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Stringing Viewers' Thoughts Along an Activist's Tightrope

IT is odd to see 90 pairs of polished black combat boots positioned in perfect marching order, but with nobody wearing them. In the installation ``Missa,'' each left shoe is planted firmly on the ground, while each right shoe is suspended, toe pointed down, just about to step.

Thin filament extends from boots to ceiling frame, holding them in formation and helping to create an eerie atmosphere that suggests military marionettes and pronounces the absence of the soldiers who once filled the shoes.

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The room is so quiet that one is forced to think about where the boots came from, who wore them, who might have fought in them and why. The work is also beautiful to look at.

The art of Dominique Blain often focuses on war, violence, and oppression. Several of her works are currently on exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine.

Born in Montreal in 1957, Ms. Blain received her BFA from Concordia University. Now, she divides her time between Montreal and Los Angeles. Her solo exhibitions have been featured in various galleries in Canada, the United States, and France.

Inasmuch as Blain illustrates ``the art of walking the activist tightrope'' - as the Portland Museum of Art points out - her works are images that serve to trigger thought, not preach a particular political agenda.

As with the 90 pairs of boots in ``Missa,'' other of Blain's works pare down military actions to a personal level. In ``Japan Apologizes,'' Blain displays a Korean ceremonial robe - again suspended for us to see. The robe is open to reveal its lining, liberally stamped with the statement ``Japan Apologizes.'' In January of 1992 Japan issued a statement of apology to Korea for forcing tens of thousands of Korean women to serve as prostitutes, or ``comfort women,'' for the Japanese military during World War II. Most of these women were shunned by their own society.

In effect, Blain creates a bodiless portrayal of the casualties of war; she hones in on the personal clothing or gear of humans subjected to abuse and terror. For her newest work here, titled ``Seeds,'' Blain assembled helmets from the uniforms of soldiers, welded pairs of them together, and displayed them in a random fashion. At first glance, they look like a bizarre collection of cannonballs.

SOMETIMES her works contain a bit of irony, such as ``Stars and Stripes'' - a group of large flags. Each flag seems to be the same: divided into four sections, each containing black-and-white photo images taken from copies of Life magazine published during the 1940s. The top two images are of beauty-pageant contestants, neatly aligned and wearing their bathing suits, high heels, and banners. The bottom two images are of military fighter planes, also aligned. Again, the ideas of formation and orderliness are made obvious. Is Blain juxtaposing different kinds of oppression? Or could she be making a comment on how orderliness tries to justify and make beautiful something that really makes no sense?

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For the viewer, such art brings one face to face with the artifacts of domination and war. Whether boots, robes, helmets, or flags, these are objects that bring ideologies and conflicts down to the human level, though they are not humane. And while Blain sends a strong message, her art is not the activist's rally sign that tells you what to think; it just tells you to think.

* `Dominique Blain: The Art of Walking the Activist Tightrope' will be at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, through July 3.

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