Portland Museum of Art's most unconventional biennial

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A conventional biennial is an open, juried exhibition to which artists are invited to submit art created within the past two years to be judged by a panel of distinguished art-world jurors.

In this sense, the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial follows convention. Some 970 artists with varying degrees of association with Maine applied for selection by a three-member jury consisting of former New York gallerist Elizabeth Burke, internationally known installation artist Dan Graham and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art curator Denise Markonish. What the jurors, in cahoots with PMA staff, came up with, however, is a most unconventional biennial.

All biennials are by nature eclectic, but this year’s Portland biennial is positively eccentric. To begin with, the jurors selected only 17 artists to participate, then three of them were granted close to half the available space. The works of the 14 other artists find modest little homes amid the ambition and the bombast of the big three.

“We, the jury,” writes Dan Graham, whose own work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art that will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art in June, “looked for work that was not the cliche repeats of John Marin, Marsden Hartley, or seascape photos with the craggy rocks and surf associated with Maine’s art scene.”

Dan Graham knows the Maine art scene because his brother Andy, founder of Portland Color, is part of it. Suffice it to say, you will not find any conventional “Maine art” in the 2009 biennial. No surf ‘n’ turf for these out-of-state jurors.

In the museum’s Grand Hall, visitors first encounter a wonderfully articulate two-story hermit’s cabin by Ethan Hayes-Chute, a Freeport native and Rhode Island School of Art graduate now living in Berlin. Inspired by summer camps and the idea of hermitage, Hayes-Chute used scavenged wood and cultch from his grandmother’s house to create an elaborately convincing facsimile of a recluse’s forest cabin, complete with pine needles on the roof. His “Hermitage” is an act of imagination that you could actually inhabit.

The first gallery of the biennial is filled with 10,000 Sheetrock “bricks” of “Falsework,” an architectural installation by Bowdoin grad Wade Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s collapsing gray brick road delivers you into the heart of the exhibition where painter Sean Foley, a former Maine College of Art professor now teaching at Ohio State University, has created “Menace,” a wildly colorful and chaotic painting that leaps off the canvas onto the walls, screaming abstract oaths to the second floor.

I’d feel bad about the short shrift I must now give to the 14 other artists in the show, but then this is a biennial that seems to say, “Size doesn’t matter.” Oh, Susan Prince Thompson, a New Hampshire artist, gets an alcove all her own for “Visionary,” a cut paper bag installation that reminds me of Buddhist prayer flags. Eric Aho, a Vermont artist, gets a whole wall for his large oil on linen “Ice Cut,” a painting of a hole in the ice informed by his father’s deathbed stories of ice harvesting. And Melissa Calderon, a New York artist on the Skowhegan School staff, commands a far corner for her wacky golden roosters. But much of the remaining work seems ancillary to the major installations.

Still, Dozier Bell’s tiny recollected landscapes, larger in catalog reproduction than in reality, stoically hold their own against the big boys in the show. And, for those who just have to see a landscape, the show ends with a trio of Mary Aro’s banal scenes from the barrens of rural Maine – banal in subject matter, that is (a mobile home, a landfill), not execution.

All in all, the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial is a provocative and truly memorable show. It’s certainly not the expected survey of some of the best new art in Maine, but what it lacks in coherence and comprehensiveness, it makes up for in daring and defiance. It’s a show worth seeing for Hayes-Chute’s cabin alone, but it’s also a show you’re going to want to have an opinion about, whatever that opinion might be.

Museum staff, no doubt, are bracing for the backlash.

artforecast1-040809.jpg“Menace,” by Sean Foley

Sidebar Elements

artforecast2-040809.jpg“Hermitage,” by Ethan Hayes-Chute.

Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.