Gerry Holzman, “Seated Scholar.” Photo by Lawrence Elbroch

The three shows at the Maine Jewish Museum through May 7 – “The Past is Present,” “Falling Into Place” and “Meeting House Maine” – could not be more different.

“The Past” features carved wood works by Gerry Holzman inspired by the photography of Russian-born Roman Vishniac (1897-1990). During the wave of antisemitism that swept Germany in the 1930s, Vishniac was commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to photograph the vanishing culture of the shtetls in Eastern Europe. Though he also made other bodies of work (celebrity portraits, microbiology), these are his claim to fame.

Holzman lifted or adapted Vishniac’s characters – cobblers, Talmudic scholars, blacksmiths and others – placing them in environments of his own creation. These meticulously detailed bas relief plaques or tablets line the Spiegel Gallery, the corridor just inside the entry. Because of their specific focus on Jewish culture, their appeal may be most meaningful to a Jewish audience. But, interestingly, they can also feel like the stations of the cross, the 14 scenes of Christ’s last day as a mortal that ring the interiors of Catholic churches (especially one carved into a Torah scroll). More on this in a moment.

“Falling Into Place,” in the Fineberg Family Community Room, showcases the colorful geometric abstractions of Portland-based Penelope Jones, many with a sense of visual connection to architecture. It’s a pictorial language pioneered by Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, and has since manifested in work by artists as diverse as Robert Delauney, Fernand Léger’s and, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Peter Halley, in his neo-geo paintings.

Penelope Jones, “Falling Into Place #5,” oil on paper, 17″ x 23.5″, 2020 Photo by Jay York

The title of the show feels apt because many of Jones’s works are composed of geometric shapes, planes, grids and wavy lines that overlap or are layered one over another. In this way, they emanate the sensibility of collage, where individual elements “fall into place” to achieve an overall composition. What is most interesting for me about Jones’s pieces is how our visceral perception of them changes depending on the medium she employs.

The earlier work is most memorable for its shifting perspectives, such as those in “Falling Into Place #29” (abbreviated FIP in the titles), an oil on panel with an Escher-like optical play that makes us wonder what shapes and planes are receding from or emerging toward the surface. But many of the oil-on-panel works feel a little slick. Some, such as “Reflect,” which has a Mickey Mouse-like head in one corner, are outright decorative. That is fine. But compared to other pieces that exhibit more depth and approachability, they impressed me as less interesting.


Penelope Jones, “collage #2,” 4.25″ x 3.5″, collage on paper, 2018 Photo by Jay York

Most successful are actual collages on paper, likely because they benefit from textures that impart more palpable dimensionality. It has to do with the pieced-together layering and overlapping spirit of Jones’s art, which here is more manifestly literal than when it is achieved solely with paint. Their matte character adds a materiality that mitigates the coolness of the oils on panel, a medium that in its reflectivity keeps us out rather than invites us in.

Because of their porousness and lack of sheen, Jones’s gouaches also feel tactile. In works such “FIP #11,” “FIP #17” and “FIP #5,” this reflectiveness is partially absorbed by paper, which creates a happy medium between the panel pieces and the collages and gouaches. This particular surface and paint quality works best in larger scale, especially when they are complexly layered and, so, more visually rewarding because they offer more to digest and dissect.

On the third floor is an installation of Rockland photographer Michelle Hauser. The subject matter is old meetinghouses – Masonic lodges, granges and Odd Fellows halls – throughout the state. Each beautiful black-and-white image is photographed full-on or, occasionally, from an angle. They are suffused in the melancholy and sense of loss of abandoned buildings. The lack of people in and around buildings erected expressly for the purpose of human gatherings heightens the mood of faded glory.

In all these ways, they echo the work of Hilla and Bernd Becher, the German couple famous for photographing series of derelict industrial structures – water towers, coal bunkers, blast furnaces – throughout Germany from the 1960s through the end of the 20th century. Also in line with their work is Hauser’s installation. Like the Bechers, the majority hang in large grids comprised of 20 or more images.

But there are some important differences, too. The show occupies the mechitza (or balcony) of the synagogue. It is not an ideal space for certain kinds of work because its heavy architecture can detract from it. For the subject of the last show here, Pownal-based photographer Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest’s images of a bar mitzvah, the architectural backdrop felt synergistic.

Photos from “Meeting Hall Maine” exhibit by Michelle Hauser. Photos by Michelle Hauser

Not the case for Hauser’s photographs. Perhaps because of space restrictions between the sanctuary’s windows, Hauser printed the works in smaller format to create her grids. This diminishes their presence, making them feel subservient to the architecture.


Further, the Bechers framed their works and gave each wider mattings, which helped distinguish individual structures even within the visual conformity of their practical function. Hauser’s meetinghouses also served a common function, but they are much more diverse stylistically, from simple white clapboard vernacular structures to more deco-influenced brick edifices. Yet these distinctions, which deserve our attention, get lost within the large groupings. There is also very little white space and no frames separating them, further blurring their individual character.

This may have been an intentional way to comment on the obsolescence of these buildings, either as sad relics of a more comforting and bygone idea of community, or as, in the case of Masonic temples, bastions of male dominance and exclusivity or hotbeds of political conspiracy theories. It’s not clear.

Either way, the question of appropriateness of space kept nagging at me. Wouldn’t it have been more advantageous for both Holzman’s and Hauser’s installations to be swapped? It’s true that there is a relation between meetinghouses and the synagogue as buildings for community. But Holzman’s carvings have the physical heft and subject matter to both stand up to the architecture and more closely align with the worshipful orientation of the space. They could function, I believe in a felicitous way, like a church’s stations of the cross. Hauser’s meetinghouses could have enjoyed less distraction in the Spiegel Gallery and might have been developed in a larger format.

Michelle Hauser, “Fraternal Sun Face.” Photos by Michelle Hauser

The cleaner, more open Spiegel Gallery would also have made it easier to see the connection between the meetinghouse images and another very interesting aspect of Hauser’s show: the reproduction of symbols found in those meetinghouses – hearts in hands, an all-seeing eye, fraternal sun faces – printed using 19th-century techniques dating to the early days of photography: gum bichromate (discovered in 1839), cyanotype (1842), platinum palladium (1870s), as well as Ziatype (1997). Taken together, the meetinghouses and their iconography also track the trajectory of Hauser’s art form, which here is visually interrupted by the architecture. I’d even argue that Jones’s exhibition would have worked here, its color and angularity providing a bold enough foil for the architecture.

This, of course, should not discourage a visit to the museum, as all three shows have merit. But it does demonstrate that art looks different in different spaces, which means what surrounds the art can either enhance it or lessen its impact.

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

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