I have never seen the Great Hall of the Portland Museum of Art look as cool, calm and comfortable as it does now. The lights are low, and the seating has been moved to the outside of the room to accommodate something extraordinary in the center: Anna Hepler’s “The Great Haul.”

“The Great Haul” hangs more than 20 feet down from a huge skylight bay. The piece looks like a fishing net glowing from within (because it is lit by fixtures in the skylight bay). From a distance, the form seems gossamer and only more ethereal because of the lighting.

“The Great Haul” is gorgeous from the second you walk in the door. It complements the architectural space with a masterfully elegant touch — making the museum’s space somehow seem more grown-up than ever. Yet, as quiet and sophisticated as “The Great Haul” appears, it is also the most exciting installation I have seen in that space. It is silent — but shimmers with electricity.

As you approach “The Great Haul,” it reveals itself to be surprisingly loose and quirky. The piece is basically two layers of plastic remnants arranged in net-like grids: The outer layer is clear plastic, mostly stitched together with different-colored threads, while the inner layer is constructed mostly from the heavier, woven, blue-and-black plastic used for tarps.

“The Great Haul” is also one of those rare pieces that can be touched (but due to the occasional staple and pin, I suggest caution). This is a particularly exciting piece for children because they can also crawl under the piece, where it tantalizingly reaches for the ground.

The content of “The Great Haul” is smartly simple and clear. It brings together the site-specific logic of its architectural setting, ideas about Maine’s fishing culture and pollution and notions about recycling and repurposing, as well as more abstract concepts such as artistic process, transformation of materials, light, form and so on.

The other three elements of Hepler’s exhibition — “Makeshift” — do not transcend their abstract orientation or approach anything like the material spectacle of the large installation.

While much of my favorite art could be described as subtle abstraction, I think Hepler’s prints will lose much of the audience at this show because their expectations will be set by “The Great Haul.” The series of 12 prints titled “Inflatable Drypoints” displays an intellectual rigor closer to architectural logic than the dazzling visuality of the large installation.

As a group, these prints make it clear that Hepler is pursuing some fleeting architectural concepts, as though her prints are reverse-engineering some of the small inflatable sculptures for which she is now well known.

Technically, this body of prints is strong. I also like their pristine conceptualism even though their hermetic concern with Hepler’s own work is cloying. When I finally decided these read as illustrations of Hepler’s sculptural work — rather than drawings in which ideas are developed — I felt a bit cheated.

The second half of “Makeshift” is on the fourth floor. It features a large hanging sculpture (“Full Blown”), which inflates every 16 minutes. The piece is materially simple (clear plastic taped together in a way that makes it clear what the “Inflatable Drypoints” are talking about), and it fits terrifically in the space.

From an abstract point of view, “Full Blown” is a clever and compelling piece that presses the idea of volume in sculpture — and architecture. If you have a taste for minimalism and reductive art, spend some time on this floor.

The final component is the set of eight cyanotypes (in a perfectly straight row) depicting some of Hepler’s smaller inflatable sculptures. I am not sure she intended it as a joke, but cyanotypes are more commonly known as blueprints, so we can hardly see these photography-based images as anything other than architectural plans for Hepler’s largely improvised sculptural forms.

I think Hepler’s work is a great deal more about process and meditation than it is about thoughtfully refined design processes — and I think her prints mislead on this point.

As an exhibition, however, “Makeshift” is testament that Hepler is a subtle and cerebral artist who can succeed through either visual or process-driven approaches to art.

“The Great Haul” is a coup, and it’s a terrific first installment of “Circa” — the museum’s new series on contemporary art in Maine. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]