The Portland Phoenix

Art Seen: The short, happy life of Maine Art Collective Gallery

Inside the Maine Art Collective Gallery at 18 Exchange St. in Portland. (Courtesy MAC)

The Maine Art Collective Gallery is a pop-up gallery at 18 Exchange St. in Portland that is giving 14 artists an opportunity to show their work until the end of September.

Artist-run galleries are the norm in Portland these days, so, no matter how short-lived, Maine Art Collective is in good company.

The artists, mostly unknown even to each other, were pulled together by artist and massage therapist Sue Vittner who has a studio nearby in the Old Port. Vittner co-founded the collective with designer/yoga instructor Marni Prince and shamanic healer JoAnne Dowe.

“Monday Morning,” 18×24 acrylic, by Lynn Ericson.

Vittner shows very simple and restful finger-painted landscapes, Prince makes glossy landscapes in slick alcohol ink, and Dowe creates naturalistic abstractions with recycled materials such as bark, leaves, feathers, and shells.

I was only familiar with three of the collective artists. Lynn Ericson, a graphic designer known for her pet portraits, shows colorful, upbeat landscapes. Karl Swan Norberg, who owned the former Swan Dive restaurant in Portland, creates thick, polished imagist paintings that read like large wall tiles. And I reviewed Lauri Russo-Smith’s symbolic landscape watercolors late last year in another pop-up show organized by the Maine Jewish Museum. 

The Maine Art Collective also includes Marsha Campbell, Dianne Chicoine, Lucille Caruso Holt-Sottery, Amy Kelly, Joyanna Margo, Clare A. Mohs, Marci Spiers, and Lee Thompson. For the most part, the collective art is colorful, decorative, and very affordable, as in 6-by-6-inch paintings for as little as $45.

Perhaps the most ambitious art in the show is the painterly grid abstractions by Marci Spier, managing director of Speedwell Projects in Portland. Her work is thoughtful, complex, and possesses its own pattern vocabulary.

“Into the Woods,” 24×36 oil on panel, by Marci Spier.

Visiting the Maine Art Collective Gallery reminded me that the contemporary art scene in Portland began right there in the Old Port back in the 1960s with artists renting spaces along the waterfront for exhibitions and opening parties. Indeed, galleries in Maine have long been DIY affairs.

Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (1952); Barn Gallery in Ogunquit (1952); Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset (1958); Harlow Gallery in Hallowell (1963); Deer Isle Artist Association (1973); Union of Maine Visual Artists (1975), and Artfellows in Belfast (1980-1997) were all artist-run collectives and cooperatives.

More recently, we have seen Lupine Cottage (2005), Local Color (2018), and Belfast Harbor Artisans (2018), all in Belfast; Art Space Gallery in Rockland (2005), and Able Baker Contemporary (2016) and New System Exhibitions (2018) in Portland.

Maine Art Collective Gallery is taking advantage of a short-term vacancy and is unlikely to survive in its present form, but the long-term lesson of the last half-century is worth noting. The main reason Maine Coast Artists grew into the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and became Maine’s most important venue for showing new art and artists is that it eventually stopped being a members-only organization and became more selective, invitational, and curatorial.

But Maine Art Collective is fun while it lasts.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

Maine Art Collective Gallery, 18 Exchange St., the former Lululemon storefront, through Sept. 28,

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