“Wing Team,” by Emilie Stark-Menneg Images courtesy of the artists

Art: the creative frontier. This is the maiden voyage of Gardenship. Its two-month mission: to present new works. To seek out new audiences. To boldly go where no exhibit at Cove Street Arts has gone before!

Critic’s log, stardate 02.27.2020. “Gardenship: First Voyage” touches down in Portland. The captain: Brunswick sculptor John Bisbee is a colorful character who loves to curse a blue streak through his bushy, blue-dyed beard. His creative sculptures, made entirely from forged nails, have been exhibited throughout the country and are a permanent fixture in the Portland Museum of Art’s sculpture park. The crew: a dozen young, Maine-based artists, many still in their early 20s, who either studied with Bisbee at Bowdoin College or have worked with him at his Fort Andross studio. The assignment: to help develop a new creative community at Kearny Point, a former WWII shipyard near Newark, New Jersey, that’s being transformed into a 130-acre, 2-million-square-foot sustainable business growth district.

Halfway through their nine-month residency, the captain and crew of Gardenship (the moniker combining Kearny Point’s shipyard past with New Jersey’s nickname, “the Garden State”), have created modular studio spaces in one of the site’s old warehouses and begun construction on fabrication shops. They have also made a great deal of art; “Gardenship: First Voyage” at Cove Street Arts offers Portlanders a chance to view some of the individual artifacts created on this collective adventure.

“Hackensack Meadowlands Tracking Desk,” by Elijah Ober

At the center of the gallery space sits Elijah Ober’s “Hackensack Meadowlands Tracking Desk,” an extraordinary sculptural installation that explores the use of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, a large ecosystem of wetlands, as a major dumping ground for New York and New Jersey’s garbage for most of the 20th century. Styled as an archaeological relic, the work combines found industrial materials like concrete slab, cinder block and metal with images from a night-vision tracking camera and paw-print casts to document wildlife’s return to the area and mankind’s shameful shortsightedness.

Tasked with scavenging equipment for Gardenship’s metal and machine shop, Jim Larson also works with found objects. “RGB Screen Test” is a house of cards of accumulated acquisitions, powder-coated in red, blue and green paint. Beams are clamped to ladders and to each other; a chainsaw balances on a 4-by-4 post, which, in turn, balances on a stereo speaker. The complicated process of construction is projected onto an adjacent wall, an elaborate, sculptural play on the standard monitor color check.

On another wall hang Kenny Shapiro’s “Baby’s Breath” and “Hand Holding,” mixed-media assemblages featuring doll-like forms filled with cables and attached by long tubes to a Dirt Devil hand vacuum. As the vacuum periodically starts and stops, the forms contract and expand to replicate breathing in one instance, a hand squeeze in the other. Simultaneously comical and creepy, Shapiro’s simple designs draw unexpected similarities between our bodies’ automatic and autonomous actions.

“Alternate Ending,” by Sara Cannon

These offerings aside, “Gardenship: First Voyage” mostly features work in traditional media and styles. Alice Jones’ “Dune” and “Forest in the Fields” are mesmerizing, impressionistic oil landscapes. Sara Cannon’s “Alternate Ending” is a beautifully composed stairwell-as-still life, full of Escherian angles and abandoned objects. Photographer Nevan Swanson’s “Of Trust in the Light” imbues a crumpled plastic wrapper with an exquisite incandescence.

The light of the cosmos is also contemplated. Isaac Jaegerman’s “Three Suns,’” a graphite and collaged photo etching, is a study of deep shadows and negative space. “Gemini,” a graphite-on-paper, op-art collaboration with artist Sarah Butler, matches sharply defined light rays with somersaulting, sinewy silhouettes representing the astrological sign. Butler’s figurative painting “Twins” revisits the Gemini theme with a pair of soft-focus, female nudes in repose.

In “Cold Silent Hull,” Tom Ryan overlays a representational painting – the bow of a ship amid arctic glaciers – with brightly colored keyholes and other geometric shapes suggesting portals into the otherworldly landscape. Henry Austin’s “Child,” a giant mixed-media dreamscape, combines representational and abstract images set in chalkboard paint, with snippets of handwritten messages and a poem at its perimeter. Cody Stack also mixes the representational and abstract in his textural, mixed-media canvasses. Contemplating “Meadow,” with its cryptic pencil notes and rack of elaborately embellished women’s shoes under the typed line “The sheep’s in the meadow,” one wishes for some context to help decode its intriguing content.

“Sheep #1” and “Sheep #2,” by John Bisbee

Sheep, coincidentally, are the subject of John Bisbee’s contributions to the exhibit – the overt political messaging of his 2018 Center for Maine Contemporary Art show “American Steel” flipped into a subtler social statement. While lacking the wow factor of his massive sculptures, these simple wall works attest to Captain Bisbee’s continued command of the 12-inch spike.

There are a couple of outliers in Gardenship’s crew. Emilie Stark-Menneg, Bisbee’s partner, is better known than the others, her large, fantastical paintings quickly gaining recognition in the art world. “Unicorn Club” and “Wing Team” are portraits of the couple as only Stark-Menneg could envisage: he, a bird in flight, bearing paper-doll cutouts in cheerleader pyramids upon his outstretched wings; she, a unicorn, prancing across a golf course filled with fuzzy sheep (!), her blue mane and tail an homage to her blue-bearded boyfriend. Kwesi Abbensetts is based in New York and was introduced to Bisbee at Kearny Point. Originally from Guyana, Abbensetts uses his work to explore identity and culture. “Look at Me, When You Want to be Glad,” a 6-by-6-foot abstract bursting with movement and color, is displayed at floor-level like a rug, allowing the viewer to experience its exuberant energy from multiple angles.

With 14 artists working in different media, no thematic cohesion and an inconsistent quality of work, “Gardenship: First Voyage” is an uneven show, but it is nonetheless an important one — and one worth seeing. While several of these artists have carved out a small place for themselves in the Portland art scene – Austin, Butler, Jones, and Stack are co-directors of New System Exhibitions, an alternative program and exhibition space on Parris Street – an opportunity for emerging artists to show in one of the city’s commercial galleries is a real rarity, which is why they all deserve at least a brief mention here. Yes, Bisbee’s name recognition as the show’s curator and the collectability of both his and Stark-Menneg’s work certainly mitigate some of the financial risk; the captain deserves credit for standing by his crew. But Cove Street Arts earns most of the applause for stepping up and supporting the next generation of Maine artists.

May they live long and prosper.

Stacey Kors is longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.

“Look at Me, When You Want to be Glad,” by Kwesi Abbensetts


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