March 15, 2010

'Pushing the boundaries'

BOB KEYES

— By

Staff Writer

ROCKPORT — The first piece of art I saw at the 2008 biennial exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art was a stark, gray oil-on-linen landscape by Down East painter Eline K. Barclay.

It's called ''Grey Twilight,'' and it certainly is that: A heavy, dark sky draped over a marsh, with the day's final hint of light fading.

In many respects, the evocative painting serves as an appropriate entry to the juried biennial, an imaginative and expansive exhibition of 103 pieces by 89 contemporary Maine artists.

There is a lot of thoughtful, edgy work here, from the delicate installation of Greta Bank portending the apocalypse to Shannon Rankin's ''Germinate,'' which uses itsy-bitsy cut-outs of maps to suggest seed patterns, offering hope for a better world.

In the end, much of the art in this show still is rooted in the landscape. This is, after all, still Maine.

The three-member jury noted the unavoidable theme in its statement.

''It came as no surprise that the desire to evoke and celebrate Maine's rugged natural beauty through various approaches to the landscape engages many artists who live and work here,'' the jurors wrote. ''We saw examples of this ranging from the very traditional to the highly experimental, and would encourage all to continue to boldly push the boundaries of the genre.''

The jury consisted of Carole Anne Meehan, curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Scott Peterman, a photographer from Hollis; and Andrea Pollan, founder and director of the Curator's Office in Washington, D.C.

They considered work submitted by more than 730 artists, a record number, said CMCA curator Britta Konau.

The CMCA biennial alternates with the Portland Museum of Art biennial. The PMA's 2009 biennial opens in April. Artists accepted into that show will be announced in October.

'ALL THE MAD SKILLS ...'

Together, the two exhibitions offer a broad view of Maine art today -- or, as Bank said after viewing the show, ''a small glimpse into all the mad skills going on out there.''

This biennial features work by some of Maine's best-known landscape painters, including Connie Hayes, who submitted a small architectural painting from Vinalhaven, and Sarah Knock, who offered a surface-level view of a thin layer of ice breaking up on a lake in the spring.

Emerging painters also have a place. Nicole Duennebier's acylic-on-panel painting, ''Heat Apparition,'' is a stunning display of detailed brushwork portraying organic matter as its grows and gains life.

Joshua Ferry won a juror's honorable mention for his mixed-media painting, ''Pros and Cons,'' constructed from a series of painted crosses and blocks of color.

This year's juror's prize went to Melinda Barnes for her graphite-on-paper drawing, ''Doorbell,'' a simply drawn image of a ring-tone box hanging on a wallpapered interior wall. It's a tiny piece, just 3 1/2 inches tall and 5 inches wide, and as delicate as could be. But it speaks volumes -- of a specific time and place -- and conjures an emotional reaction that is rooted in home.

In contrast, John Whalley has one of the largest pieces in the show, nearly 5 feet wide and 3-1/2 feet tall. It's a drawing, in the most intimate detail, of a collection of 11 used and tattered pencils, lined up like dead soldiers on the weathered sheet of paper and covered with math problems and numbers.

Just as Barnes' ''Doorbell'' begins to tell a story, so too does Whalley's ''Class of '54,'' with its nod to history, character and unique qualities of a personal writing tool.

On the other end of the drawing spectrum is James B. Marshall's ''Drawing #9,'' an intense, ritualistic exploration of graphite on paper. Marshall repeats tight, black circles, one after the other, until the larger piece begins to resemble a series of miniature LP records, with their ridges and smudges.

Marshall is as interested in the transformation of the paper into a three-dimensional object as he is in the marks that he leaves. I found myself as lost in the compulsive pursuit that produced ''Drawing #9'' as I was in the stunning detail of ''Class of '54.''

There are a lot of artists in Maine doing some serious thinking, and accomplishing some great work. Henry Wolyniec's collage of dot images fascinates with its treatment of repetition, pattern and simplicity. Similarly, Ellen Rich celebrates the balance of circles and form in her abstract collage construction, ''More is More.''

Maine art is known for a high level of craftsmanship, where beauty lies in execution, design and vision. In this biennial, that ethic is best embodied in the jewelry of Cara Romano. It's the first time the CMCA biennial has included jewelry, Konau said.

SHOWING A PLAYFUL SIDE

Maine is also known for the playfulness of its artists.

Justin Richel steps up the smile factor with his piece ''Endless Column,'' a series of culinary desserts made from ceramics and stacked one on top of the other to create a tower of sweet, sugary images.

Also new to the CMCA biennial is the addition of a catalog. The PMA has produced a catalog for each of its biennials, and Konau said it was time for CMCA to begin creating one as well -- for the benefit of the artist, first and foremost.

''This is proof for posterity that they were included in this exhibition. The catalog is something they can hand over to inform other people of their work,'' Konau said. ''It is their reward, and an important documentation to advance their career.''

Rankin is thrilled to be a part of the biennial.

''Each and every show is a great accomplishment for me,'' said Rankin, who recently moved from Portland to Rangeley. ''This is my first inclusion in the CMCA biennial, and I am truly delighted to be a part of it. Of course, any exposure to my work is welcome, and I hope the exposure provides me with more opportunities to create and exhibit my work.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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