I have made a habit of checking out the annual juried student exhibition at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. Student shows can tell you a great deal not only about what’s in the air, but about the state of any given faculty and program.

This year’s show at the USM Art Gallery is particularly interesting. I wish I had been able to write about it sooner. Sunday is the last day, but a trip to the gallery is a worthy way to spend the afternoon.

Keep in mind that this is a show of works by anyone in the school’s student body – art majors and others. I like this kind of challenge. It’s easy to visit expertly polished shows curated by professional galleries and museums: Anything you like passed a professional’s judgment, and anything you don’t like only puts you above them. Finding diamonds in the rough or picking the excellent works out of open shows is much more challenging. And what fun is art if it’s not challenging?

The 2017 trio of jurors included the geometrically-everywhere Clint Fulkerson, photographer and Speedwell Projects founder Jocelyn Lee, and painter and Native American elder George Longfish. (Disclosure: I was a juror for the 2014 exhibition.) The show they selected is a broad mix of painting, photography, installation, video, sculpture, ceramics and more. Their jurors’ awards went to Melissa Bardsley’s “The Drip,” Kayla Frost’s “Self Portrait,” and Samuel Goldberg’s “Winter, 2017.”

Kayla Frost, “Self Portrait.”

Bardsley’s “Drip” is a gorgeous, internally lighted wavy wall piece. While it looks like a rigorously rendered, handmade paper sculpture, the reality is hilariously humble: coffee filters pushed through chicken wire. Despite the material, it is hardly a perfunctory piece: The execution blows away expectation. And it’s only more delightful once you see the structure. (It has that creative click of “eureka!”)

Frost’s “self-portrait” is an anime-infused ceramic tower, like a totem pole, or rather the opposite. Instead of being carved from a single tree into distinguishable elements, Frost constructs a tree out of divergent sections that vary in style, color, weight and handling. Its looseness and comic-style legibility push it comfortably past any fussy self-consciousness.

Goldberg’s “Winter, 2017” is a worn-seeming (let’s assume bleached) American flag hanging in a glass-covered maple frame like a relic. It’s not a complicated gesture – giving pause to consider this year’s political turmoil from a future historical perspective – but the presentation is sufficient to pull this off with just enough nuance to succeed. Subtly presented like a war relic, the flag itself is the fallen warrior. Moreover, the effect is unexpectedly optimistic; Goldberg is asserting a national wound, but also, and far more quietly, that we will ultimately get through this with enough (healthy) distance to get perspective.

Lisa Stratton, “Freedom,” with Melissa Bardsley, “The Drip.” Photos by Daniel Kany

A similar piece is Lisa Stratton’s “Freedom,” which purports to be simplistically overbearing but which succeeds despite the seemingly overdetermined use of the American flag. It features a life-size kneeling prisoner-like figure wrapped shroud-like in a flag. The gesture, once again, seems obvious, but it opens up with a longer look, which is worthwhile because of Stratton’s sculptural success with the figure (a very rare thing these days) and her restrained sense of wrapping the figure. Instead of painting the flag onto the figure to make the figure more recognizable, Stratton’s figure is more human-like because of the realistic and loose way in which the flag is wrapped around it.

The most powerful works in the show are three photos from Hans Nielsen’s “Other Side of the Window” series. The strongest is a closeup of a slashed wrist that was recently stitched up. The image is particularly disturbing because the “X” shape of the wounds made the case for a serious attempt at suicide. Rather than rely solely on the drama of the subject, Nielsen’s photo quietly creates a luscious backdrop. The dirtiness of the hand and dark tattooed lettering along the wrist wound distract from the beautiful blue of the print of the cutter’s sweater on the left (it’s an okay color for a sweater, but it’s excellent for a photographic print). The gridded visual rhythms of a tiled floor form the background, and the teal green of the sliding door base on the right bookends the blue of the sweater. In other words, the nuanced photographic success of the piece hides in plain sight behind its subject, which only makes it more effective.

K. Scott Davis, “Perpetual Motion.”

Nielsen confirms his power with an uncomfortable image of a mean, lean, muscular young man standing on the roadside, tense and shirtless with a cigarette clenched in his mouth. The photo’s discomfort stems from the perspective of the viewer: You are standing with this guy – in his personal space – and he’s not the friendliest sort.

The best effect of the student show is the range of successful works. There are a few disappointing pieces, but surprisingly few for a juried show. Juried shows are tough, particularly when they are juried via image. But they reward with the possibility of new discovery.

Samuel Goldberg, “Winter, 2017.”

I don’t know if we’re watching any new stars in the making at USM, but there’s plenty to enjoy. A few of the notables included K. Scott Davis’s dry-humor “Perpetual Motion,” a cartoony post-apocalyptic scene of a bug-eyed duck man automaton in a dunce cap on a toy scooter. “What Time Forgot” by Michaela Levitt (Shay) is a black-and-white photograph of a dilapidated, old house oddly squashed into a wide narrative format. Michelle Lessard’s “Oil Spill” is a ceramic column of many faces that hauntingly reminds us of the wild life lost in America’s major oil catastrophes, but with a surprising bit of human subjectivity. Among the exhibition were some very nice loose ceramic works, but the clay standout was Nicole Downing’s lidded jar decorated with impressively tight henna-style designs.

My personal favorite work was Ryan Jordan’s “Untitled,” a gorgeously textured monochrome painting that looks like rich moss or lichen from even a couple of feet away. Only, it’s not paint. It’s foam. I did a studio critique of Jordan’s work a couple years ago, when he was only beginning to pursue art. He was already working with foam and wasn’t lacking for energy or ingenuity. But he has become expert with this material. I didn’t recognize the work was Jordan’s at first – it truly looked like moss, not foam – so it was particularly satisfying to see how far he has come. And that says something about the USM program: It’s apparent that the program and the students are thriving.

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

[email protected]