Frankly, I had no idea what to expect when I drove down to Portsmouth yesterday to check out the Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art. I had only heard about it a week before from one of the 35 artists in Sacred and Profane: Eye of the Beholder, the museum’s current (through April 24) exhibition. I must say I was pleasantly surprised both by the institution and the art.
The Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art is a very ambitious name for what is essentially a non-collecting, all-volunteer institute of contemporary art. As I understand it, the museum started out as the Tredwell Foundation for the Visual Arts and then became Tredwell Contemporary Art Gallery before founder Ruthie Tredwell decided to turn it into the Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art in June of last year. The museum is hard to figure out and hard to find, but the effort is worth it.
Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art occupies vacant office suites at One Harbour Place, right on the Piscataqua River in downtown Portsmouth. For reasons no one could (or would) explain to me, Ruthie Tredwell, whose resume apparently includes working for Andy Warhol and Leo Castelli, is no longer connected with the museum. Interior designer Cathy Sununu has stepped in as the volunteer director. She and painter Katherine Doyle teamed up to curate Sacred and Profane, a surprisingly fine exhibition of art by both some of the finest artist in New Hampshire and Maine as well artists recruited from New York and elsewhere.
Sacred and Profane is as good a thematic group exhibition as I have seen in a long time. It’s a strange mix, but it works. Ten of the 35 artists – Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Nicole Duennebier, Lauren Fensterstock, Jessica Gandolf, Mary Hart, Michael Lewis, Richard Van Buren, and gallerist Andres Verzosa show at Aucocisco Gallery in Portland, Maine. Verzosa is represented by a Stations of the Cross installation consisting of ceramic vases topped with crosses, flames, and crowns of thorns.
There are a couple of other good Portland artists in the show – Meg Brown Payson and Alison Hildreth, and there are several of New Hampshire’s best artists, among them Katherine Doyle herself, sculptor Gary Haven Smith, and photographer Julee Holcombe. Holcombe, who teaches at UNH, is represented by wondrous photo-collages of modern cities as the Tower of Babel.
There is a strong group of figurative artists in the show including Doyle, Lincoln Perry and DeWitt Hardy from just across the Maine border, and a cadre of artists from away, among them Dotty Attie and Katherine Kuharic who show at P.P.O.W. in New York and a quartet of artists represented by New York’s Forum Gallery – Holly Lane, Craig McPherson, Odd Nerdrum, and Maria Tomasula. Tomasula’s Delirium, a large oil of a flayed male with a white dove flying out of his mouth, is fairly representative of the fantastical approach to the theme that runs through the entire show. There are flying and falling bodies everywhere.
The show also features three photographers who show at New York’s Nohra Haimes Gallery – Natalia Arias, Valerie Hird, and Hugo Tillman. Prey by Miami-based artist Arias is a larger-than-life color print of a blue-eyed woman staring out from a black feather mask. A powerful image and very much to the point, which is transfiguration.
Eclectic but coherent, mixing local and national artists, Sacred and Profane gives you a lot to look at and a lot to think about. The quality of this exhibition makes me hope that the new Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art survives to become the fine art anchor that seacoast New Hampshire has needed for a long time.
[Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art, 1 Harbour Place, Portsmouth, NH. 603-436-0332. Wed-Sun, 12 to 4. The museum has a website, www.portsmouthmfa.org, but it hasn’t worked for several weeks.]