3S Artspace: The Voyage Out

By: Christopher Volpe

Performance Space  David J  Murray

© 3S Artspace, Performance Space, Portsmouth, NH, 2015. Photo: David J. Murray, cleareyephoto.com.

What would happen if you could lift an edgy, independent art space out of say, Brooklyn, and drop it into the relatively tiny city of Portsmouth, NH?

Two financial quarters into its existence, 3S Artspace is finding its footing. Run by seven mostly young, extremely focused employees, 3S combines three spaces—a performance stage, a cutting-edge, noncommercial gallery and a largely farm-to-table restaurant, all under one roof (hence the name).

The 20,000-square-foot building (a converted storage facility located at 319 Vaughan Street in downtown Portsmouth, near Maplewood Ave.) opened in March 2014 with a groundswell of support, nearly a year’s worth of nonmainstream art and performance programming, and a launch party attended by a jubilant crowd.
It’s unlike anything northern New England has ever seen.

The 3S gallery bills itself as “an incubator of ideas, facilitator of original content, and cheerleader for artists.” The gallery is planning five to eight self-curated exhibitions per year, highlighting “unprecedented innovation across disciplines” including installation, nonconventional and site-specific work from nationally recognized artists and emerging regional talent.

Block Six  Restaurant  David J  Murray
thurston moore band by phil sharp web
Top: © Block Six, The Restaurant at 3S Artspace, Portsmouth, NH, 2015. Photo: David J. Murray, cleareyephoto.com. Bottom: © Thurston Moore Band, performing at 3S Artspace on August 3, 2015. Photo: Phil Sharp.

Still actively fundraising, 3S’s organizers have raised $2.3 million of their $3.3 million goal, mostly through private donations, with some added corporate support. Yet many goals remain, including second-floor artists’ studios, a classroom and a residency program, not to mention the completion of the building’s winter insulation and even its aluminum-clad exterior.

The Seacoast community has rallied around 3S since its inception. “We sprinted out of the gate with a roster of adventurous public programs,” said 3S’s executive director, Christopher Greiner. That programming has included community events, independent film screenings, eclectic performances and challenging site-specific installations, all of which have been a big local success. To this, add the idea of affordable on-site artist studios, multidisciplinary creative projects and classroom space for school and community tie-ins, and you begin to see why Greiner and many others are excited about 3S.

For Greiner, 3S is “of course about the Seacoast at the core.” But it also needs to reach audiences throughout the region hungry for innovative programming. “We realized almost immediately that we need to reach a broader and wider, more diverse audience. Becoming a destination venue—that’s the challenge.”
He’d like to see people coming from northern Massachusetts, western New Hampshire and southern Maine, as they once did for Portsmouth’s famed all-ages café and performance space, the Elvis Room, during the 1990s. Besides completing the capital funding campaign, getting the word out to those potential audiences is 3S’s most urgent goal, he said.

3S gallery curator Jaime DeSimone has an impressive pedigree. Prior to joining 3S, she was the exhibitions project coordinator at the Peabody Essex Museum, where she managed a portfolio of exhibitions including Calder and Abstraction and FreePort No. 008: Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. As assistant curator for the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy in Andover, she curated Flash Back: November 23, 1963 in 2013 and The Civil War: Unfolding Dialogues in 2011. She holds a Masters degree in American art from American University and a Bachelors degree from Bates.

While the performance venue has hosted acts like Brooklyn-based Ecuadorian-Lithuanian DJ Riobamba and the current experimental project of Thurston Moore (formerly of Sonic Youth), the gallery has been home to several site-specific works including Railsback Curve, a large-scale installation by New York-based artist Eli Keszler.

In Railsback Curve, super-long, tightly stretched piano wires fanned out into the space, flanked by abstract paintings and diagrams depicting the sonic structure of the piano’s range. Microprocessors controlled a visible mechanism that periodically struck, scraped and vibrated the wires, sending eerie pops, jangles and groans reverberating through the warehouse-like enclosure. It wasn’t your average Seacoast art show.

“Some people loved it,” Greiner said, “some people didn’t even understand that it was art. But we need the gallery to be that place, a container for these kinds of ideas.”

The current exhibition, Framing Space: Kirsten Reynolds and Hio Ridge Dance, pairs Newmarket, NH, sculptural installation artist Kirsten Reynolds with work by the Denmark, ME, avant-garde dance company. Shared by video, the dancers’ performance builds and collapses physical relationships between the performers in echo of Reynolds’ Cut, in which “architectural structures appear caught between construction or demolition, suggesting that our perception of space is constantly emerging,” according to the artist. “The installation’s design echoes this dynamic instability by creating a kaleidoscope of changing views for the viewer as they walk around and in-between the structures.”

Somewhat less challenging than Railsback Curve, it isn’t much less exotic, given the region’s largely mainstream aesthetic. “We’re pivoting back to something more regional, maybe more accessible,” Greiner said. “That’s part of the balance.”
Prior to Railsback Curve, the gallery hosted Land-Line, New Hampshire artist Carly Glovinski’s installation of trompe-l’oeil and semi-abstract objects loosely themed around the idea of the iconic New England lake house. Riffing upon “the landscape as a reference to either the natural world or a domestic interior,” Land-Line included a map of New Hampshire vacation spot Lake Winnipesaukee executed in ink and acrylic on folded aluminum, illusionistic versions of dishrags and rag rugs created on paper with ink, graphite, and correction fluid, an attic-battered, LL Bean-looking puzzle box constructed of ink and acrylic painting on wood, a faux paper blanket, a pattern-rich phonebook stack also made of paper, and a 25-foot slab of laminated maple veneer with the piano-scroll pattern and lyrics to “Home on the Range” meticulously drawn upon it with colored pencil.

In all of these installations, the confluence of the auditory, visual, physical and conceptual is no coincidence. 3S considers its three self-contained yet adjoining spaces “only physical space, activated through experience and community” and able to morph to accommodate non-traditional, multi-discipline works and events at will.
“We’re incredibly proud of our programming from a curatorial perspective,” the executive director said. “The feedback we’ve gotten from audiences and artists has been almost to a number positive. In spite of the tweaks we need to make, I’m 100 percent confident there’s an audience here. We just need to do a better job holding their hand and leading them here.”

In a sense, 3S is lucky not to be too big yet anyway. “The nice thing is that we can be nimble and make changes quickly,” he said. “It’s exciting that we’re small and agile enough to do that, and it’s not like moving mountains.”

Christopher Volpe is a New Hampshire-based artist and teacher who has taught art history at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Chester College of New England and Franklin Pierce University.

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