A Biennial to bitch about
The Portland Museum of Art lays an egg
If it accomplishes nothing else, at least the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial has gotten people talking. Like the gallery owner I ran into the night of the exhibit’s press preview who practically begged me to assign him this review so he could rip the show to shreds.
Sorry, man. That’s my job this time.
The PMA’s Biennial series began in 1998. Every two years, a three-person jury selects work from slides submitted by close to 1,000 contemporary artists. Past exhibits have featured well over 90 individual pieces by as many as 70 artists who either work or exhibit their art in Maine.
It’s a big deal to be chosen for this show, so it’s inevitable that hundreds of artists who applied last fall will be bitching about this year’s selections. In contrast to the previous five biennials, this time the jury selected just 29 works by 17 artists.
And about half the work selected sucks.
Though you may not realize it, the exhibit begins in the museum’s lobby, where a cramped, two-story shack by artist Ethan Hayes-Chute, called “Hermitage,” has been placed. This piece is interesting enough, filled as it is with various objects and artifacts that suggest details of the hermit’s life. Kids will have fun playing inside “Hermitage,” provided they don’t wreck the ramshackle structure.
But the Biennial really starts to fall apart, literally, as soon as you enter the gallery proper. That’s where you encounter Wade Kavanaugh’s “Falsework,” a large installation of “bricks” stacked and artfully laid on the gallery floor. The “bricks” are actually brick-sized rectangles of sheetrock glued together to resemble bricks.
Why not use real bricks? Who knows? And who cares? The difference between looking at “Falsework” and any other pile of construction rubble one may encounter is slight. Kavanaugh aligned many of the “bricks” to create a sense that they’re flowing, and placed them upon a wave-like understructure that further suggests this illusion. But mostly it just looks like a mess.
Another big disappointment rumbles intermittently in another room of the gallery space. Conceptual installation artist Sam van Aken has done some cool pieces before, like the Irish-pub-in-a-truck Whitney Art Works exhibited a couple years ago. But another piece from that Whitney show, here called “Thumper,” utterly fails in this context.
“Thumper” consists of scores of car-stereo subwoofer speakers installed in a geodesic globe and attached to a sound system that plays various sequences of low tones. The piece is apparently designed to roll around, but will do so only if the sound is turned up to a volume that would overwhelm the gallery space (and perhaps the entire museum). So there it sits, occasionally farting out a series of undanceable “beats” that signify nothing and serve only to distract one’s attention from the other work nearby.
That’s annoying, as several of the Biennial’s better pieces are in close proximity to van Aken’s contribution. Portland photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander’s two large chromogenic prints of abstract landscapes in Israel are gorgeous, suggestive of Gerhard Richter’s dream-like landscape paintings of the late 1960s. And Camden photographer Tillman Crane’s platinum/palladium print, “Bus Stop, Finstown,” is remarkable for its light, composition, and subject matter (a bus stop incongruously placed on the shore of a Scottish island).
The inclusion of three oil paintings by part-time Mainer Mary Aro must really burn the ass of fellow painters passed over this year. Aro’s pieces — three landscapes depicting a trailer home, a stack of microwaves by a roadside, and a pile of smoldering ash — would be considered competent if they were the work of a high school student. But Aro’s almost 80. Most curators and gallery owners have apparently come to the same conclusion, given her sparse exhibition history, though PMA Biennial jurors seem to think she’s onto something: this is the fourth time her work has been chosen, and furthermore, the museum’s collections committee awarded her one of four Purchase Prizes this year, meaning these works will be bought and placed in the PMA’s permanent collection to bore generations of future visitors.
Multi-disciplinary artist Melissa A. Calderón has four pieces in the exhibit. Two are chromogenic prints of a resin-and-copper rooster, “Papó” (who’s also in the Biennial), on the sidewalk of a big city. The images themselves are OK, with the shot of Papó in front of a bakery the stronger of the two, but they can’t help but call to mind the “traveling gnome” concept of a quirky sculpture photographed in various locales, and the association does the work no favors.
Calderón’s “Permanence of Pain-1100” is also a near-miss. The installation presents the illusion of “cried on” tissues bursting from a tissue box and piling up on the floor. But the silver tissue box, mounted sideways on a wall, strongly resembles the type of paper-towel dispersers commonly found in restaurant bathrooms. A less fancy, cardboard tissue box, placed on a table or nightstand, would have made the piece much stronger.
Two videos by A. Jacob Galle suffer more for curatorial reasons than any weakness of the work itself. The longer of the two, the oxymoronically titled “Untitled [Spring Fever/Pilgrimage],” is over 21 minutes long. There’s no indication when the video will begin, so the viewer must sit through some portion of the work and wait for the end, then watch the whole thing from the beginning to fully experience it (inevitably experiencing some of it twice). Accordingly, any narrative flow the video has is fragmented, and one must commit a half hour or more to see the whole thing. Few people will do this (myself not among them).
The shorter video, “Untitled [cubicle],” is just over six minutes long, but it clearly has a progression of scenes meant to be viewed in order. To see the last half first, as I did, detracts from the enjoyment of the piece as a whole.
In addition to Hollander’s and Crane’s work, other highlights include three small pieces by Dozier Bell, especially the beautiful yet menacing charcoal-on-acetate work “River.” Sean Foley’s Looney Tunes-y painting/sculpture installation is suitably (and literally) “off the wall.” And Ilana Halperin’s chromogenic print, “Towards Heilprin Land,” evokes the moodiness and menace of the Arctic to good effect.
This year’s three jurors — a gallery owner and professor from New York City, a video and performance artist from New York, and the curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — say the loose criteria that guided their selection process was a preference for landscape or environmentally themed pieces that were either whimsical, “ghostly” or “visceral.”
Most of the work here meets that criteria, but visitors — and, of course, artists who applied to be in this Biennial — may rightly complain that this approach is not what the Biennial’s supposed to be about. Past Biennials have presented broad overviews of the strongest contemporary art being produced by Mainers and artists with ties to the state. This year, the three jurors, given two days to view 3,800 images (and 38 films), came up with new curatorial criteria off-the-cuff and then applied it to give us a small fraction (less than a third) of the work we’d typically get to see in a Biennial.
The spirit and purpose of the Biennial have clearly been subverted this year, and to what end? The jurors only bear so much blame; the situation they were put in was ridiculous. One pictures the jurors in a Clockwork Orange setting, eyelids propped open as thousands of slides flash before them on a screen. Two days to cull an exhibit from 3,800 images (and, again, nearly 40 films)?
Yes, there were a “record” number of applicants this year, 970, but that’s only a few score more than past Biennials have drawn, so PMA organizers weren’t blindsided by the flood of work. By the same token, it’s not surprising the jurors decided to employ an ad hoc set of criteria to make their choices, as it’s mentally impossible to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of nearly 4,000 works of art in 48 hours.
Is the Biennial a showcase of the state’s best contemporary art or a hastily put together mish-mash of work chosen on the fly? The answer this year is clear. Two years from now? We’ll see.
— Chris Busby
The 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial shows through Sunday, June 7, at the PMA, 7 Congress Square. For hours and admission prices, visit portlandmuseum.com.