“Horses,” by Elise Ansel Photo by Winky Lewis

Portland’s Speedwell Projects is a nonprofit gallery. In German, it could be classified as kunsthalle, since it’s a nonprofit space that doesn’t maintain a collection. One of the key aspects of its identity is that, while a few successful artists donate all of their sales to the gallery, at least half of the proceeds from any sale go to the artist. Museums might make noise about supporting the artists by “helping their brand,” but let’s be clear: They don’t (like the rest of us) pay taxes, and they don’t help the artists by selling their works. Galleries pay taxes, and they sell work for the artists.

Too often, artists at the edge of creating a market for their work feel pressure to donate works for auction. Sometimes, someone buys their work at or above its retail value at a fundraising auction, but that is a rare outcome. And let’s be real: artists whose work sells for $200 at auction are often less able to sell work that retails for $2,000. Artists need to be careful about engaging in auctions to the point where their commercial selling points are compromised.

But here comes Speedwell Projects, once again mixing it up and making us question our assumptions. “10,000+ Hours” is a fundraising show of artists who have, as the title indicates, put a great deal of time into developing their work and its public presentation. They’re seasoned pros, all of them.

Half of “Dark Matter” diptych, by Jocelyn Lee Photo courtesy of the artist

Speedwell Projects is a great organization. It certainly has been run far too long on the efforts of artists whose professional time and work takes away from their own production. It has always been an excellent organization worthy of support, but it has only gotten better and better and more and more important over time.

“10,000+ Hours” is a simple enough fundraiser. The artists asked to participate are not the young folks seeking that desperate marketing mention. Instead, Speedwell limited their request for support to artists who have been working for a long time. Ten thousand hours is a big number; it represents about five-and-a-half years of full-time work.

“10,000+ Hours” is filled with works by professional artists in support of a venue they strongly support. So, of course, it rocks. Jocelyn Lee, who founded the space, is an extraordinary photographer, so it’s no surprise her works in the show are impressive. They comprise a pair of images of old flowers in liquid, listless in their perfumed decay. They remind me of the elegant decrepitude of Edgar Allan Poe: “Many and many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea …”

A nude self-portrait by Francesca Woodman hangs next to Lee’s work. Lee’s nudes are not part of this show, but we see in Woodman’s small and seemingly simple silver print a vast essay on Lee’s nudes. Woodman’s model may have been herself, but after a while, it becomes apparent that Woodman’s subject was the entire scene, including the outdoor setting, the texture of the leaves on which she lies and so on. This little piece is a brilliant reminder that obvious attraction (and here we’re talking codes, hints and traces – semiotics rather than subjectivity) can help us find more subtle ideas of beauty if we have the patience to open our minds while we look.

Woodman’s gorgeously intimate 4-inch nude might be a highpoint of “10,000+ Hours,” but it’s a show loaded with such excellent works.

“Private Eye,” by Abby Shahn Photo by the artist

As Lee is connected to Woodman as her student, we see Abby Shahn connected to her famous father, Ben, but Shahn is an extraordinary painter in her own right and her energetically-stroked tempera abstractions remind us that she is so much more than a shadow of her father’s fame.

Aaron Stephan brings us a common-place cement block, but so silkily laden in pink that we have to see it as soft. And it is this shift in textures that makes it spark as an ideological object.

Barbara Sullivan’s “Spill” is a low-relief three-quarter-pose figure rendered in the age-old medium of fresco as she spills a bit of wine on her shirt. Sullivan’s brilliance is not trying to be recognizably broad but empathetically specific: who hasn’t pulled this kind of move at a party? She finds the universal in the isolating awkwardness of a specific accident.

While “10,000+ Hours” features more photographic works of note than anything else, what stands out most for me are some of the painterly works: I have long thought that Andrea Sulzer was one of Maine’s smartest artists. Her small abstract canvas not only proves this but presents her as an extremely strong painter.

Elise Ansel paints as well as anyone in Maine. Her approach is to rework old master images with a loose and saturated brush. Her pieces, which include a new version of a Vermeer, are smart, political and, above all, gorgeous.

Anne Harris’s oil and watercolor drawings of nude female upper torsos are terrific. Harris handles her curvy figures with an impressively light tough.

Lucy Breslin’s deliciously kitschy electric-Victorian platters deliver not only visual brilliance, but biting cultural critique as well. Who are we, after all, to divide notions of kitsch and art?

Lee has also included a couple of works by artists like Kiki Smith and Patti Smith: Their work is always strong, and it fits well among this largely woman-led body of extraordinary work by Maine-connected artists.

There are also many artists whom I have often mentioned, such as Gail Spaien (and her dreamily bizarre symmetrical interiors), Sarah Bouchard (brilliant studies on the question of her own whiteness), Honour Mack (subtle abstractions in oil), Juliet Karelesen (environmentalist studies in felt), Greta Banks (super-smart statements stitched on jeans about capital equality) and, among so many others, Alison Hildreth’s map-layered depth scenes of brilliance that are only getting darker and more poignant.

“10,000+ Hours” is a great show in support of Speedwell Projects, one of the best new galleries to come to Maine in the past few years and a public venue well-worth supporting.

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

[email protected]

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