Just three months ago I reported on the ambitious beginnings of the Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art and an excellent exhibition there entitled Sacred and Profane (Just Looking 2/4). Now the Portsmouth MFA has mounted a new exhibition entitled At the Edge that continues the museum’s mission of bringing the best in contemporary art to coastal New Hampshire.
At the Edge (May 5 to July 11, opening reception May 27) was curated by New Hampshire painter Katherine Doyle and features work by 30 artists whose art is or was on the cutting edge. This time, rather than combining the work of local artists with that of noted artists from away, the Portsmouth museum has borrowed art from artists and their New York galleries in an effort to “challenge viewers’ preconceived notions about familiar objects and art forms.”
While I prefer the Sacred and Profane strategy of placing the best of regional art in the context of what’s happening on the national and international art scene, we here in northern New England stand to benefit any time new art makes its way north from New York.
Katherine Doyle is a realist painter, but she has selected a wide range of art quite unlike her own. I can’t recall, for instance, when I have ever seen anything by New York art star and impresario Jeff Koons in these parts.
Jeff Koons is famous for his elevation of kitsch to high art, most notably in his rendering of balloon animals in a variety of media. For At the Edge, Portsmouth has borrowed “Monkey Train,” a silkscreen print of an inflatable monkey head that he has also reproduced on everything from bath towels to skateboard decks. The monkey balloon floats in front a vintage print of trains and horse and buggy. Can this be fine art? It is if Jeff Koons says it is.
Strange might be the operative theme of At the Edge, for while the art certainly highlights ways in which contemporary artists use hybrid media, many of the images seem to strive for a sense of alien strangeness. There is, for example, Ray Caesar’s “Wallflowers,” a painting of his signature Victorian-like doll figures in which the dolls are clad in material with the same print as the wallpaper in the background. Or there is Ashley Bickerton’s “Green Reflecting Head No. 2,” a print featuring a monster with flowers growing from his head submerged in water.
Not all of the art in At the Edge is all that new, but it does tend retain its edginess. Kwong Chi Tseng’s photograph of choreographer Bill T. Jones wearing body paint by the late graffiti artist Keith Haring, for example, is from 1983. Portsmouth has also borrowed several test plate settings from Judy Chicago’s iconic 1974-79 feminist art installation “Dinner Party.” And there is a Faith Ringgold art quilt from 1988 that explores mother-daughter relationships in the context of the Harlem Renaissance.
At the Edge also features art by such well-known artists as Gilbert & George, Kiki Smith, Tara Donovan, Tony Oursler, and Meyer Vaisman. Plenty of good reasons to get to the edge of Portsmouth in the next couple on months. The Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art is located at One Harbour Place overlooking the Piscataqua River. Unfortunately, the museum website is not yet working properly.
[Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art, One Harbour Place, Portsmouth NH, 603-436-0332.]