Sometimes a show offering the least information can tell us most about our surroundings. Built from modular components of acrylic, paper, and organic matter, the Portland artists Petra Simmons and Irina Skornyakova achieve this in a collaboration titled “Field, Element, Assembly,” an installation/built environment designed specifically for the industrial whitespace of the Buoy Gallery in Kittery.
“Field...” is an atypical art show in a unique sort of terrain. The seacoast town of Kittery, of course, is known for its consumer outlets, a daunting isthmus of designer shops and restaurants along Route 1. So there’s a slight irony that an art show across town doesn’t even engage in the commercial practice of labeling its pieces, let alone attempt to sell any of it. Instead, Simmons and Skornyakova perform a thorough re-imagination of environment, creating a living city observing rules beyond the limitations inscribed by its setting. And their task is made clearer for being contained within a cutting-edge gallery whose project, on a civic scale, is pretty much the same thing.
As the visual language of “Field...” involves a bringing-into-being, its elements are generally difficult to classify. It’s possibly more helpful to think of them as symbolic elements or intensities rather than ecological representations. The predominant feature is a large pyramid structure of white paper triangles, affixed together in the algorithmic design of an isosceles Sierpinski triangle. It stands with its longest side open to the room, while the fractal arrangements of the Sierpinski pattern allow the volume of the structure to be peered into or inhabited. Elsewhere, long stalactites of cut acrylic material hang like icicles, while the majority of the room’s floor is covered in paper and acrylic structures hand- and machine-cut into synthetic forms. The paper, light blue with ridged strips of white paper sewn onto it, lays flat on the ground like puddles or islands at the room’s perimeter, while the translucent acrylic matter stands in several clusters at center, invoking the topography of distant cities with a miniature skyline of a foot or two.
Simmons and Skornyakova have ties to the commercial imaging and textile company Designtex (I’ve written about them in the context of a larger group show of Designtex artists at SPACE Gallery on April 24, 2013). That much of the installation material came from refuse gives the show important ancillary dimensions, both in the benefits of working within restrictions and the imaginative properties of a material’s second life. Yet the crux of the Buoy show is how it calls into question the value system of coastal Maine contemporary art. Even besides the show’s subtle statement — or perhaps non-statement — about the role of art decidedly outside the marketplace, Simmons and Skornyakova are starting a discussion about the imperative of finding creatively re-appropriated space for artistic use. For many reasons, such space is quickly disappearing. “Field...” may appear to a viewer like a mini-fantasia, an architectural drafting room, or merely a neat backdrop for a party, but the questions it asks are neither trivial nor academic. One could imagine the Buoy Gallery itself as the answer to a set of similar ones: a modest room adjoining a restaurant in downtown Kittery that a collective of artists rigorously maintain for cultural and community events. If someone hadn’t gone through the trouble, it’s easy to imagine it occupied by a Starbucks instead.