Although not large, the University of Maine Museum of Art has one of the nicest gallery spaces in the state. With three fine shows and about 20 excellent works from the permanent collection on view, it’s well worth a visit.

Brian Shure’s very large and highly realistic oil painting of the crowded bustle of New York City’s “Union Square” now greets anyone walking into the museum. Superbly detailed but surprisingly raw, the painting shows a crowded corner with about 50 people who, instead of coalescing into a single, rhythmic pulse of the city, all move at their own paces and in different directions.

It’s a view of New York as a city made up of real people rather than the stereotypical dehumanizing machine that grinds all people into New Yorkers. As you start to single out the figures, you quickly see each and every one is a valid portrait. I spent years in NYC, and I can’t think of a more compelling painting of the people and the flow of the city.

The painting hints of what Shure, a professor at Rhode Island School of Design, can do, but the 27 other works in this huge show comprise mostly brushed ink drawings made on site in NYC, Japan, China and elsewhere.

The drawings support Shure’s amazing sense of place, observational ability and the fact that he can really handle a brush. “55th and Fifth” is an ink-wash drawing on paper of people — all busy with their own lives — rushing across Fifth Avenue in midtown. The light is somewhat harsh, but the entire back of the image is swallowed in shadow cast by some skyscraping behemoth across the street.

Shure’s talents are well displayed whether he is depicting buildings, parks or streets packed with people. One interesting aspect of the show is the way he adapts his style to accommodate a sense of place. The Shanghai drawings, for example, don’t just look like Shanghai — they feel like it.

However, I do find this feature of the Japan drawings to be a bit frustrating. By adopting Japanese technique and style in showing traditional Japanese landscape and structures, it’s as though Shure is pretending to be something he is not and has switched not just his style but even his genre.

Shure’s “Ouda in Midst,” for example, is a long, horizontal sumi-style wash drawing that shows a landscape with a broad river winding down through the middle. On each bank of the river is a set of nicely rendered traditional buildings — except that you look down on one group and up at the other. This might be a mistake, but it reveals Western visual culture’s relatively unexamined reliance on single-point perspective.

Yet Shure often puts his art history-mediated observation to brilliant use. One of my favorite drawings in the show is “Sienese Cortile.” It depicts an ancient interior with light streaming in through a high, arched window over a couple standing below it.

The interior is very dark, and the view through the window is so burned out that it is hard to parse the Piranesi-esque (an important Italian Baroque artist) image in the window. Best of all, however, is the mixed scene from Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” through the doorway on the left.

You don’t have to get the specific references to sense Shure’s intellect and wit, but seeing even a few jeweled plays like these makes it clear these are hardly simple renderings of photographs.

The other shows now on view at UMaine are also noteworthy and interesting. Nancy Murphy Spicer is a British artist whose work could hardly be more different. Spicer has mounted 50 pins on a wall on which she drapes an improvised, looped string of electrical tape to achieve sophisticated and evocative organic forms.

While most of the 11 framed works elicit surrealistically squeezed displacement, the two large “Hanging Drawing Shapes” with their black and beige forms on white paper are — despite their flaccid biomorphism — surprisingly handsome and electric.

My favorite part of the show, however, is J.T. Gibson’s five tactile sculptures. These works hover exquisitely on the edge of organic tool grip logic.

Gibson’s gorgeous “End Game,” for example, is a monolithic handgrip of laminated poplar, pine tar and red pigment. Human-sized, it stands equal to us. Yet when the artist takes the same form (but hand-sized) and multiplies it 60 times in wax on five shallow shelves, it’s like looking at all the handles in a master craftsman’s workshop.

Gibson’s “Operation Milkweed” is a pair of large, steel, wall-mounted and pointed pod forms. They were already sculpturally terrific, but Gibson surprisingly added commercial bronze handles. Yet his gambit pays off as the pieces relate to the human body as a pair while announcing their literal weight and volume.

Another beautiful sculpture is “Drift,” a tall, sky-pointed thorn or claw of perfectly finished and oiled black walnut. Peen, fang, tool or whatever: it rocks.

Between the heady drawings by Shure and Spicer, the organic logic of Spicer and Gibson and the skilled and loving craftsmanship of Gibson and Shure, the UMaine museum is now definitely worth a visit.

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

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