“Although the format of the PMA Biennial has evolved over the past decade, the commitment of the PMA and mission of the Biennial remains steadfast – to put forth a remarkable collection from Maine artists that establishes a cohesive narrative of art and creativity in Maine.”
— Portland Museum of Art press release, Sept. 15, 2015
Walking into You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 PMA Biennial, I was ready for a conceptually and visually strong exhibition that would justify the museum’s departure from an open juried format to a closed process in which one independent curator selects every artist and art- work. The exhibition would need to have a clear curatorial voice, and present such a compelling representation of the arts in Maine, that it would be an undeniable improvement over past biennials. For better or worse, this Biennial is a grand curatorial failure, solidly reaffirming the benefits of an open juried exhibition.
This show appears to be the result of a series of missteps, starting with the decision not to allow all Maine artists an opportunity to participate. Works are shown in ways that denigrate their individual integrity. There is no thread, no conversation, nothing to unite the works into a cohesive exhibition. The show as a whole is a crafty cacophony, with pieces vying for attention but failing to connect. Truly stellar artworks are diminished by the preponderance of genuinely bad art. It is physically painful to walk through the space and imagine that someone, somewhere, considers this the best presentation of the best contemporary art in Maine.
Upon entering the exhibition (after shelling out a pricey $17 entry fee), the viewer encounters four groupings of Wabanaki baskets. Jeremy Frey’s pieces are beautifully crafted. He creates his own basket forms, allowing him to experiment with alternative contours and shapes. His standout work is simply titled “Basket.” Sarah Sockbeson creates intricate, brightly colored baskets, several of which incorporate antlers. Her work gives traditional materials a modern feel. Several of George Neptune’s “fancy” baskets bring to mind Nick Cave’s assemblages created from flea market finds.
The PMA takes great pride in curator Alison Ferris’ unprecedented decision to include Wabanaki basket-makers in this biennial. While I agree this decision is long overdue, the lack of editing undermines Ferris’ own curatorial statement, which claims this show will not portray Maine as “a place where people lose themselves in the country and coastal scenery — finding inspiration in the state’s natural beauty and portraying it as an idyllic refuge in their work.” One basket is embellished with a decorative landscape, another with a loon; one is shaped like an acorn, another like a blackberry. This is the first indication that we are walking into a space of failed curatorial vision.
Emily Nelligan’s dark, minimal, occasionally brooding landscapes are stunning. Sandwiched between Wabanaki baskets and two garish gestural landscapes by Susan Hartnett, they cry out for a more intimate viewing space. On the opposite wall, Brett Bigbee’s “Josie Over Time,” created over a period of four years, is a truly luminous painting. The depth and surface Bigbee achieves through hundreds of remarkably thin, translucent layers of paint is inspired. This piece shows genuine mastery and warrants an extended viewing.
In the adjoining space, the pairing of Meghan Brady’s unsightly abstract paintings with Richard Van Buren’s showy resin sculptures does bring one state to mind: Florida. Van Buren’s polychromatic sculptures are playful, with titles like “Bling Bop” and “Monet’s Swamp.” It’s as if Van Buren has looted a Disney-meets-Barbie fantasy bedroom, collecting glitter, rhinestones, dyed feathers, painted shells and plastic beads. Learning that most of these objects were purchased at Walmart or ordered from China furthers the works’ association with landfill.
The hallway devoted to the works of Michael Kolster provides one of the stronger curatorial moments in the show. Kolster’s laboriously crafted ambrotypes exploring the rehabilitation of five polluted rivers are stunningly displayed, in perfect light, with the intimacy and quiet needed to appreciate each work.
Another standout is Emilie Stark- Menneg’s installation, “When We Land.” This multimedia work embodies the risk-taking path of the artist with wit and thoughtful consideration.
The installation appears as a playful, hot mess in a vibrant neon and pastel palette. It feels broken and oozing. Iconic Maine objects — seashells, water, rope, trees, fish, netting — seem to have been regurgitated in a rebuke of the very concept of “the best of Maine art.” Created in collaboration with John Bisbee, this work outshines Bisbee’s other sculptures in this show. Though clearly crafted with skill, both “Hearsay” and “Thicket” suffer from poor placement.
Across from Stark-Menneg’s installation are four large works by Stacy Howe. They initially appear to be beautiful, benign collages, but upon closer inspection reveal themselves as meticulously hand-rendered drawings pervaded by an underlying darkness. Using ink, charcoal, acrylic and graphite, Howe creates surrealist works that integrate household objects, weapons, sea life, jewels, severed fingers, and even a turkey!
Bradley Borthwick’s trio of sculptural pieces could have been birthed from Matthew Barney’s pseudo-primal imagination. Each piece is assembled from leather, hardwood, slate and beeswax. At a time when no one wants to claim or assign gender in works of art, these pieces exude a masculine confidence. Positioned atop whitewashed plywood, every detail of the sculptures feels carefully considered while still evoking a sensuous roughness.
Directly abutting Borthwick’s sculptures is Owen F. Smith’s contribution, “Dreaming of Possibilities.” The installation is comprised of four television screens suspended parallel to the floor, with just enough space for viewers to lie beneath them on thin black mats. Each screen shows a video clip of clouds moving across the sky. To create the piece, the artist lay on his back and filmed the clouds until he was struck with an idea or inspiration. This installation is intended to replicate that experience, and indeed it did. Within seconds, I was inspired — to leave immediately.
This year’s Biennial demonstrates the pitfalls of relying solely on a single curator’s personal selections to put together an exhibition intended to provide a “comprehensive and cohesive narrative about the state and the artists connected to it.” Its title is inadvertently apt: You can’t get there from here.
— Sarah Bouchard
You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 PMA Biennial shows at the Portland Museum of Art through Jan. 3.