Trash Talking

"Horizontal Metal," by Mary Aro. images/courtesy PMA

Trash Talking
The 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial

By Chris Busby

If the latest Portland Museum of Art Biennial exhibition is any indication, Maine’s “creative economy” is in worse shape than the actual economy.

Every two years, the state’s preeminent arts institution presents a juried show of work by Maine artists. Artists “from away” who’ve spent a significant amount of time here in the two years prior to the submission deadline are also eligible to have their work considered. According to the museum, the Biennial “showcases the best in today’s art world by artists associated with Maine.”

Be grateful that’s not true.

This year’s Biennial, like the preceding one, is a big disappointment. A lot of the work is just dreadful.

Why Mary Aro’s paintings keep getting chosen for PMA biennials is a mystery. This is now the fifth Biennial she’s been in, by far the most of any of the nine artists making a return appearance this year. (Of over 900 applicants, 47 made the cut this time.) That’s her painting, “Horizontal Metal,” on our cover this month. You’ll find it at the end of a little hallway off the main gallery.

“Storm Front over Thrumbcap, Islesboro, Maine,” by Sarah Faragher.

In the same out-of-the-way corner Aro’s piece is hung you’ll encounter Sarah Faragher’s painting, “Storm Front over Thrumbcap, Islesboro, Maine.” If this work is “among the best in today’s art world by artists associated with Maine,” I’m Leonardo da Vinci.

Nearby hangs Suzannah Sinclair’s watercolor-and-pencil portrait of a model-beautiful, naked woman squatting in a vaguely rendered woodland stream. The work is just as shallow. The title: “Easy Living.”

At the entrance there are four photographs from the “En-Route” series by Liv Kristin Robinson. Anyone who’s ever driven to New York City and taken a picture while stuck in expressway traffic will appreciate the quality of this work. Chances are your snapshots are just as interesting.

There are a couple reasons to walk down this hallway. One is Heath Paley’s large-format photographic print, “Window Seats.” The other is Jeremy Barnard’s infrared digital photograph, “BIFF 55.” Both offer compelling subjects and perspectives.

Michael Kahn’s “Treasure Hunt” and Mark Ketzler’s “Maternal” are gorgeous, but easily forgettable, images. Events like the Bakery Photographic Collective’s annual Photo-A-Go-Go auction prove Maine is crawling with creative photographers, but you wouldn’t know that by visiting this Biennial.

The paintings by Carol Aronson-Shore, Sarah Knock, and Rebecca Rivers would not be out of place in a hotel lobby. The more abstract paintings are more successful, like Don Voisine’s “High Time” and Tyson Jacques’ “Imperative Series: Portrait of My Father.”

The installations and work in other media are a mixed bag. Michael Shaughnessy’s nests and tendrils of hay dreadlocks, “Cascade, Current and Pool (For the Vanquished Falls of the Presumpscot River),” is impressive. The pile of random chairs Lauren O’Neal has stacked inside the gallery is considerably less so.

"Window Seats," by Heath Paley.

Deborah Wing-Sproul’s hour-long video of herself meditating before a gently heaving, seemingly breathing, glacial landscape is engrossing. Andrew Thompson’s short, squiggly digital animation is just odd.

Avy Claire’s “For the Trees” is quite striking from several feet away. Numerous tall sheets of clear polyester film, upon which she has inked bare-branched trees, form a ghostly grove in one corner of the main gallery. Closer inspection reveals the trees are composed of barely legible words written in a cramped cursive. The trees are all the same shape, but the words that define each are different. Why?

Likewise, Natasha Bowdoin’s huge, Seussian wall piece becomes less satisfying once you gets close enough to see words on each feathery piece of cut paper, most of which are too difficult to read from where you’re standing.

The 2009 Biennial had an enormous installation of sheetrock “bricks” by artist Wade Kavanaugh. Like O’Neal’s chairs, Kavanaugh’s work was a little too close to actually being a pile of junk, though its sprawl made a bold statement. One wishes Carly Glovinski’s “617, 857” had been given as much space as Kavanaugh’s “Falsework” was.

Glovinski has made flooring out of phone books. It’s a cool and original concept, but the implementation trips it up. Gallery-goers get to take a few steps on the piece as they enter the exhibit, but the work’s too short for some to even notice. Had the installation been allowed to occupy, say, all or even half of the first room, its impact would have been much greater.

"Spring Suite 2," by Rebecca Rivers.

Which brings us to another potentially powerful work undermined by its curation: Gavin Laurence Rouille’s “Transgender Walkway.” Rouille lists the names and basic facts about the deaths of nearly 250 transgender people killed over the past four decades in this country. The faces of many of these victims can be seen smiling in photos varnished onto the work’s wooden surface.

It’s not a particularly artful memorial, and after having read a few of the listings and gazed at the pictures, it’s easy to get bored and distracted by the interactive, motion-sensitive gizmo buzzing in the corner. You have to make a cell-phone call to fully appreciate what Rouille has done.

