. For Held, the continuity transcends the cognitive choices involved with creating a composition on paper or a record on a cave wall. As Held puts it: “The cave wall represents a membrane into another dimension… [they become] portals to the imagination.”

Mara Held's layered abstractions and organic curvilinear forms have, as critic Ken Johnson once described, "a lithe, improvisational fluidity, each one an adventure for the senses and the imagination." Typically working in egg tempera, Held adjusts her practice when traveling, focusing on less labored–yet equally lyrical– small works on paper inspired by the locale she is visiting.  While Covid-19 pandemic's outset hampered Held’s wanderlust, quarantine provided an opportunity for change in her studio. Just as rulemaking can breed creativity, Held's interest in the woven, primitive mark-making, and the grid, became the genesis of a new set of rules where she would paint using only straight lines. The rigidity of Held's 'Straight Lines' runs parallel with the pandemic's new rigid lifestyle. Quoting Henri Matisse, Held states: "Don't wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working."

While exploring this new set of rules, Held was intrigued by a feather-like element in one of these early straight line pieces that became a springboard for this current body of work. As the series quickly developed, Held began incorporating gouache with egg tempera, and the scale of her works on paper grew.  She first starts by penciling in a ground resembling a grid, or a warp and weft, to act as an anchor for these improvisational pieces. The results are colorful and visually satisfying images that exemplify Held's skill as a painter and dedication to her craft.

Mara Held was born in 1954 in New York. In her early 20s, Held lived in the highlands of Guatemala studying the art and ancient language of the Quiché people. She received her undergraduate degree from CUNY - City University of New York and an MA from Immaculate Heart College in 1979 before moving back to New York in the 1980s. She taught essay writing at the college level and became a full time artist at the age of 35. Her studio is located on an old dairy farm in the picturesque Hudson Valley that has been in her family since the 1960s. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions in New York City and abroad. Institutions that have collected her work include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The New York Public Library; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The International Artists' Museum, Tel Aviv; and Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.  Mara Held’s work has been profiled by The New York Times, Elle Decor, and The Brooklyn Rail.