It’s uncanny the extent to which SPACE Gallery’s “Goods & Services” sums up the 2014 Maine art season. Or, rather, it models the discussions underlying the key conversational art issues that surfaced last year.

“Goods & Services” is billed as a “temporary bazaar/short term retail experiment” in the dedicated art gallery at SPACE. On one wall of the white box gallery is a vast grid of hooks on which have been hung small plastic sleeves with retail labels. Each sleeve contains a purchasable “service,” ranging from a massage to having the pie of your choice thrown in the face of your choice.

The services most intriguing to me included the composing of your own personal theme song, a portrait rendered (by hand) in Minecraft style and the combined creative efforts of the SPACE Gallery staff to come up with nine new names for your band.

In the far corner of the gallery are shelves for the “goods.” This is the more straightforward art part of the show, since the items tend to be creative objects made for display rather than any practical use. While much of the work was sold and removed from the show (which raises an interesting gallery-versus-shop comparison) when I last visited, there were still plenty of excellent objects.

These range from “junk drawer sculptures” and chunks of asphalt labeled “pieces of Portland” to handsome tintype portrait photographs by Penn Chan. Most notable are the small, shaped abstract paintings by Jenny Dougherty. These are not only fantastic little paintings, but they open the door to the conceptual underpinnings of the entire exhibition. Dougherty, a talented emerging painter whose works have been reviewed previously in this column, is former associate director of SPACE.

Merely as the shop it pretends to be, “Goods & Services” is a fun and worthy visit. But it gets far more interesting when you consider it in the light of the conceptual art gesture it claims to be. While some might cringe at the art-speaky descriptive label painted on the wall in Anne Buckwalter’s jaunty faux-naïve hand (Buckwalter is an artist on the professional staff of SPACE and her work has also been reviewed in this column), the text is an unusually direct and effective announcement of what is going on.

It begins: “GOODS & SERVICES is a temporary bazaar/short term retail experiment at SPACE Gallery, bridging the gap between consumerism and experience. SPACE has collaborated with local performers, artists, makers, and writers to present an interactive-exhibition-meets-gift-shop.”

To begin, it’s refreshing to see an arts nonprofit find a way for writers and performers to put something in the marketplace. After all, while the general public might still be caught up in the 1970s meme that “art should be personal and not valuable,” Maine’s chunk of the art world is largely dedicated to professionalism and serious standards.

A more subtle and fascinating point of SPACE’s self-description – one for which SPACE deserves credit for raising – is that “Goods & Services” is a collaboration and that SPACE is playing the part of an artist. This is right at the front of what is happening in Brooklyn (the leading edge of the New York chunk of the art world), and it seems an ideal fit for Portland. It might not be obvious at first to the casual public why this matters.

The issue is the question about the curator’s role in presenting the art. (By involving the broader host institution, this gets more interesting, particularly for Maine, where artists far outnumber the venues.) Is the curator’s role to objectively present the art without blurring the edges? This was the standard post-Enlightenment museum model, but once that became questioned (institutions, after all, have been known to participate in cultural hegemony), the door was opened to making the effect of the curator (or institution) a conscious element of the exhibition.

So, SPACE isn’t just the venue for “Goods & Services,” it is one of the artists. In fact, it can be argued that SPACE is the artist and the other folks are merely vendors. After all, if you buy a surprise in-office massage, is that art? Or was the art aspect created when that service became part of an art exhibition at a cutting-edge arts venue?

SPACE makes it clear what it is up to. Buckwalter’s hand-lettered statement explains that ” ‘Goods & Services’ … explores the dichotomies that complicate our experience with consumables: functionality, purpose, physicality, ephemerality, association.”

Certainly, it’s an excruciating bit of art-speak. But in some ways, it’s golden. That last word – “association” – for example, makes it clear that Buckwalter’s complicated role in all this (she is but one involved member of the SPACE staff) is intended to be part of the content and, therefore, part of the conversation they are trying to inspire.

And that “association” thing has been at the core of conversations about ethics and standards in Maine this past year, from the ongoing controversy about the blurred-line relations between Art Collector Maine, The Portland Gallery and the Maine Home + Design family of magazines to conversations about the ethics of selection for biennials (as opposed to SPACE’s super-fun unjuried “Free 4 All”).

SPACE visited the curator-as-artist issue with less success in their Brent Birnbaum show a year ago. Importing a Brooklyn artist certainly brought the topic to light, but there was too much of a remove, and the show lacked within-community complexity or the ability to implicate the viewer or the host-institution. With “Goods & Services,” SPACE scores a bulls-eye on all of these points. If you buy something, you’re part of the show’s gift-shop function. If you don’t, then you’re having a more straightforward art experience in an art gallery. Either way, it works.

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

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