The exciting thing about juried biennials is that they take institutions off script.

Outside jurors and the strict ethical standards of these competitions are a boon to

the artists as well as the art audience insofar as they give everyone a fair shot.

Curated biennials, like the one put on by the Whitney Museum, are contrived by definition. It is certainly easier to make a handsome show when the curator gets to go pick out the work (like any show curated by the institution) but then they draw concerns about insider-ism, conflict of interest, front-running and so on.

The 2014 Center for Maine Contemporary Art biennial is precisely what we might expect from outside jurors – for better and worse – and particularly from high-profile jurors like Jennifer Gross, the chief curator of the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, and noted arts writer Deborah Weisgall.

Interestingly, this biennial continues the question set in motion by the Portland Museum of Art biennials: Where’s the painting?

Given that the PMA’s biennial was semi-curated, posing that question felt like a mistake – and even an insult. Here, it feels like a genuine question. But what is the question, exactly?

Are painters not bothering to apply to biennials because they have been so obviously overlooked? Are jurors uncomfortable selecting paintings from digital photos? Or, are they afraid of looking staid by including painters?

There is no question that excellent painting in traditional and contemporary modes is happening in Maine. Gross and Weisgall give us just a bit, and even then obliquely.

Belfast painter Dennis Pinette is represented in the show by four graphite wash drawings. I like his paintings, but a good graphite wash is rare and graphite wash this gorgeous in Maine is unique. Pinette’s two “Mack Point” images are superb.

Maybe it’s the painters who get the idea that drawings are seen as brainier, so it’s they who submit drawings to biennials. Emily Brown’s medium is wash, so her two large and satisfying wash drawings don’t represent a shift, but it’s a fair question to ask if they act more like paintings without other paintings around. The same is true of Cythnia Davis’s large “Coast to Coast.” In this context, her pictorial assemblage of map and wallpaper (ironically with acrylic paint that acts like thread) is the most powerful painterly presence in the show.

Materially, John Knight’s three graphite and acrylic on Mylar works maintain a brainy foothold in drawing, but he has pulled them into the presence of painting, particularly in the Hartley-esque transcendence of his “St. John’s Wort” picture.

The best painting in the show, however, doesn’t act like painting: Set across from Adriane Herman’s wood with burnishing clay (in a savvy corner that makes a brilliant chapter about discourse and script of works I don’t otherwise like), Munira Naqui’s sophisticated and exquisite encaustic panels engage in a sophisticated conversation about inlay and data; and they too only look to graphite for their pigmentation. Bridget Spaeth’s pair of two-color abstractions on arced wooden panels were my favorites from a show at Rose Contemporary a couple years back, but they prove themselves in their standout upstairs setting.

The most impressive part of the biennial is the flow of the upstairs spaces. It starts in the front room, with Cole Caswell’s impressive old-timey large-scale tintypes and moves to Daphne Taylor’s fiber “Quilt Drawing #15,” with its vesica piscis (literally “fish bladder” – the almond shape formed by intersection of two circles), then continues to the far wall of the large room with Shannon Rankin’s installation of map gores in vesica piscis form presented in a large diamond-shaped, mystical flower-of-life arrangement. The key to the installation, however, is Stephanie Cardon’s giant crocheted mobius-esque band “Transatlantic (the weight of water)” that reaches 20 feet from one ceiling hook to another and to an elegant cement anchor on the floor.

Everything in this room adds to its own setting: Spaeth’s abstractions, Scott Davis’s brainy tondo, Cardon’s floor-based string-work — a nod to Jesus Soto with its elegant op-art rhythms — and even Leah Gauthier’s tiny landscape installation with seedpods echoing Rankin’s circular vesica piscis groups.

When I first went through the show, I wasn’t sure what to make of the great room and its jumpy range. But the strength of the work in the stairwells — including Davis’s tiny cut paper root piece, Sean O’Brien’s brilliant app-driven work and Jeffery Becton’s uproariously inappropriate “When Biennial Juror’s Dream” – solidified the show’s pervasive wit.

For example, at the end of the main room is Barbara Sullivan’s giant installation of fresco birds on a Sharpie-drawn woods scene with a wood stove. Any time a serious artist works with Sharpie, it’s hilarious, but particularly so when coupled with the ancient art of fresco. And the binoculars sitting next to the piece on a window sill seem like ornithological punctuation – until you pick them up and look out the window at O’Brien’s Buckminster Fuller boat floating in the harbor. (The drone-filmed view of O’Brien in the boat is the most gorgeous and intriguing bit of video art I have seen in Maine in a long time.)

Sharon Townshend’s clay birch wall pieces could be seen as “mere craft” in some settings but here they are lifted so that they aren’t just a bit about heavy, breakable clay versus light, flexible birch but about inflexible art preconceptions versus flexible ideas about mode and genre. (Meryl Ruth’s extraordinarily camouflaged tea pots echo this as well.)

Jeff Woodbury’s burrowing bug drawn prints comment not only on the logic of rotary printing (a bug-marked log matrix is included) but on the labor of artists: first a pleasant surprise and then a pointedly snarky jab in a blend of well-salted cynicism and genuine wonder.

Does it all work? Certainly not. Among the flawed work, the book pieces in particular fall flat. A mirror piece geared to summing up lives in a few autobiographical quotes starts off heavy-handed and goes from annoying to cloying in real time. But while the jumpiness of the show can feel like inconsistency here and there, it’s a testament to the impressive open-mindedness of the jurors and their willingness to take risks.

Gross and Weisgall have gone off script to give us a biennial that isn’t contrived. It’s not about some slick view of themselves. (They didn’t even list their names on the poster handout. Who does that?) It’s gritty, ranging, realistic and fresh. It’s what Maine needs.

Freelance writer Daniel Kaney is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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