Center for Maine Contemporary Art Biennial UPDATE
The first Maine biennial exhibition I ever attended was held at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 1979. Since then there has been some sort of a juried biennial ever few years at venues ranging from the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland to the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport.
While the Portland Museum of Art biennials have become the primary juried shows of new art in Maine, the CMCA biennial this year is a real eye-opener, at least for me. I like to think I pay attention to who’s doing what in Maine, but of the 17 artists in the show, nine were previously unknown to me. That’s great, because the primary function of a biennial is to bring new art and artists to public attention.
The format of the 2012 CMCA Biennial Exhibition (through December 2)is different than most biennials as seven of the artists were invited and 10 were selected from 415 artists who submitted by CMCA director Suzette McAvoy and independent curator Daphne Anderson Deeds from Connecticut.
“The jurors’ vision of this year’s Biennial,” notes the CMCA press release, “was to present a balance of concepts, volume, color, and texture for the exhibition as a whole.” Not sure how meaningful that jurors’ statement might be, but biennials tend to be democratic free-for-alls that no one expects to cohere.
The best-known artists in the show are Lauren Fensterstock and Aaron Stephan, a Portland couple who are conceptual artists with emerging national reputations, Fensterstock for her craft-based paper constructions and Stephan for his sculpture-based installations. Fensterstock was invited to exhibit; Stephan was selected.
Two of the best photographers in the state are also in the biennial. Luc Demers of Portland is known for his haunting, darkened room interiors and abstract photographs of light tracking across a photo-surface. David Stess of Cherryfield and New York has been participating in and photographing the blueberry harvest in downeast Maine for decades, documenting the migrant culture and the barren landscape in classic black and white.
Sculptor Cassie Jones of Brunswick creates funky abstract wall sculpture out of upholstered fabric. Grace DeGennaro, my neighbor in Yarmouth, is perhaps Maine’s first symbolist painter, creating elegant, precise, mandala-like images that resonate with both spiritual and empirical power.
Kenny Cole of Monroe is one of Maine’s rare political artists, using his visual talents to social ends. Cole’s recent paintings, drawings and constructions have explored the human aspiration toward a higher power, focusing on everything from space flight to ascension into Heaven. Lynda Litchfield of Cape Elizabeth is a purely abstract painter who uses oil and encaustic to explore surface and substance.
Those are the eight artists whose work I am familiar with to varying degrees. The artists who are new to me are Tom Butler of Rockland, Lisa Kellner of Rangeley, Kitty Wales of Vinalhaven (invitees) and Robin Mandel of Cushing, James Marshall of Brunswick, Jonathan Mess of Jefferson, Benjamin Potter of Belfast, Kate Russo of Rockland, and Erik Weisenburger of South Portland (juried in).
It is entirely possible that I may have seen work by one of two of these artists in group shows, but because I have not yet had a chance to get to Rockport to see for myself, I am reluctant to comment. Instead, I will let a few of the artists speak for themselves.
“My studio practice,” writes British-born Tom Butler, “conspicuously conceals found images of people by incorporating personal symbols such as hair, hoods, mirrors, and masks and in the process attempts to reveal aspects of imaged inner personalities.”
“When working on graph paper,” writes Kate Russo, who is married to Butler and is the daughter of novelist Richard Russo, “the grid becomes a template or skeleton for an infinite number of variations in pattern and color. My drawing practice is consumed by what can live within this predetermined, man-made environment.”
“History, itself, is my primary focus,” writes Lisa Kellner, who has been coming to the Rangeley Lakes area from her home in Virginia in recent years. “The capacity to interpret and digest historical notions – within the subject matter, its geographical and chronological place, and the formal presentation on the surface – are the constants in my work.”
That doesn’t begin to explain Kellner’s wonderfully bubbly, oozy fabric installation in the CMCA stairwell, so I guess I’m just going to have to stop by the gallery one day soon.
On Tuesday, October 16, I drive up to Rockport with gallerist Andres Verzosa and artist Terry Hilt. I guess I should have know, given the Suzette McAvoy is a superb curator, that she show would be better than advertised (and better than I imagined or suggested). That bland, generic statement about “balance” that put me off in the press release made sense once I saw the show.
It’s not so much balance as cohesion that distinguishes the CMCA Biennial. The fact that it combines juried and invited artists means that it’s not the usual open juried grab-bag. Not only does the show cohere, it is very thoughtfully and subtley organized.
The work on the ground floor – from Cassie Jones’ wall of cushion sculpture to Benjamin Potter’s wooden floor cutouts – evinces a devition to craft, as does much of the work in the show and in Maine. The work on the second floor – from Grace DeGennaro’s symblic paintings to Lauren Fensterstock’s black marsh of quilled paper — has a solemn, meditative feel. But what I was not prepared for was the weirdness in the basment galleries.
Tom Butler’s alteration and adulteration of 19th century cabinet card portraits, erasing faces and replacing them with all manner of strange designs, is disturbing and mysterious. But the work I got the biggest kick out of were the mechanical sculptures by Kitty Wales, an artist who teaches at Boston University and spends much of the year on the island of Vinalhaven. Wales’ animatronic figures of animals, birds and human figures are at once amusing and disquieting, kind of like cuckoo clocks with minds of their own.
“The subtext to this show is obsession,” Suzette McAvoy told me.
And I saw what she meant. Whether obsessed with material properties, formal patterns, political agendas or conceptual ideas, the artist of the CMCA Biennial demonstrate how the most peculiar and particular interest can rise from personal inquiry to meaningful public statement.
[Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Ave., Rockport ME, 207-236-2875.]