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PORTLAND — Some people have their noses out of joint because the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial (through May 30) prominently features minority artists and a lot of socially engaged art.
But contemporary art is a progressive cultural force, so it should come as no surprise that the art community in Maine, like the art community world-wide, has been mobilized by the election of President Donald J. Trump and the triumph of ignorance and prejudice that it represents.
The 2018 biennial features 60 works by 25 artists selected by guest curator Nat May, former director of the nonprofit Space Gallery in Portland, in consultation with PMA director Mark Bessire, Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord and Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture co-Director Sarah Workneh. May could have made all the selections himself, but he decided to take a collaborative and inclusive approach to curating the biennial, in a very real sense sharing power with women and minorities.
To not have a social and political theme to the biennial would have been to ignore what is happening in the Maine art world.
The Union of Maine Visual Artists devoted the spring 2017 issue of its Maine Arts Journal to the theme, “Light in the Dark: Art as a Sane Voice in an Insane World.” In fall 2017, an exhibition at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta entitled “America Now: A Dialogue” featured 26 Maine artists manifesting a range of creative responses to the current political climate.
In keeping with the discovery function of a biennial exhibition, the 2018 PMA Biennial puts a premium on artists who have not previously shown at the museum. The Great Hall entry wall, for instance, has been painted with an abstract design by Jenny McGee Dougherty called “Debris” and representing the marks humanity makes on the world.
The entrance gallery greets viewers with work by African-American artists David Driskell, who shows painterly acrylics and encaustics that evoke a sense of Black history, among them a portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, and Sean Alonzo Harris, who shows a series of elegant photographs of young Black men playing basketball in Portland’s Kennedy Park.
Around the corner is an expansive wall-mounted assemblage by Daniel Minter that reads like an altar to Black culture. In a separate gallery, Bowdoin College graduate Shaun Leonardo shows a series of charcoal drawings created in response to the police shootings of Laquaun McDonald in Chicago and Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014.
Maine’s Native American people are represented by artists keeping traditional Passamaquoddy crafts alive: split ash baskets by Fred Tomah and a wooden canoe by Steve Cayard and the late David Moses Bridges. Gina Adams, one of whose grandfathers was a member of the Ojibwe nation and was forcibly enrolled at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, shows calico and cotton “Broken Treaty Quilts” that both commemorate and protest the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.
The social issues addressed in the biennial range from Erin Johnson’s video about nuclear war and Rosamund Purcell’s conceptual installation showing the aftermath of war, to a video by Joshua Reiman and Eric Weeks about Pittsburgh’s industrial landscape, a video by Nancy Andrews about health care, John Harlow’s photographs of rural poverty in Central Maine and DM Witman’s photographs documenting climate change. Witman is the only artist included in both the biennial and “America Now.”
Feminist concerns are embodied in Anne Buckwalter’s crisp and insightful grid painting “The Republic of Hysteria” that depicts a society of women dressed in hyena costumes and Becca Albee’s conceptual drawings “RADICAL FEMINIST THERAPY: Working in the context of violence (B.B.),” in which the artist has reproduced her notes and underlines from her copy of Bonnie Burstow’s book of the same name.
Not all of the art in the show is so overtly political, but even the formalist art seems to have social subtexts that surface in the exhibition context. Elise Ansel’s brushy oils, for example, interpret great paintings from art history such as Carravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” that depicts the moment a Christian persecutor turns into a true believer.
Elizabeth Atterbury’s wood and mortar sculpture are the show’s most purely formal abstraction. Ceramist Jonathan Mess recapitulates geologic forces in his “Cross Section” constructions of recycled clay. Tim Christensen makes covered porcelain vessels incised with designs from nature. Stephen Benenson shows large, colorful figurative abstractions and Sascha Braunig reduces the female face and figure to linear dimensions.
Just as some will be put off by the political nature of the exhibition, others will no doubt complain that the biennial was not an open juried competition to which any Maine artist might submit. The trouble with open juried shows, however, is that they rarely get the most important artists to apply. That renders most open juried shows unfocused free-for-alls chosen from whatever happens to be submitted.
The 2018 PMA Biennial, on the other hand, is a curated exhibition with a strong point of view that showcases some emerging artists and is an excellent sampling of what’s happening now.
Angela Dufresne’s “The Twork – Torkwase Dyson,” 2017, 84-by-55 1/2 inches oil on canvas.Plate No. 334 from Sean Alonzo Harris’s Kennedy Park Series, black and white digital archive print, 35 1/2-by-23 1/2 inches, 2017.