There are so few sculpture shows in Maine that the very appearance of one is a special occasion. That’s certainly reason enough to head to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland where “Spatial Relations” (through Jan. 9) occupies the Main Gallery. But it also turns out to be a wonderful ensemble performance of sorts for the three artists featured: Elizabeth Atterbury, Gordon Hall and Anna Hepler.

The three sculptors know each other and are very familiar with each other’s work. It so happens that their work also has various elements in common. Which is why the large space where their sculptures are arrayed conveys the sense of a single installation piece.

There are 20 sculptures, though Elizabeth Atterbury’s “Arrangement 3 (In September)” is actually various small sculptures that comprise individual components of a larger overall work. Among the commonalities are materials – wood, concrete, cardboard, metal and paper – the use of color, and an interest in seemingly quotidian subject matter that nevertheless questions assumptions we may have about them.

These synchronies create threads of conversation that weave among the pieces, enhancing the sense of overall continuity to the exhibition.

Within this, however, each artist demonstrates individual concerns. Anna Hepler, for instance, limns a palpable edge of vulnerability by constructing pieces that seem either impossibly fragile or at the point of imminent collapse. Her “Cataract” is one of the standouts in the show, both for the obsessiveness of its construction and the multitude of associations it can evoke.

It is made of strips cut from the edges of corrugated cardboard, each probably a quarter-inch thick, which Hepler glues together to form an inverted “U” that hangs from a peg on the wall. It’s a marvel that it holds together at all, especially because air currents in the room tend to nudge it this way and that.

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From left to right, “Signature in Black” by Elizabeth Atterbury, “Shim (white)” by Gordon Hall and “Cataract” by Anna Hepler.

“Cataract” here refers to a waterfall, not the eye condition, and it certainly recalls a rush of water flowing around a rock or tree (the peg on the wall) in a bifurcated cascade. Yet it also can suggest a head of hair, or a ceremonial vestment such as a clerical tippet or a masonic chain collar.

The same artist’s “Golem” refers not to “The Lord of the Rings” (that was Gollum), but to the automaton of medieval Jewish folklore – a clay anthropomorphic figure imbued with life by a rabbi to protect Prague’s ghetto from persecution. One can detect a hulking humanoid shape in the assembly of plywood, dowels and steel pins. But it is held up and away from the wall by another peg, giving us the sense that, were this support to be suddenly removed, the figure would collapse into a pile of wood. This vulnerability gives these works an unexpectedly emotional dimension.

Hepler’s implicit references, as well as the viewers’ own conjectures, also conspire to make us question the accuracy of our perception. We think we know what something is, but on another level we understand that it could be so many other things. In the case of “The Scholar,” for instance, we’re not even sure whether we’re looking at a three-dimensional painting or a sculpture. It has the quality of a line drawing that has leapt off the page and taken form. And is that a reference to a scholar’s rock? Or does the figure look like a scholar whose robes trail behind him?

This blurring of context is an affinity Hepler shares with both Atterbury and Hall, but particularly Atterbury. In the aforementioned “Arrangement 3,” objects like wooden sandals, a metal spring, a bowl filled with sand and a pair of crossed sticks are divorced from their natural surroundings and/or function. This forces us to contemplate them as objects alone, devoid of their original meaning.

When we consider them this way, not only does each object transmit an innately individual integrity, but our perception opens to myriad possibilities and associations. Suddenly the spring can look like a striding stick figure, the bowl with sand can take on the character of a ritual object, the crossed sticks can appear as snakes or worms or marine sponges.

Atterbury’s “Beads 1” looks like a necklace hanging on the wall from a peg. (All of the artists, incidentally, use this peg device; Hepler with “Cataract” and “Cowgirl,” a riata-like clay sculpture, and Hall with “Sash,” creating yet another synergy.)

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From left to right, “Leaning Back (2)” and “U Stool” by Gordon Hall, “Beads 1” by Elizabeth Atterbury, “The Scholar” by Anna Hepler and “Closed Box with Painted Top” by Hall.

But “Beads 1” is actually a string of beads made from dried, carved peach pits, something we don’t realize until we are close to it. This can change the character of the sculpture, bringing to mind Hindu prayer beads or rosaries. The latter connotation is reinforced when we think of rosaries made of other organic material, such as those fashioned by medieval nuns from dried rose petals.

Hall’s work also playfully muddles our initial perception, layering it with unexpected materials and visual tricks. “Closed Box with Painted Top” appears to be exactly what the title indicates. Yet is it made of cast concrete, rendering the implied function impractical to the point of uselessness. Our perception of the material’s weight also teases us into wanting to know its contents. Surely it must be something precious to be so secreted within such heavy fortification.

Something similar happens with the door cut into the base of “OVER-BELIEFS,” a title taken from Hall’s first book that here refers to a sculpture that might depict a water fountain or a baptismal font. The title would seem to tilt it toward the latter reference. But perhaps “over-beliefs” refers to the beliefs the viewer lays onto the object.

Or there is “Shim,” which appears like an oversized version of a leveling shim. In its exaggerated proportions, it recalls Claes Oldenburg’s outsized sculptures of common objects and foods. But like most of the works in the show, it is imbued with a presence that seems to define the space around or adjacent to it. Its perceptual weight also affects nearby works – Hepler’s “Cataract” and Atterbury’s “Signature in Black,” a squiggly length of ink-covered basswood – by making them feel even lighter and softer than they might on their own.

This latter point is, of course, a classic concern of sculpture. What is surprising in this show, however, is how it works even with pieces that are not freestanding and instead lean against or hang before walls. A three-dimensional object has a wholeness that commands a certain kind of attention. But this show illustrates how any sculpture can emanate a presence that affects what is around it, even an implacable wall behind it.

If you doubt that, just look at the shadows cast by “Cataract” and “Golem,” or by Hall’s “Leaning Back (2).” This last not only casts a shadow; it casts one with an orange tint – the product of the paint he used on the back of it. At the same time, you might also notice that you, too, have been affected by those presences.

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

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