Over the past 15 years, the Maine Jewish Museum has managed to transform the Etz Chaim Synagogue in Portland into an important art venue, making use of less-than-ideal spaces to exhibit some of the best art in Maine.
Currently (through April 28), the museum is featuring a trio of one-artist shows. Garry Mitchell’s precise abstract paintings hang in the main hallway. Natasha Mayers’ plein air paintings fill the refectory. And Andy Graham’s photographs of old Portland hang up on the third floor in what once was the women’s balcony of the elegant Etz Chaim sanctuary.
Garry Mitchell, who teaches at Colby and lives in North Yarmouth, has perfected an abstract vocabulary at once mathematical and musical. His MJM show consists of a dozen acrylic on panel paintings and four framed acrylics on paper, all of his “Recent Paintings” composed of geometric lines and forms in a palette of strikingly contemporary colors.
“Barrier” is a handsome painting with black and white bars reading like guitar frets, tuning forms or piano keys on a field of off-pink. A parti-colored checkerboard commands the lower left corner while a quartet of similarly colored rectangles is separated from the grid by the bars.
“Procession” is a hot orange painting in which three diagonal arrays of colored squares march up to vertical black and white bars with musical associations similar to those of “Barrier.” This diagrammatic aesthetic plays out in a poetic geometry in each of Mitchell’s works.
“Plein Air Paintings” by Natasha Mayers gathers some 50 paintings and drawings by the Whitefield artist who is Maine’s best-known political activist artist. The work in the MJM exhibition, however, is not about protest and politics but about a less judgmental take on the human condition.
The two main bodies of work in Mayers’ show are faceless figure groups of bathers on Old Orchard Beach and a quartet of evocations of the Portland architectural landscape executed in charcoal. There is also a generous selection of smaller mixed-media pieces that speak to artistic aspirations beyond the partisan and secular, a beautiful little angel for example.
“Unchanged Portland” by Andy Graham consists of 19 photographs of buildings and businesses that have not changed much since Graham arrived to attend the University of Southern Maine in 1974. Since then Graham has founded Portland Color and been instrumental in leading a number of arts initiatives, among them Creative Portland, SPACE, Hewnoaks Artist Colony and Kinonik, “a non-profit that archives and exhibits auteur-directed 16mm films produced from 1910 to 1970.”
Graham’s “Unchanged Portland” subjects will be familiar to those who know the city’s commercial and industrial landscapes. They include, among others, New System Laundry, The Porthole Restaurant, Greyhound Bus Station, Botto’s Bakery, Palmer Spring, Treasure Chest and the chimney marking the location of the Portland Boxing Club at Nason’s Corner.
Many of Graham’s chosen edifices are empty and abandoned. He seems drawn to worn and weathered facades that speak hoarsely of vacancy with vintage signs and lettering. But even as he catalogs old establishments that have survived renovation and modernization, these landmarks continue to change. The Greyhound Bus logo on lower Congress St., for instance, has been destroyed since Graham photographed it.
There are lots of galleries and museums in Portland where you can see new art, but the Maine Jewish Museum is a great attraction because curators Nancy Davidson and Nanci Kahn consistently mount thoughtful exhibitions of contemporary art in a venue that is an oasis of peace and tranquility in busy downtown Portland. And it’s free!
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.