“Periscope,” the latest offering at Able Baker Contemporary, is both painfully predictable and just what Portland needs.

The show includes interconnected contemporary artists and is curated by painter Jimmy Viera, who includes himself in his own show. Most of the work feels thin, more posture than position. But some works are strong enough to raise significant questions about the state of contemporary art as it relates to a place like Portland, Maine – now the land of MECA – in particular.

Move past your initial take – whether delighted “ooh” or gag reflex – to consider at least some of the work closely. As with any group show, this will leave you to focus either on the works you like or the ones that stick in your craw. Also, don’t bother with Viera’s curatorial statement as a conceptual guide until after you’ve gotten your own read on the work. The show doesn’t function as a curated effort as much as a self-consciously chosen aesthetic fashioned after the flavors of the Lower East Side (which is currently hipper than Brooklyn and realms apart from Chelsea, the Epicenter of Establishment). Curatorial presentation aside, it’s a worthy thing to put locals in the broader conversation about current contemporary styles.

Viera’s vague curatorial idea relates to imagined space, but the show includes functional work-generated themes relating to systems, structures and play. Two of the more interesting artists in the show, for example, are Ryan Browning and Casey Jex Smith, both of whom have Dungeons and Dragons themes in their work.

“Vision Correction Wall,” by Ryan Browning, oil on linen, 10 by 8 inches, 2017. Photo by Ryan Browning

Browning’s two small canvases, “Constrictor” and “Vision Correction Wall,” feature dream-styled objects nicely rendered in a tilt of the hat to surrealists like Yves Tanguy, but the nerd-worthy subjects invite a deeper, say, Seussian reading.

Smith’s “2016” is a vast drawing like we might expect if R. Crumb had been forced to decorate the Sistine or, better, a pen-and-ink version of “Where’s Waldo” at the Armory art fair, with Waldo played by Godot. The problem is where to start: If you don’t like being overwhelmed, just move on. I chose an art history theme and started looking for paintings, of which there are plenty. But you can approach it following imagery from famous print series, Escheresque structures, surrealism, or, among other things, D&D. It could be nerd purgatory, hipster heaven or cartoon-haters’ hell – they all work. “2016” may not look like your cup of tea, but it will reward a longer look.

Browning lives in Qatar but teaches in Virginia. Smith is based in Utah. “Periscope” suffers a bit from an all-friends-together feel. Nonetheless, it is a conversation starter: What does the Maine-based contemporary art scene look like and why are we looking to these folks? Why, specifically, does Viera includes these artists as opposed to locals who are actually knocking it out of the park in the Lower East Side, like Tom Burkhardt or Sascha Braunig?

“2016” by Casey Jex Smith, pen and ink, colored pencil, gouache and gold leaf on paper, 2015-17. Photo by Casey Jex Smith

The largest and loudest work in the show is by Emilie Stark-Menneg, “The Lydia Sue.” While it may present the biggest initial challenge to the senses of those who think of painting as a soul-searching endeavor of serious cultural significance, it has sea legs as an absurdist tragicomedy. And legs are one thing the central character lacks. It’s a dockside scene painted in a toothpaste palette. The central character is an old guy with a candy-floss pink beard that echoes his out-of-his element sunburn who is absurdly shirtless and pretending to play in his too-small toy pirate’s hat – the skull of which wittily reaches to the “Scream” by Edvard Munch. Munch is also stylistically echoed throughout the painting, including the white boat and reflection in the upper right. There are terrific passages: the dog’s ear, the plant in the lower right center, the man in sunglasses on the left, the armlessness of the bottle-holding Bob’s-Burgers-guy on the right. Oddly enough, limblessness seems to be the key theme. While the figure on the right might have been disarmed by elegant painterly subtlety, it seems an intentional thing that the dog (“Peg”?) has one leg. But then our central brazen raisin enters this conversation with an unexpected seriousness. On one hand, his right arm is held up in an obviously manly gesture (it’s unquestionably a penis), but on the other, the old guy in a make-believe pirate hat is a castrated figure: His legs are withered and emasculated.

“Tablescape,” by Michelle Fleck, acrylic on panel, 2017. Photo by Michelle Fleck

It looks to be a funny scene – and Stark-Menneg loads it with internal wit – but it’s ultimately a bit sad. No one is paying attention to the bathing-suited central character, who, through fatigue or intoxication, has deep circles under his eyes. It’s an impressive thing Stark-Menneg has captured, the empty triumph of a return from a day cruise, where the destination is simply the starting point, choppy seas and grog notwithstanding.

Stark-Menneg’s effect on the show doesn’t really help the other artists. Michelle Fleck’s “Tablescape,” for example, is a good piece, but it suffers in this setting. I have been drawn to her work elsewhere, but here it feels like another knife of hipster frosting. Christopher Forgues’ design-table collages fail to achieve any conceptual destination point, although the top four drawings in “CAR” would have made an excellent suite if framed separately and shown together. Austin Lee’s “Mona” particularly suffers for Stark-Menneg. It is Lee’s ode to “Mona Lisa” in fewer than 10 blasts from a can of spray paint. Lee is popular, but Stark-Menneg’s spray-painted wit (think Trump’s tan) torpedoes it here as a bit simplistic.

“Constrictor,” by Ryan Browning, oil on linen, 10 by 8 inches, 2017. Photo by Ryan Browning

Viera’s curatorial statement says the work in “Periscope” is about seemingly “plausible” fictional spaces that are ultimately implausible, that these artists live in these spaces and do “lots of research” for what they produce “through imagination.” Frankly, I don’t know what’s worse – if the show actually was based on his vapidly swollen statement or if the statement simply came as an afterthought since he needed a curatorial statement. “Periscope” would have been better off if Viera had said nothing and left the context to the work itself.

It may be a flawed show – and it may not be to your taste – but “Periscope” is 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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