PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - The Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion has housed a governor, a merchant, and a retired British army colonel who may have been a double agent. Between 1886 and 1954, its last several decades as a private residence, the wooden house filled with parlors and odd little crannies was home to artist and antiquarian John Templeman Coolidge III, who in the summertime made it into something of an artists colony. John Singer Sargent, Edmund Tarbell, and Isabella Stewart Gardner were among the guests. They were no doubt inspired by the serene landscape of woods surrounding a lawn sloping down to a tidal basin.
Coolidge himself has a couple of awkward paintings and a quite affecting lilac-wood sculpture on permanent view at the mansion. He and his friends would have appreciated “Art Encounters Preservation,’’ a sprawling exhibit of site-specific installations inside and outside the house, on property that is now a state park. Curator Allison Newsome has brought together more than 30 artists to make work that responds to the history and environment of the place. This mansion is particularly well-suited for such a project, because aside from a large table, a harpsichord, and a bed, most of the furniture is gone.
There’s a lot to see, perhaps too much, with art in every room. Wentworth-Coolidge is a mansion by 18th-century standards, more a large house today, with low ceilings and several tiny rooms. So many voices in a somewhat confined space amounts to a cacophony. I would have preferred to see a smaller collaborative of artists take on the whole house.
The pieces that work best stick closest to the specifics of history. Jill Slosberg-Ackerman’s “A Divided Highboy’’ in the master bedroom puts the screws to the mansion’s early inhabitant, Benning Wentworth, New Hampshire’s first royal governor, from 1741 to 1767. Wentworth, who lined his pocketbook granting townships that may not have been his to grant, and his successor, his nephew John Wentworth, had allegiances to both the crown and to the colonials.
Slosberg-Ackerman has gouged polished wood from the surface of half of her highboy. Portions of her carving mirror the patterns of the original flocked wallpaper in the bedroom. The piece looks two-faced, but also, interestingly, half-naked, as if there’s an emotional rawness somewhere beneath the Wentworths’ political double-dealing.
In the council chamber, where Benning Wentworth hosted meetings, Elizabeth Alexander has laid out “Still Life With Gates,’’ a remarkable three-dimensional work of ornate, laser-cut paper - a meal of grapes, sausage, apples, and pheasant. The lacy pattern is that of local gates and railings. She has also strung a paper pheasant in the kitchen fireplace, as if to roast. Deborah Baronas takes an “Upstairs Downstairs’’ approach in “High Tea and the Help,’’ featuring several ghostly scrims in the parlor, where Coolidge and his wife served tea at 4 p.m. The transparent panels depict servants on one side and the house’s owners on the other.
Shawn Panepinto has a rich family history in Portsmouth, which she invokes in “Austin Street,’’ an elaborate installation in a small upstairs room, bringing the long-dead locals poignantly to life with portraits, a 130-year-old wedding dress, and a re-imagined tea set. These concrete details make them sometimes more tangible than the Wentworths and the Coolidges, whose presence in these mostly empty rooms depends on the storytelling power of the tour guides.
Unfortunately, some artists strain to link their work to its site. I love Jay Bordage’s comic photographic portraits that echo the wild facial expressions in the work of 18th-century Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, but that tie to the 1700s (and his use of patterned wallpaper as a background) doesn’t feel grounded enough to this place, this history. And Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, working with Neil Leonard, has a video projection, “Walking/Caminando,’’ in an upstairs playroom, depicting pedestrians on a sidewalk in Havana. In their statement, Campos-Pons and Leonard say that water and ports connect the installation to the mansion. Too vague and general a link, if you ask me.
The outdoor sculptures, with more room to breathe, are mostly thought-provoking and thematically true to the site. Kate Doyle’s “The Found Grotto,’’ made with a team of collaborators, features a room like the dance hall inside, where Michael Wentworth, who married Benning’s widow, Martha, used to fiddle at the contra dances he hosted.
Doyle’s grotto, set under a tarp in the woods, has all kinds of homemade instruments, such as a washtub bass made out of an old oil drum. She takes a 21st-century spin on preservation, imagining a post-industrial time when preservation may mean using whatever is at hand. The grotto then has a hallway that spirals into a small meditation room, recalling the intimately scaled rooms in the mansion.
Kit Clews’s “Tide Powered Sea Level Clock’’ looks like a huge sundial, with a long wooden beam swinging in a circle along the ground. It measures the tide, which was unusually high when I was there, soon after last week’s storm. Clews used 19th-century shipbuilding materials to construct the clock, attesting to the central role the sea played in the lives of many residents of the mansion, artists and politicians alike.
Curator Newsome, who last year put together a lively series of installations at Allandale Farm in Brookline, took on a huge project here. While many of the component parts of “Art Meets Preservation’’ are fascinating and evocative, the whole feels unwieldy. It’s a great idea, but there should have been more editing in the execution.