By Lars Trodson
Cathy Sununu, the director of the Portsmouth Museum of Art, has a neat analogy about her vision for the space that opened just over a year ago in Harbour Place.
There was a time when Portsmouth was very much a working port, Sununu said, and ships from all over the world docked here. The city’s streets were inhabited by people of every ethnicity and background, and they brought with them the latest European and Asian fashions.
The now-historic homes lining Portsmouth’s streets were filled with the very latest creations, both aesthetic and industrial. Portsmouth in the 1700s was very much a modern city, showing off wares that had never been seen anyplace in America before.
And so it is with the Portsmouth Museum of Art. “I’d like to be the place where new art gets seen first,” Sununu said. “We’re going to plug into the great new and emerging work that’s happening in New York and Beijing and every place else and bring it into Portsmouth.”
She added that "we're focused on 21st century art, on contemporary, living, working artists."
Sununu said her days today have a two-fold purpose: choosing, with her team of dedicated volunteers, art for the next show, and also networking with artists everywhere so that the Portsmouth Museum of Art becomes a destination for their newest pieces.
“We’re talking to artists in China and in Europe who are doing the most cutting-edge work. These are the artists who can open themselves up for the first time, in ways they were never able to do in the past,” said Sununu.
This is another chapter in a tradition that has always made Portsmouth a unique place. This city, as much as any city with a long history, has been able to blend its older and newer selves together without embarrassment or chagrin. It has always embraced both. “Portsmouth is a place where we can bundle the past and the present,” Sununu said. A visitor can, in one day, get lost in the 18th century charms found at Strawbery Banke, and then stroll a matter of blocks over to Harbour Place and find themselves immersed in 21st century art at the Museum.
That the museum even exists testifies to the focus of a small group of people who seized upon an opportunity at the right time.
“There was moment happening here in Portsmouth,” Sununu said when the Museum opened in May 2009, “and if it went away, would there be another chance?” The opportunity was not squandered. Sununu was asked to join the board of the emerging museum and very quickly agreed to take on the role of director. What she didn’t quite realize was that she was about to step into a volunteer position that now requires more than 60 hours a week of her time.
But it is easy to see she is driven by both a passion for the arts and her desire to see the museum succeed.
“I hope we can develop this as a place where we can be a mediator to build relationships with local artists and artists everywhere. They can work together in ways, because of the available technology, that they might not have been able to 20 or 30 years ago,” she said.
The Portsmouth Museum of Art is not, however, a showplace only for local artists. It’s a point that Sununu wants to make clear. There is a distinction between a museum and a gallery, and Portsmouth is a place teeming with galleries showing locally produced art. The Portsmouth Museum has a combined purpose.
“Local artists are definitely one of our publics, but our goal is to be a place that will give people a chance to see things they might not otherwise see,” said Sununu, “And to push us into thinking about what we perceive as art. I hope that we will inspire people.”
There is also something else. With the magnitude of the events happening both domestically and abroad, whether it be the British Petroleum disaster, war, famine, or natural occurrences, there can be the sense that art and its rewards are frivolous or unimportant.
Sununu believes the opposite is true. “Art is important,” she said simply. “Art can educate. We want it to entertain, but it can nurture.”
"At The Edge", running through July 11.
Where else in Portsmouth can you see works by Jeff Koons, INVADER, Alvaro Barrios, Philip Haas and Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz?
No other place than the Portsmouth Museum of Art.
Some of these artists you will have heard of, others will be more obscure. But walking through the current Portsmouth Museum of Art's show, "At The Edge", may end up giving you new names to study and enjoy and more familiar names to reassess.
The show is an indication of how many directions art is traveling in the 21st century. There are two pieces inspired by video games (by INVADER and Jesse Small). One piece incorporates an LCD screen (by Tony Oursler). Another seems a direct descendent of the artist Roy Lichtenstein (Barrios).
But of course it is up to the individual to determine what works for them.
The snow globes created by Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz are called "The Traveler Series." One shows a hunter coming onto a giant rabbit hidden behind a rock. Another shows a large brick Victorian house sitting on a lopsided hill with the ground cracking open underneath.
The third is called "The Other Traveler CCLVII (257 buried under rock) and indeed shows a guy who has been crushed by a small boulder. There is another figure in the scene of dubious participation in the incident. These are snow globes by way of Charles Addams. They're playful and ominous.
The acrylic painting by Wei Dong from 2006 is also an image I found myself staring at -- not necessarily enjoying but intrigued. Two androgynous figures dominate the image. They are posed almost in a classical style, and there are odd filligrees to the portrait: a stethoscope, stuffed animals, a chicken, a magnifying glass. Trying to absorb what this means, if anything at all, is part of the interest. This is a fascinating painting.
Daniel McDonald's miniatures are a delight. "Lowlight and Lack of Cross-Ventilation" from 2007, featuring the wolf-man is perfect, as is his "Restricted Access to Medical Care (The Mummies") that features a group of mummies in various stages of distress.
James Siena's series of small engravings featuring quasi-biological shapes was elegant; perhaps the most purely beautiful piece in the show. The shapes looked taken from nature, whether it is the pattern found in wood, or on a cellular level or even fossilized. This was excellent.
Some others did not work for me. Sarah Hutt's interesting piece, "My Mother's Legacy", I wanted to work much better than it actually did. "My Mother's Legacy" is actually a 1,000 word poem, with each line burnt into the base of a wooden bowl. These lines turn out to be micro-biographical sketches: "My mother had short curly hair." "My mother always said her prayers." My mother bit the side of her mouth." I never quite made the connection between the medium -- the individual wooden bowls -- and the message. The collection of bowls as a visual statement did not seem particularly maternal or personal, but that was just me.
Ashley Bickerton's "Green Reflecting Head, No. 2" from 2006 seemed a rather standard and uninspired reflection on the state of environment. It may resonate more with others -- particularly the way things are today. I just didn't see anything new.
I was on the fence with Alvaro Barrios's pop-art. The ink and water color comic-inspired piece, from 2007, is Untitled, and features a cowboy, a native American, and an old man riding on horses with a piece of found art. It looks like Barrios is both an admirer and a skeptic of the concept of "found art" -- chiefly the invention of Marcel Duchamp -- but I wasn't sure just how sharp the commentary was.
As anyone can see, there is much here to mull over. This is only a small sampling of the pieces in the show, but they are certain to raise one's interest and understanding of modern art, even if some of the pieces confound or are irksome. Especially, perhaps, if they bother or provoke you.
If you think you can do better, this show may just inspire you to try to make art.
Which, as we know, the world needs more of, not less.
Portsmouth Museum of Art
Open Wednesday - Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Open late Friday to 8 p.m.
Closed Monday and Tuesday
Located at: One Harbour Place
Portsmouth, NH 03801