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Art "Associated" With Maine

Art “Associated” With Maine
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The nature and character of a juried exhibition is in part a function of the artists who submit and in part a reflection of the tastes and judgments of the jurors. The 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial (April 8 to June 7)looks to be mostly a matter of the latter. From the 970 artists who applied, the three-person jury this year selected only 17 to participate, a decision sure to generate a lot of discussion if not a bit of controversy.

The biennial jurors were former New York gallery owner Elizabeth Burke, famed conceptual artist Dan Graham, and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art curator Denise Markonish. Graham has been a force in installation art since the 1980s, when his glass pavilions were all the rage. Burke recently closed Clementine Gallery was one of the first galleries to open in what would become the Chelsea art district. Markonish curated an important exhibition of new approaches to landscape.

Thus, the 2009 PMA biennial is shaping up to be a show peculiar to the jurors’ interests. The show will feature, for instance, three large-scale installation pieces.

Ethan Hayes-Chute, a Freeport native and Rhode Island School of Design grad now based in Germany, is in the process of installing his “Hermitage,” a hermit’s cabin fashioned from debris, in the museum’s Grand Hall. Wade Kavanaugh, a Winthrop native and Bowdoin graduate now working in Brooklyn, is filling one of the exhibition galleries with “Falsework,” an installation of sheetrock “bricks” similar to those he used in his 2007 “Benchmark” installation at the Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick. And Sean Foley, a former Maine College of Art professor now teaching at Ohio State University, has created “Menace,” one of his wild and colorful abstractions exploded into three dimensions as it moves from canvases to wooden forms to the gallery wall itself.

What these three installations suggest is that contemporary art in the 21st century is about enterprise and industry, creating an experience rather than depicting one. But devoting so much space to three artists in the context of a juried biennial obviously reduced the number of artists who could participate. The only biennial I can recall that was more exclusive than this one was the 1983 Maine Biennial at Colby College Museum of Art, where only 16 artists were included. The very successful DeCordova Annuals (now, apparently a thing of the past), however, often featured only a dozen artists. Of course, the DeCordova Annuals were invitational shows, not juried competitions.

My personal preference is for biennial exhibitions that at least attempt to survey the best new art being created by local artists, shows like the Whitney Biennial in New York. Though the 2009 PMA biennial features 17 artists “associated with Maine,” by my count only five – Dozier Bell of Waldoboro, Tillman Crane of Camden, Tanja Alexia Hollander of Auburn, Steven Perkins of Bath, and Andy Rosen of South Portland are currently year-round Maine residents.

The biennial also includes work by Eric Aho (a Vermont painter who summers on Islesford), Mary Aro (a Michigan painter who summers in Sedgwick), Melissa A. Calderon (a New York artist who has taught at the Skowhegan School), A. Jacob Galle (a video artist born in Maine and living in Virginia), Julianna Swaney (a Maine College of Art who lives in Portland, Oregon), Susan Hayre Thelwell (a Santa Fe, New Mexico, photographer who studied at Maine Media Workshops in Rockport and once ran a sea kayaking business on Maine), Susan Prince Thompson (a New Hampshire fiber artist who has taught at Haystack), and Sam van Aken (a new media artist who teaches at Syracuse University but maintains an apartment in Portland, where he won the 2007 Portland Museum of Art Biennial Jurors’ Prize.)

Should be a show worth seeing, thinking about, and discussing. (April 4 – Having had a chance to preview the biennial yesterday, I can now say with authority that it is a must-see, particularly Ethan Hayes-Chute’s painstakingly detailed hermit’s cabin. You would swear someone had been living in this ramshackled hut if you hadn’t seen the artist, his friends, and family constructing it in recent weeks.)

[2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, April 8 to June 7, PMA, Seven Congress Square, Portland ME, 775-6148.]

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