Cell phone tours of art exhibits are a fairly new innovation. Used to be viewers who want to learn more about the art could request a special walkman at the front desk. For this exhibition, the museum has set up a phone number you call inside the gallery to get more information about 10 works. Rouille’s is one of them, and as with the others, the artist personally delivers a message.

Rouille briefly describes the walkway and the hate crimes that inspired its creation. He ends by saying, “I request that my viewers walk upon my piece as a reminder of the respect given to my murdered transgender ancestors in life and in death.”

Walk on the faces of these murder victims? I had to listen to the message two more times to be sure that’s what the artist was asking me to do.

That’s exactly what the artist was asking me to do.

I thought about how it would feel to stand on these people’s faces: awful. Then I thought of what would happen if I did so in front of everyone else in the gallery at the time, nearly all of whom had not heard Rouille’s cell-phone message (I didn’t see anyone else on their phone). There’s that asshole who keeps using his cell phone in the middle of the museum, and now he’s STANDING on that memorial to hate-crime victims!

I didn’t have the guts to stand on “Transgender Walkway.” The experience of doing so would have been profound — even the thought of it made me uncomfortable — but because no one around me would understand why I was standing on it, I chickened out.  A little sign on the floor next to the piece informing viewers of the artist’s request would have solved this.

"BIFF 55," by Jeremy Barnard.

Weak work is one reason this year’s Biennial is a bummer, and awkward curation is another. Why is Beverly Rippel’s striking oil-and-encaustic painting, “Pink Cap Gun I,” hung 10 feet over our heads?

Curator Sage Lewis’ decision to put Rachel Katz’s finely punctured panels at a similar height dims the work’s quality. “Rosette Nebula and Star Cluster” is made up of seven squares of black paper. Katz projected actual swaths of the night sky upon the paper and punched out all the stars. A two-page spread in the exhibition catalogue shows how the piece is supposed to look: light reflected from a white wall behind the panels shines through, creating flares in some places. But at the awkward angle from which viewers see the panels in the museum, this effect can’t be seen in much of the work.

A third reason this Biennial fails is the same reason the one before it did. The three jurors charged with selecting the work are given the absurd task of seriously assessing thousands of works of art they have never seen before, and doing so over just two days. If they put in 10 hours each day, that’s 20 hours (1,200 minutes) to judge over 3,600 works — less than three minutes per piece.

In her description of this process in the exhibition catalogue, juror Joanna Marsh, a curator of contemporary art at the Smithsonian, noted the “staggering array of work” she and her fellow jurors reviewed, though she also called the process a “delight.”

Juror Jim Kempner, who owns a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, described the scene in which he, Marsh, and juror David Row, a painter who lives in New York City and Maine, viewed the digital photographs applicants were required to submit.

“The window shades are drawn. The doors closed. The movie screen illuminated,” Kempner wrote in the catalogue. “Paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture and then video — a potpourri of art mediums. The quality and the depth of the work was exceptionally good and many times we asked to see works two, three, or four times before making a final selection.”

Any exhibition that results from a process like this is bound to be a mess. Lewis deserves credit for the extent to which she was able to corral this chaos into a semi-coherent show.

Still, any claim that the Biennial represents the best of Maine’s contemporary art is baseless. Over a third of the artists either don’t live in the state or spend only part of the year here. In some cases, the artist’s connection to Maine seems tenuous at best.

For example, the photograph of a young female wrestler by Siri Sahaj Kaur is among the strongest works in this Biennial. But Kaur lives in L.A. (the City of Angels, not our L.A.). According to her profile in the catalogue, none of her three degrees was earned at a Maine college. Of the nine selected solo and group exhibitions her work has been in over the past five years, none took place in Maine (all were in California). The sole indication of a Maine connection is the fact her work is in the collection of the University of Maine Museum of Art, in Bangor.

Bowdoin, the cut-paper artist, lives in Houston. She didn’t study in Maine, and according to both the Biennial exhibition catalogue and the curriculum vitae on her Web site, she has not previously exhibited any work anywhere near Maine. She was born 30 years ago in West Kennebunk.

Museum director Mark Bessire and his colleagues need to do some deep thinking about the future of their Biennial series, of which this is the seventh installment. Is this really the best way to select work for such a prestigious show — throwing three strangers into a dark room for two days and barraging them with jpegs? Should the requirement that artists have a connection to Maine be tightened to require residency (at least part-time)? And why not recruit Maine-based jurors familiar with the art scene here?

The mainstream press has suspended critical judgment of the Biennials (no suprise), but many others in Maine’s art community see through to the Emperor’s bare ass. If this continues, the museum will lose the credibly it earned when it brought Bessire on board a few years ago, and the stature of Maine art as a whole will decline along with it. The PMA’s juried biennials and those presented on alternating years by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, in Rockport, are the most high-profile shows of their kind in the state.

Artists may be getting fed up, too. Submissions have decreased significantly since the 2009 Biennial — about 100 fewer artists opted to submit work this time. If there’s another substantial drop-off in artist or audience interest next time around, the PMA may finally get the picture.

The 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial continues through June 5 at the Portland
Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square. For more info, visit

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