July 31, 2011

Art Review: New contemporary gallery makes impressive debut


Rose Contemporary is Portland’s newest high-profile gallery. While as fresh as could be, it has deep local roots with two of Maine’s premier contemporary art galleries – it’s run by a former director of Aucocisco, and was created in partnership with Whitney Art Works.

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In the “Space Invaders” show, “Brockenspectre” by Jean-Pierre Roy.

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Peter Drake, Siege Machine, acrylic on canvas


WHAT: “Space Invaders”

WHERE: Rose Contemporary, 492 Congress St., Portland

WHEN: Through Aug. 27

HOURS: 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday


INFO: 780-0700; rosecontemporary.com

“Space Invaders” is Rose’s inaugural exhibition, so many visitors will see it as the introduction to the gallery rather than simply one in a line of shows to be curated by gallery owner Virginia Sassman Rose.

Considering the gallery in the dawn light cast by “Space Invaders,” I was surprised not by how it continued lines of Rose’s previous curatorial exploits, but rather by the undeniable undertow of craft.

Let me be clear: Rose Contemporary is absolutely a contemporary art gallery; all the work is cutting-edge and conceptually sophisticated. But the coalescing thread of the lot is a dedication to craftsmanship, detail, finish and presentation.

Please note my use of the term “craft.” It is no longer about the medium any more than conceptual content is defined by any given work of art’s being a painting, a sculpture or a photograph. Any medium can be craft. Any medium can be contemporary art. And any object can be both at once.

The title “Space Invaders” says more about the craft/art question than might immediately be apparent. Sure, the pioneering video game reference is funny, but it goes beyond obvious sculptural or sci-fi references into ideas about works of art as objects in space or that reflect on space.

It takes a definitional cue from craft in considering the works of art as objects with their relations to skill, effort and technology/technique.

The overall aesthetic brilliantly takes off from a post-war, post-apocalyptic, retro view of the future. Christian Matzke’s “Victorian Ray Gun,” for example, is an exquisite assemblage sculpture from the world that might have been had H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” been our reality.

Jean-Pierre Roy’s paintings take this edge (let’s call it “retrogarde”) into photorealistic landscape. In one of his beautifully rendered paintings, we see horses in a landscape so sublime, it would make Thomas Cole envious. (Although he would not know what to make of the “sun dog” lens flares of photorealism). Horses are visiting the decrepit ruin of some long-past human structure, through which they are able to climb to the top of this mini-mountain to its tree-covered peak. That we can’t understand what’s going on only serves to remind us that the human presence is long gone.

Roy’s other painting shows a nuclear power plant’s cooling tower in terms of a “Post Divine” cathedral. These are supremely well painted and uncannily creepy.

Peter Drake’s painting “Siege Machine” is quintessential retrogarde. It shows a well-off 1950s suburban couple with their new Cold War pride-and-joy parked in their driveway – a shiny siege machine. Drake’s surfaces are amazing. Like Roy’s, there is nothing slapdash about these paintings.

My favorite painting in the show is John Jacobsmeyer’s view of a plywood version of the “Star Trek” Enterprise. It’s not just a trompe l’oeil view of a set mock-up (which alone would be hilarious), but a fake view of an imagined new world using a visual vocabulary reaching back to the first generation of video and computer games such as “Doom.”

Moreover, it’s impressive simply in terms of how well it was painted. His “Tank” is just as good (especially if you happen to know about WWII deceptions). It’s a plywood-armored “tank” sitting alone in some well-painted woods.

I think it’s great a full third of the artists in “Space Invaders” are from New York City. Rose was a gallery director in NYC before coming to Maine years ago, and clearly has kept up with her contacts. Maine and NYC have a fraternal art relationship, and it’s great when our galleries acknowledge and celebrate this. (Susan Maasch comes to mind).

Yet much of the most sophisticated and interesting work is by Maine artists such as Gabriella D’Italia (a brilliant textile artist represented here by uncanny drawings of bedrooms), Carrie Scanga (a Bowdoin print professor whose light touch is a high point of this great show) and, among many others, Lydia Badger (whose sconce-like, birch-populated, mini-landscape sculptures are undeniably delectable).

“Space Invaders” hints that post-apocalyptic landscape is still landscape, and that no one does landscape better than Maine – or NYC when it comes to fabricated cultural aesthetics. As wondrously strange as it sounds, this begs a certain symmetry between Maine and our Yankee brethren.

Rather than a focus on this or that medium, here we have craft, concept, content and a feel for finish driving a show and, I hope, the continuing vision of a great new gallery.

Rose Contemporary has brought us wild and whirling worlds – let’s bid it welcome.

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

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