Abstraction is hardly the mainstay of Down East painting. Yet, most abstract painting has a fundamental foot in a space it shares with the historic best of Maine painting: a deeply Romantic respect for personal vision and experience.

Optical painting — by which I mean Op-Art and its cousins — just happens to be more geared toward the experience of the viewer than the expressions of the artist.

A three-person show at Aucocisco Galleries in Portland with paintings by Joshua Ferry, Stew Henderson and Kayla Mohammadi is one of the most interesting painting shows I have seen in Maine that deals with issues of opticality.

To begin, it’s a good-looking show. The space is spare and clean, and the tight lines of Henderson’s and Ferry’s work stand up with crisp posture and a taut sense of polish. Next to the hard edges of their work, Mohammadi’s paintings initially appear too loose, casual and meandering.

Her work revels in the feel of the paint (rather than riding it), and presents itself through a believably organic intuition. When I don’t like art, I try to figure out why, and when I challenged myself on these paintings, I kept coming back to something in them that couldn’t be denied — something human, pleasant and smart.

It might seem odd to start with the work I think is the weakest in a three-person show, but Mohammadi’s paintings also supply the key to seeing the differences between Henderson’s and Ferry’s work.

Ferry’s paintings comprise rectangular fields of colorful, quilt-style crosses filling gray squares. Their immediate Op-Art impact is strong enough to allow the hurried viewer a somewhat satisfying but missing-the-point, Cliff’s Notes comprehension.

They look like squares of repeating forms, but they aren’t — and Ferry’s insistence on oblong rectangles makes all the difference.

Whether quilting logic (all three artists, in fact, reference quilting in their work) was the motivation hardly matters. Some of Ferry’s works employ a 7-by-8-inch pattern, while others place a square on a slightly wider than higher canvas. Although I am not sure I like the blank canvas margins, I admire the ambitious project they reveal and deliver. Either way, the paintings impressively transgress their modular logic and relate to landscape.

While some of Ferry’s acrylic paintings might look like grouted tiles close up due to their taped-off and carved segments, the opticality of their seemingly obvious colors defies flatness or mathematical logic, and so can come into their own as compositions with a specific orientation in space.

In fact, the rows of Ferry’s crosses strike me as similar to American military cemeteries — not for any grim nostalgia, but because of their noble pageantry.

Moreover, when I tried to parse the cemetery reading, I came to realize that every one of Ferry’s colors is different. If there are four greens or five blues or three yellows on a canvas, none repeats, and the varied grays only reinforce this view.

While this reading might be completely astray of Ferry’s intentions, the idea that each cross had its own unique color and gray struck me as a beautifully compassionate gesture for the multitudes of individuals lost in service to our societal and cultural greater good.

I doubt Ferry’s intuitive and painterly approach would be so apparent if he were only shown with Henderson’s crispy compositions. My own perception was echoed by a respected colleague, who noted the two alone might come across as “too slick” if not for Mohammadi’s mediating presence.

Henderson’s paintings are my favorite of the three, and they stand most sharply on their own.

They are made up of anywhere between five and 21 square or rectangular two-layered components, with clear Lucite tops floating over Lucite or panel bases.

Top and bottom layers shift and trade in stripes and other geometrical forms that interweave and reflect shadows onto each other and the nearby wall. The distance between the layers draws you in close and to the side, as intimate proximity brings their object qualities and layers into (shall we say) high relief.

Moreover, not only does Henderson’s sense of design detail not diminish as you approach the works, but it actually becomes more impressive.

For a generous serving of sparkling something-different, this show is truly worthy. While I tend to prefer more formally basic but structurally dynamic abstraction such as Ken Greenleaf’s drawings at June Fitzpatrick, Aucocisco now has one of Maine’s most unusual and satisfying painting shows of the year.

Considering 2011 is the 100th anniversary of abstraction, this is a must-see show.

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

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