Portland has seen a recent blossoming of art venues, but the gallery scene has shifted to Rockland, which has more than 20 commercial galleries. Portland’s growing strength includes multiple museums, academic galleries, nonprofit kunsthalles and a few venues such as Speedwell Projects and Able Baker Contemporary that, from the front, look like galleries but act behind the scenes more like nonprofits. Not long ago, Portland was the gallery gathering point for Maine, but now you can practically count its traditional commercial galleries on one finger.

Established in 1977, Greenhut is Maine’s longest-operating gallery. And things are happening there. With the departure of galleries such as June Fitzpatrick, Susan Maasch, Aucocisco and others over the past few years, Portland has been left without a commercial gallery that focuses on cutting-edge contemporary art by regional artists. (Grant Wahlquist Gallery is not so traditional and not so focused on regional artists.)

Greenhut has long been primarily a painting gallery that also features a few traditional sculptors. But things are changing. Greenhut is expanding with an additional space scheduled to open in June. And while Greenhut alternates year by year with its “Portland” and “Maine” invitational shows, “Man-Made: A State of Nature: An Invitational Group Show of Activist Art” feels like an additional direction that is finding purchase. But this is where the unapologetically contemporary show gets interesting as mounted by Greenhut: The theme is environmentalist, but the show doesn’t feel overly driven by ideological conceptualism. It is a surprisingly handsome show (and kudos to whoever installed it – organizing that much work in a small space is no mean feat), and it seems like the curator, co-owner Kelley Lehr, was focused more on work she likes than on hammering home the political message of the theme. For the viewer, this feels like the best of both worlds: good art with a meaningful message.

Gin Stone’s “Atlantic Canyons Coyote” is made from retired fishing gear. Photo courtesy of Greenhut Galleries

Most of the artists are familiar names (and let’s be clear: there are a lot of excellent contemporary artists now without a local gallery, so I am very glad to see them at Greenhut), but a few are new to me, including New York sculptor Gin Stone whose two works are the most exciting in the show. “Bast” is a tall figure, armless like the remnants of a classical sculpture but with the face of a great cat. “Atlantic Canyons Coyote” is a howling coyote standing on a Westminster Dog Show kennel box. Both works are made of retired commercial fishing gear. They are stunning in every sense: sculptural form, detail, color, material. Stone’s two pieces alone are worth the trip.

Juliet Karelsen’s “Green Pedestal Terrarium through peephole with mirrors.” Photo courtesy of Greenhut Gallery

Several works are by artists of whom we’ve seen quite a bit recently: DM Whitman’s geological found-photos were in the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Michel Droge’s atmospherically luscious abstractions have been on view at the Bates Museum of Art and River Arts, and Shoshannah White seems to be everywhere these days. But these are strong artists and their work looks great in the gallery. White has three shelves of coal next to an underwater photo of arctic ice: It is unexpectedly beautiful. Droge’s orangey atmospheric painting features subtle scribbles based on Polynesian stick charts (an ancient method of navigation), and it works particularly well hung next to Ben Potter’s “Small Mountains,” boxy porcelain casts of what look like 3-D topographical maps either covered in silver or bee pollen. Potter’s work then has a conversation across the room with Jonathan Mess’s ceramic works that feature layers of old slip and glaze piled up either to make painting-like wall tablets or sculptures that look like cross sections of the earth’s crust.

Jeff Woodbury’s “Green Grid.” Photo courtesy of Greenhut Gallery

Another particularly interesting across-the-room conversation involves the bean or urchin-like forms of Juliet Karelsen’s “Small Nature Domes” and Lee Cummings’ “Canary in the Mine,” forms of almost the exact shape and scale as Karelsen’s only executed in exquisite detail in porcelain instead of her signature colorful embroidery floss. Moreover, both artists provide a world-like pedestal installation under their wall pieces: Cummings shows us a porcelain sea floor jammed with life (but invaded by a few pieces of plastic), and Karelsen produces a world of thriving green inside her pedestal – “Green Pedestal Terrarium through peephole with mirrors.”

This work by Shoshannah White features shelves of coal next to an underwater photo of arctic ice. Photo courtesy of Greenhut Gallery

There are many standouts. I was particularly impressed by Sean Alonzo Harris’s “One Year Later #1017,” a landscape photograph that somehow combines a cerulean cloud-knit sky, a mist-covered mountain and extraordinary details in the sky and on the ground. It might be message-driven, but it’s gorgeous photography. Stephen Burt’s “New Horizon” is an 8-by-10 watercolor that looks like what you might have gotten if Renaissance great Albert Durer had tried to interpret one of ukiyo-e master Hokusai’s great storm scenes. Jeff Woodbury’s “Green Grid” is one of the quietest but most curious works: It’s a photograph of green maple leaves laid out so their black fabraea fungus spots create a perfect grid. It’s a vibrant image and the spots are so painterly that they act more like paintings than most paintings do. Judith Allen’s nod to the now-gone elms has a very different feel than Woodbury’s real-time (and rather playful) observation; Allen’s nostalgia (or maybe it’s mine, I grew up in the Elm City of Waterville and, as a child, I watched the thousands of elms come down until none was left) contains a poignant message: Our landscape will suffer severely if we don’t address the root causes of the problems.

Stephen Burt’s “New Horizon.” Photo courtesy of Greenhut Gallery

Yes, it is a bit ironic that we can be so pleased to see something new blossoming at Greenhut even as it takes the form of sometimes dire warnings about environmental degradation and climate change. “Man-Made” is a timely and handsome show, and it makes me look forward to the future at Greenhut.

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

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