A watercolor-on-canvas landscape by Laurie Russo Smith is part of a two-person show at the Maine Jewish Museum Pop-up at 67 Washington Ave. through Dec. 24. (Courtesy MJM)
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Back in the 1960s, just about the only place to see serious contemporary art in Portland was at the Temple Beth El art shows, since Maine’s Jewish community was a driving force in promoting culture in Vacationland. 

For the past nine years, the Maine Jewish Museum has been a prime mover on the Portland art scene again. Some of the same people who championed contemporary art in the 1960s are key players today, chief among them curator and former gallerist Nancy Davidson.

Part of Annette Kearney’s “High Energy” exhibit at the Maine Jewish Museum Pop-up on Washington Avenue in Portland. (Courtesy MJM)

When the Maine Jewish Museum suffered a fire in May, Davidson took the initiative to find a temporary space for a pop-up gallery. Five two-artist shows later the museum is about to move back into the Etz Chaim Synagogue on Congress Street at the foot of Munjoy Hill.

But the final show (through Dec. 24) at the Maine Jewish Museum Pop-up at 67 Washington Ave. is well worth a special trip.

“High Energy” by Annette Kearney and “Color Play” by Laurie Russo Smith fill the pop-up gallery with bold, colorful, celebratory mixed media pieces that were selected by Davidson to provide a happy visual ending to the long, nerve-wracking election season.

The two-artist show is cheerful and bright (both in the sense of color and intelligence) and, with prices ranging from $150 to $850, may represent the best value in local art I have seen this year.

Kearney studied with Polly Kapteyn Brown, an artist and teacher who inspired students at both the Portland School of Art and the breakaway Concept School of Visual Studies (1969-1973). Her encaustic monotypes and constructed paintings on gator board, Styrofoam, plaster, and wood speak to the history of modernism from Henri Matisse cutouts to the three-dimensional paintings of Frank Stella and Elizabeth Murray.

There are a jubilance and good humor about Kearney’s work, whether the joyous abstract paintings or the funny fetish-inspired figures, that testify to a life-long engagement with art history and an eternal youthfulness. 

A menorah by sculptor and potter Elizabeth Ruskin at the Maine Jewish Museum Pop-up. (Courtesy Elizabeth Ruskin)

Russo Smith of Saco shows 19 watercolor-on-canvas landscapes that have the crafty look of batik and a spiritual, even ritual sense of color and form. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone paint bleeding watercolors on fabric quite like this. The effect is somewhere between the metaphysical paintings of Kandinsky and Klee and the meditative quality of Native American designs. Smith’s signature suns, concentric circles of color, add a mystical element to her images of the Swiss Alps, Berkshires, and the coast of Maine.

In addition to the strong Kearney and Smith shows, the last Maine Jewish Museum Pop-up show features an alcove exhibition of paintings by Rush Brown, Sara Crisp, and Henry Isaacs, and a selection of one-of-a-kind menorahs by Brown, Nanci Kahn, Lisa Pierce, Toby Rosenberg, and Elizabeth Ruskin. 

This space possesses not just high energy, it has good energy.

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978.

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