Untitled, Elizabeth Greenberg Images courtesy of Maine Jewish Museum

Arcadia, Atlantis, the Elysian Fields, Shangri-La, Valhalla, the Garden of Eden. Who would not have wanted to escape to any one of these mythical locales during the turmoil of this past year (even with a tempting serpent slithering about)? On the eve of what is arguably one of the most contentious elections in the nation’s history, our frayed nerves might appreciate a little time spent at the pop-up space of the Maine Jewish Museum on Washington Avenue, where it has been exhibiting since a fire damaged the Congress Street location in May. The show, “Imaginary Places” (through Nov. 21), features photographs by Elizabeth Greenberg and Kerry Michaels, and ceramics by Trice Stratmann.

Curated by Nanci Kahn, the works converse with each other in evocative ways, eliciting thoughts of fabled fantasias and pastoral idylls, as well as emotional responses that run the gamut from calming to eerie. Michaels’ work greets visitors in the entry space. The large-format “Ferns and Hosta,” an archival pigment print on German etching paper, captures the primordial fecundity of the garden. Lush and moist with dew or raindrops, the flora here suggests rich abundance arising out of the fertile loam of a forest floor, simultaneously calling to mind a luxuriant Eden and the spookier woods of a Grimm fairytale.

Casco Bay done photo by Kerry Michaels. Kerry Michaels

Along one wall are aerial drone photos of the Freeport shoreline on Casco Bay. These nod to Michaels’ home base, but can also induce the slightly discomfiting feeling of surveillance photography. A nonad of other sublimation prints on aluminum features closeup views of flowers and plants: dahlias, hibiscus, sumac, palm fronds and so on. These possess the elegant formal qualities of plant photography by Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and others, and their tight focus imbues the images with an erotic charge that references the age-old art historical link between flowers and sex.

Along another wall is a grouping of color “Road Reflections.” Here Michaels aimed her camera at images of nature reflected in puddles and vernal pools. Often the reflections have a “through the looking glass” demeanor that comes from asphalt, windblown water patterns or icy crystallizations around the puddles’ or pools’ perimeters. This work is imaginary in the sense of being impermanent simulacra of the real thing, figments that can disappear by evaporation or a breeze disturbing the water’s surface.

Elizabeth Greenberg creates dreamy, highly atmospheric works by using, in the case of this series, an iPhone to photograph misty, soft-focus scenes through windows, sheets of glass or plastic. Many can feel like illusive chimeras, inaccessible except through memory, depending on the medium hovering between camera lens and image: raindrops on a window, for example, or the blurriness created by plastic. These obscurations and distortions impart a powerful sense of longing and melancholy that is not dissimilar to the Southern landscapes of Sally Mann or the sepia vistas of David Halliday. Like those photographers, Greenberg is a master at packing her images with emotion.

Often, however, the images require no filter through which to summon our emotion. In Greenberg’s work, the romantic effects of pale light or fog can speak volumes. None of Greenberg’s works are titled, heightening their sense of being out of the reach, existing instead in some alternate reality we can only enter through dreams and myth. They are very beautiful, a highlight of the show. But we cannot look at them without the poignant understanding that they are, in fact, already gone even as our eyes are perceiving them.

White ceramic vase by Trice Stratmann.

Stratmann’s ceramics circle us back to the primeval desire implicit in Michaels’ plant photography. Around the openings of her vessels, leaves unfurl and open, frequently exposing their seeds — with all the reproductive associations they imply. They are voluptuous, erotic, juicy. I could not help remembering the picnic discussion in D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” where Rupert Birkin, the character played by Alan Bates in the Ken Russell film, compares a pomegranate to a particular part of a woman’s anatomy. The place where these exotic species grow may be idyllic and fantastical, but it is not a place of pure innocence either, which, in any case, is as fleeting as any imaginary thing.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland.


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