Birth of a museum

A push in Portsmouth
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  March 3, 2010

 ART030510_SacredProfane_mai
ANALYSIS + EMOTION “Love Song For Her Last Hour,” by Holly Lane, 17.5” x 7” x 4”, gilded basswood, 2006.

Nobody starts an art museum. Most of the art museums in America were founded in the later 19th century, when esthetics became part of the larger cultural language — the Portland Museum was started in 1882. The few established since then, like the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the New Museum, were a response to a specific cultural idea.

Yet here is a museum being perhaps born, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It's a long way from desire to bricks and mortar, but the founders believe one is needed and seem determined to make it happen. There's a gutsy logic to starting an enterprise as donation-dependent as a museum in the midst of a recession that is shrinking the aspirations of many a cultural establishment.

They have no building yet, so this show is gathered into an office suite at in a renovated mill building on the Portsmouth waterfront. They've brought together about 70 works by 35 artists to support the theme "Sacred and Profane." Assembled by curator Katherine Doyle, herself an artist and old New York hand, and museum director Cathy Sununu, the theme takes up the meta-idea that art in modern times has subsumed some of the functions that religion once served.

Doyle and Sununu have come up with an interesting show, using the sensible method of going to galleries in New York and Maine and to some nearby artists, and selecting those that fit their thinking. Some of the artists directly use images that demonstrate their ideas of transcendence; others refer to religion or religious iconography.

Still others use the profane in its sense of being earth-bound, or not spiritual at all. For instance, the nude figure whose back we see in Jerome Witkin's drawing "The Beauty Contest" has a tag hanging from her neck, as if she were for sale. The subject in Edgar Jerins's drawing "Adam Takes a Break" smokes a cigarette while lying on a couch, looking rather the worse for wear. The hard parts of life.

Alison Hildreth's long drawings have the appearance of earthly maps, but the lines and shapes that fill them seem to have been drawn to attract the attention of the gods, as if the ancient earth artists in the Andes had taken instruction from Buddhist Celts.

Keri Wiederspahn makes icons in the Russian-Byzantine tradition. Valerie Hird reaches into medieval illustration as a background for her commentary by adding contemporary figures; in her "Cycles of Power" the Book of Hours meets modern revolutionaries.

The influential Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum has opened up a contemporary thread of visionary narrative art that is antithetical to modernism. His work, which he terms "kitsch," is meant to illustrate an immanent presence. His painting "Dissolving" shows five nude figures floating in the dark, with a line from them to another figure above. It is dreamlike illustration, and meant to be.

One of my favorites is the gilded carving by California artist Holly Lane. Lane makes intricately carved sculptures, often gilded, based on the style of medieval altarpieces and mixed with elements from classical architecture. Her pieces sometimes have a subtle humor that is grounded in the ecclesiastical nature of her sources, often using visual puns. The piece here, "Love Song for her Last Hour," impresses an analytical rigor to its emotional content.

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