In light of major changes at regional powerhouses like the Maine College of Art, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, a group exhibition by the faculty of the historically strong University of New Hampshire studio program at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York is an intriguing opportunity and conversation starter.

The director of the GMSG, Mary Harding, has had a long relationship with UNH and regional artists from across the river. (While Carly Glovinski’s studio is on the wrong side of the Piscataqua, her GMSG show was one of Maine’s sparkiest shows this past year.)

Harding is one of the best exhibition designers around, but her show of UNH faculty “Back to School Special” still surprises. Harding has gathered a large number of works, sometimes hung two deep, and yet “Special” still breathes and feels open. This would be expected from a curated exhibition where the work was selected on the basis of appearance or coherent theme, but “Special” showcases a faculty defined by diversity rather than similarity. Harding rose to the challenge of coherently installing sculpture, photography, ceramics, abstraction, hand-drawn graphic novel-style art and representational painting all in a single space.

Rather than carving out individual enclaves, “Special” weaves the disparate work together. Julee Holcombe’s “Metropolis,” a four-foot Photoshopped photographic collage of notable urban structures instantly appears like it would be the hardest thing to place, but Harding makes it work in the middle of the main gallery by anchoring it visually with a pair of Don Williams’ “Cistern” sculptures. Williams’ pieces look like rusted steel infrastructure structures, old but not ancient. And they quietly reach out to work with the rusty and dusty underbelly of Holcombe’s otherwise overwhelming city scene. The conversation pushes the quality of objects at its edges, and so the scanning glance flows smoothly into, over and, ultimately, past the trio with its seamlessly breathing rhythm. And yet I still think Holcombe’s “Metropolis” is the weakest work in the show.

"Moon Tide," oil on canvas by Rick Fox, 24 by 24 inches.

“Moon Tide,” oil on canvas by Rick Fox, 24 by 24 inches.

“Special” starts with the strong pairing of paintings by Rick Fox and Craig Hood. Fox’s landscapes seek to be boldly and unabashedly strong and handsome (rather like a high contrast blend of New England’s Henry Isaacs and Seattle’s Z.Z. Wei). They are highly stylized, but with enough coherence, flexibility and well-handled paint so that they do not come across as affected or cliches of themselves. Hood moves in the opposite direction; instead of self-consciously bold contrasts, Hood hides figures in monochrome color clouds of dusk, fog or dust on the road. In Fox’s work, the scene is immediate but we are invited back to scan for bravado paint passages. In Hood’s scenes, we see a simplified color structure first and then we come back to scan for narrative details. One monochrome hay-brown landscape initially features little more than a tiny moon form at the top. But, noticing the title “Nativity,” I scanned the scene for its narrative and iconography and found myself starting to believe I had seen the wagon and the other objects all along. Hood’s works are one-part circus trick, but his painting is strong enough to take that transformation to a whole other place.

"House of the Lord," oil on panel by Craig Hood, 16 by 20 inches.

“House of the Lord,” oil on panel by Craig Hood, 16 by 20 inches.

Jennifer Moses’s rhythmically playful abstractions engage broadly, such as her 2014 “Who’s afraid of red, yellow, blue?” which riffs on Barnet Newman’s 1966-70 Mondrian-referencing paintings whose titles looked to Edward Albee’s 1962 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” On the opposite spectrum are Grant Drumheller’s warmly unironic landscapes of place, such as his large Eliot, Maine, orchard of golden apples, or his smaller and pleasantly clucky and plucky horizonless “Bird Walk.”

"Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, Blue," oil on panel by Jennifer Moses, 30 by 33 inches.

“Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, Blue,” oil on panel by Jennifer Moses, 30 by 33 inches.

Switching from impressionist space to post-impressionist painting – thick, chewy and literal as paint – is the work of Brian Chu. From the Cezannesque simplicity of his pair of onions to the oldest work in the show, a 2005 landscape, “The Lower Mill,” Chu balances paint between rendering a scene and reveling in its own qualities.

"Lower Mill," oil on board by Brian Chu, 17 by 14 inches.

“Lower Mill,” oil on board by Brian Chu, 17 by 14 inches. Photos courtesy of George Marshall Store Gallery

Other particularly worthy works include Leah Woods’ labyrinthian raw pine sculptural floor installation and Sachiko Akiyama’s impressively scaled and painted wood relief, “Four Corners of the Floating World,” in which a mother, holding the hand of her diminutively-scaled son, goes face to face with a heron who has, squash-necked, stayed behind for the encounter while his four feathery colleagues have taken wing. Holcombe’s high focus photographic portraits are heavily staged but her “Fortune Teller” follows the compressed body language of her model, a deep but claustrophobic closet space and intriguingly-textured materials like charcoal and wax to convey a compellingly uncanny encounter.

The success of “Special” is understated because it doesn’t feel like a faculty roster show. And yet it makes an excellent case for the university as an academic art department while raising some timely questions. After all, with the shifting of the region’s economy away from manufacturing, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions that include the growing role of cultural tourism.

What is the role of art education in America? Is art school vocational or professional training? Or is it something else entirely? And, whatever the role of the education is in the lives of the students, what are the public roles of art schools? We could ask this about the nation, the region, or about Maine specifically. This state, after all, is home to some of the best known residency art programs in the nation, like Skowhegan, Watershed and Haystack. And with the shifting of the art scene in Portland, how could we not wonder about the future shape of the growing roles of schools like the Maine College of Art?

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