The Art Forecast: Portland Museum of Art Biennial is a piece of work
PORTLAND — The 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial is a major departure from the previous seven biennials, in that it is not a juried show, but a curated exhibition.
Subtitled "Piece Work," it features 30 artists with ties to Maine in an exhibition that is both challenging, and bit disappointing.
Instead of inviting a distinguished jury to consider the submissions of some 900 artists, the museum elected to have Jessica May, the museum’s first curator of contemporary and modern art, select a show from the submissions. In selecting the artists, May placed a heavy emphasis on process, meaning concept-based and time-based media over traditional painting, sculptures and prints, of which there are few.
This gives the biennial, which runs through Jan. 5, 2014, a conceptual unity open juried exhibitions rarely have, but it doesn’t necessarily produce a representative sampling of the best art of the past two years, which is kind of what you hope a biennial will deliver.
The signature work is vinyl wallpaper hung in the Great Hall. Created by Adriane Herman and Brian Reeves of Portland, "Dually Noted" is an entertaining work that uses sticky notes as elements of design.
Also in the Great Hall is a video by Amy Stacey Curtis of Lyman from her "9 Walks" series, a dizzying time-lapse race through 366 days of walking the length of her road in 65-foot increments. Some of Curtis’ other video walks are a bit easier to watch, but, despite how much I admire her on-going personal biennial projects, the trouble with the videos is the trouble with the biennial: artists carried away by process and sometimes forgetting that the audience only sees the products.
JT Bullit of Milbridge, for example, shows a time-base drawing consisting of a single line drawn or scribbled until he fells asleep, a feat of endurance perhaps, but rather tiresome as art. Bullitt also has a sound piece which is a recording of him reciting the names of everyone he has ever met. About 10 minutes into viewing the biennial I had an urge to unplug the speaker.
Former PMA curator Sage Lewis of Columbus, Ohio, is represented by over-mediate photographs of cut and crumpled paper, abstracted imagery that may be interesting as an exercise in the epistemology of photography, but they are not very interesting to view.
Rather than go on about art I did not care for, let me cite a few examples of what I did find rewarding.
Lauren Fensterstock of Portland has created another of her wondrous cut-and-curled black paper environments, a piece entitled "Ha-Ha" and inspired by 18th century British landscaping ditches of the same name. Fensterstock’s "Ha-Ha" turns sculpture inside out.
I’ve always loved Jocelyn Lee’s portrait photographs. The Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer's 15-year portrait sequence of a sullen little girl turning into a sullen young woman speaks to her ongoing argument with and against conventional notions of beauty. Alison Hildreth of Falmouth shows five of her mixed media "Emerging Cartographies," elegantly and intelligent drawings that demonstrate why she is one of Maine’s best artists.
Alison Cooke Brown of Yarmouth of deconstructs women’s gloves in ways that subvert the very idea of craft. Matt Blackwell of Brooklyn, N.Y., delivers a life-size tin canoe containing an angel. Entitled "Crossing Over," it is a physical elegy for a friend. Blackwell’s canoe and his "Winter Stealing the Sun," the only oil painting in the whole darn show, are installed in the McLellan Mansion.
Lest I be accused to being a hopeless homer, favoring art and artists I know well, let me say that the work I found most satisfying was "Sferics 2: Bell Cloud," by sound artists Zach Poff of Brooklyn, N.Y., and N.B. Aldrich of Penobscot. Bells on the ceiling of a room in the McLellan House sound in response to electromagnetic disturbances hundreds of miles away. It’s not visual art, it’s an experience.
In keeping with the biennial commitment to the unconventional, the museum has not published a traditional catalogue to document the exhibition for posterity. Instead it has published a deck of cards with images of the works. A little curator’s essay booklet is slipped into the deck, but it provides very little insight into the biennial, focusing as it does almost exclusively on the work of Chinese dissident art star Ai Weiwei (who is not in the show) and the Amy Stacey Curtis videos (which are adjunct to the show).
The biennials are always must-sees, because they are what get talked about. "Piece Work" makes a statement about where the museum, its contemporary curator and the contemporary art scene are at the moment, which is in process.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He is the author of "Maine Art Now" (1990), and co-author of a forthcoming book on contemporary art in Maine since 1990. He also writes a weekly opinion column, The Universal Notebook, for The Forecaster.