‘Surface Tension” makes a curatorial case about why Space Gallery in Portland has been looking particularly good for the past year or two.

The works are by local artists whose work I have mostly seen before. But in this show, organized by erstwhile Bowdoin curator Diana Tuite, their conceptual edginess and a hip-but-grown-up elegance help make the whole much greater than its constituent parts.

“Surface Tension” comprises the work of current and former employees of Designtex, which, until recently, was known as Portland Color.

Shows whose curatorial hook is an arbitrary material or technical limit tend to wind up with attenuated content that curators often spin as conceptual coherence. But this is absolutely not the case with “Surface Tension.” The show impressed me immediately, and only got more interesting as I looked.

Andy Graham’s wheatpasted photo prints of March Art Walk visitors’ eyes is a savvy grab of the viewers that plays to the ideas of audience and community, particularly as they echo the bricks of the building itself. It also offers a slick commentary about the (intentionally ignored) commercial underbelly of the wheatpaste movement.

Backed up by Matt Noterman’s geometrically intense and rhythmically crystalline eclipse-oriented window installation, Graham’s work smartly sets the stage for “Surface Tension.”

One of my favorite pieces is likely to be missed by most viewers. Mounted in a recessed and distorted rectangle in the ceiling of the vestibule is a large photographic work by Scott Peterman.

Geometrically fractured into eight sharp triangles, each bit contains a lenticular print of a vague figure who shifts just as you do while you crane to bring her into focus. That she is a demure nude who seems to respond in awareness to your act of looking has an extraordinary effect — particularly because the photo surface feels like looking through rolled glass.

The best part about this piece, however, is that it could only succeed as it does on the ceiling. If it were on the wall, it would be overdetermined as a window (think voyeurism), and the shift of the viewer’s body in the confined space wouldn’t match the figure’s shift.

Space’s interior is marked by five major installations, while two more quietly hide on the ceiling and as the stage backdrop. Like the photographic piece on the ceiling, Karen Gelardi’s work is likely to be missed even though it’s some of the most thoughtful art in “Surface Tension.”

Printed on fabric, it’s a large-scale photographic work that documents itself. One central panel bends around a visual corner to show the modernist grid/fabric-logic source work lying on the floor of the artist’s studio. Considering how she weaves her work into the actual bends of the boxy space and the way such giant work hides on a stage, Gelardi deserves kudos for her camouflaged coups.

The most striking work — Ben DeHaan’s goop-drippy photographic portraits — inspires a radical ambivalence. On one hand, the portraits are exciting and indulgently gorgeous, but then DeHaan mounts a video screen in which he documents the process — thereby destroying the mystery. This is the art version of saying, “Here’s five bucks, kid, and, by the way, there’s no tooth fairy.”

DeHaan’s mistake is what I call the “craft sin.” It’s when viewers are (mis)led into conflating technique with conceptual content.

Especially with a standard portrait, it’s not particularly interesting when you imagine someone letting a UV-cured photo ooze and drip and then curing it at some arbitrary moment. This is how you turn a process into a gimmick — or art into kitsch.

DeHaan’s is the only work in the show that suffers for its context. Jesse VanBenschoten’s 14-foot parachute quilt of scraps plays up the repurposing of materials, so it reflects richly back and forth with Robert Hyde’s large (4 by 6 feet) and elegantly rhythmic abstract prints on polystyrene.

Tonee Harbert’s “Ufology” would look like unmediated fanaticism if it weren’t in the context of technologies of reproducibility, but here it’s a playfully fun meditation on cryptozoological sub-cultures.

The piece that most surprised me was Brian Cronin and Eric Spalding’s headphone-sprouting, faux-leather dirigible hung in front of a 14-foot but spare sky landscape.

Printed on handkerchief gauze, the backdrop shimmers with Moire patterns that reflect back onto — and then into — the dirigible form. Donning the headphones and peering into the house-of-mirrors interior of the vessel, the viewer is transported to the ominous world of an imperial U-boat off the coast of Maine. (Clearly not the intention of the artists, this was my initial impression — which I savored.)

Concept-driven art challenges the viewer to follow it on its own terms, which means work and critical viewing on the part of the audience. While sometimes we prefer Matisse’s “armchair,” the defining quality of much contemporary art is the shunting of well-worn paths of recognition. It’s more work, but it can empower the viewer expansively.

“Surface Tension” is a reminder that contemporary art is often worth the effort.

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

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.