FINDING SANCTUARY An image from “A House in Harmony,” by Muffy Brandt.
Sometimes a painting can only take you so far. Because most models for multimedial art come from the creative professional world, we're tempted to see the photo series and short films of "Between Us," the often stunning thesis work of Salt Institute's spring 2012 class, as something like a finished product, like an NPR spot or web fixation. Doubtless, the artists on display will soon themselves join the professional ranks of new media, but for now, their work is unrenumerated and unmediated, existing as exploratory, not-easily-reconciled investigations of contemporary Maine culture, which puts them in the same terrain as scores of other visual art shows in the state.
Where, by the way, it compares very highly. In seeing this (predominantly) photography exhibit, I urge you to spend time at the iMac that accesses the complete student archive of multimedia works, many of which go far deeper than the photo sets on the gallery wall. More than a few of these — like Alexander Kreher's searing montage of a woman's struggles with hoarding and compulsive shopping ("All Those Beautiful Things") and "A New Chapter," G. Ligaiya Romero's fantastic portrait of the life of a blind romance novelist — can be lip-bitingly affecting, and several others (as well as Romero's) cram a surprising amount of plot twists in a five-minute sequence.
The specter of mortality haunts Jessica Pierce's "We Danced," as her subject, the 94-year-old Lola, teases it like a bullfighter. We meet the Southern Maine old-timer dancing unabashed and joyously in a biker bar, wearing tastefully garish eyeshadow and a black tasseled jacket. Pierce sets her up brilliantly as a charming and eccentric oddball — an archetype that still might have earned her an audience; Lola really is something else — before meeting several unexpected inroads of her domestic and romantic history. By contrast, "Time Apart," starkly rendered by Laura Candler, follows an elderly widow living on Swan's Island as she questions decisions she and her husband made at the crossroads of their life together.
In a coincidence that feels appropriate for the times, several artists home in on the myriad ways people find themselves off the grid of dominant culture. Masumi Hayashi-Smith's task is not to disturb the carefully constructed, sanctimonious quietude of an elderly, taciturn woodworker, which the gorgeous interior photographs of the North Woods in "A Quiet Place" warmly protect. Muffy Brandt tries to get inside the lives of several young, punkish travelers — do we have an appropriate name for this subculture yet? — but can only get so far, using the splayed contents of their bags as identikits for their concealed personalities. "Richmond Sauna," also by Jessica Pierce, shares a collection of earthy, fleshy images amid the community at the remote nudist haven, the warmly emotional exposure of their scenes far outstripping any potential raciness.
As the best stories in literature engage and challenge our sense of cognitive dissonance as they unfold, so do the most memorable pieces in "Between Us." Brandt transforms a Joseph Campbell axiom into a clamorous bird sanctuary with a well-kept secret in "A House in Harmony," the show's most prismatic and visually appealing series. And Colleen Storey Vasu's portrait of a middle-aged, small-town policeman tempered by his sons' brush with crime is charged with tension and complexity, invoking both familial duty and Maine's dubious prison system as the cop reveals a startling line of questioning: "My concept of police work has come crashing down. What the hell did I do for 33 years?"