"Sunday" (1929), oil on canvas, by James Guy, is part of "Happy Agitation" at Able Baker Contemporary in Portland.
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There is a sense of the primitive and the primal underlying “Happy Agitation,” a colorful exhibition of 11 artists curated by Chris Patch at Able Baker Contemporary (through March 15) in Portland.

Like most Able Baker shows, “Happy Agitation” features artists from Maine and away linked together in loose thematic aesthetics. The theme of this show is the tension between visual playfulness – bright, “happy” colors, cartoony imagery, casual craftsmanship – and deep psychic “agitation.”

Untitled mask of foamkote and ink, by Bianca Beck.

There are bold, multi-colored mask heads by Bianca Beck; surreal paintings and prints by James Guy and Jim Nutt; crude ceramic figures by Colin Radcliffe; a ceramic “silver service” by Valerie Hegarty; a goofy gargoyle-like portrait by the mononymous Carter; five small, elegant mixed media “drawings” by Nancy Ford; a pair of abstract paintings by Bridget Mullen; an artist’s book of faces by Chris Patch himself, all anchored in wild, verdant reality by a pair of dark, murky green swamp landscapes by Claire Sherman. (What I did not see by previewing the show was a performance piece by Portland native Rufus Tureen.)

“Taken together,” writes Patch – whose paper mache birds fly in the upper reaches of the Portland Museum of Art at the moment – “they are a meditation on anxiety, emotional upheaval, and the transgression of convention and boundaries in our cultural moment, inside and outside the world of art.”

“Happy Agitation” is a friends-and-family show with a lot of Maine and Chicago connections. Patch, who now lives in Richmond and works at the Colby College Museum of Art, did his undergraduate work at Maine College of Art and his graduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The Chicago artists include his mentor Nutt, a surrealist who was part of the Chicago Imagist group in the 1960s known as the Hairy Who. If I had been asked to name this exhibition, that might have been what I called it. Ford, Hegarty and Sherman also have Chicago roots.

“Silver Skeleton”: Skull, clay foil and silver enamel, by Valerie Hegarty.

The family connection is Patch’s grandfather, Guy (1910-1983), who was a social surrealist during the 1930s. He is represented by a pair of wonderfully and strangely involved fantastical tableaus that pull back America’s polite cultural façade. A couple canoodles in a graveyard, for instance, while a two-faced preacher seems to pray for oil.

Hegarty’s silver clay candelabras and silver skull teapot are a commentary on the violent history of silver mining in Mexico and, as such, perfectly walk the narrow line between the domestic and the dysfunctional.

The cheery and chilling art that best defines the “Happy Agitation” trope, however, are Beck’s heads mounted on little shelves along the gallery wall. At once beautifully decorative and brutally frank, the severed heads are part and parcel of a “body” of figurative work that has attracted a lot of attention for the recent Portland arrival.

“Happy Agitation” is an exhibition in which curator Patch asks the questions, “Can pastels be creepy? Can bright, vivid colors convey melancholy?” The answer is a decided yes.

Brunswick resident Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He is the author of “Maine Art Now.”