April 17, 2011

Art Review: Every decade or so, PMA's Biennial is extra special


The Portland Museum of Art 2011 Biennial is an excellent exhibition. It stands with the 2001 Biennial as the best yet.

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“Cascade, Current and Pool (For the Vanquished Falls of the Presumpscot River)” in hay and twine by by Michael Shaughnessy.

Photo by Sage Lewis

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“Kristie,” a chromogenic print by Siri Sahaj Kaur.

Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square. 775-6148; portlandmuseum.org

WHEN: Through June 5

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; until 9 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: $10 adults;  $8 seniors and students; $4 ages 6 to 17; free on Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m.

It is handsome, interesting and exciting. It is beautifully installed, and features fantastic art.

Of course, it isn't perfect, but shows that are juried anonymously from digital images are notoriously splattered with wayward bits.

The jury comprised Jim Kempner (a New York art dealer), Joanna Marsh (the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and painter David Row (a Portland native who splits time between New York City and Maine).

I commend the jurors for their choices, but I reserve the highest praise for the PMA's Sage Lewis, who took over all curatorial duties once the jurors had made their selections. While the previous biennial was agonizingly cramped and claustrophobic, this one breathes easily, and uses the gallery space as well as any recent exhibition at the museum.

The PMA's foyer sets the tone with two excellent wall installations. Alisha Gould's 36-foot-wide installation of tiny white ceramic vessels spurting from the wall professes a dynamism that proffers a brilliant metaphor for the internal, potential energy of art as it relaunches itself to the public. Titled "Ejecta" (after the material expunged by volcanoes or meteor strikes), it compellingly hints that the impact of directed energies, astral or cultural, is widely dispersed.

Michael Shaughnessy's giant hay and twine wall piece sweeps up and into the space with an uncanny organic intelligence. It draws you in close with its deliciously sweet fragrance and pushes you back to try to see it as a whole. It even dares press an impossible question: Is it a sculpture, an installation, a drawing or something else? It might be the largest thing I could ever describe as "exquisite," and it's one of the best pieces in the Biennial.

Entering the exhibition is no disappointment, either. Kim Bernard's "Synergy" joyously greets you: 17 cantaloupe-sized drops of red wax on steel wires bounce calisthenically from vaulted metal arms. Activated by volunteers every 10 minutes, "Synergy" hints of music with its arms, and of dance by its bouncing, waxy drops.

Yet, as you enter the show, you might not even realize you are walking on Carly Glovinski's very cool 250 square feet of flooring made from sheered phone books. (The awkward cream-colored beveled wooden edge is disappointing, but I suspect that was a PMA requirement so visitors wouldn't trip.)

Glovinski's other work is the wittiest piece in the show -- an acrylic and ink drawing on vellum mimicking a cheeseburger wrapper that the artist crumpled as though discarded and placed in the gallery's far corner. (This keeps the guards on their toes: Unsuspecting visitors have picked it up several times thinking it's trash.)

Glovinski's wrapper is also the punctuation to my favorite curated space in the show. It binds together David Caras' deliciously vivid photographs of wildly wired Cuban building foyers, Ellen Wieske's loopy wire quilt, Mark Ketzler's ethereal seascape and Avy Claire's dreamy installation. The latter, "For the trees," features huge, hanging sheets of Mylar, on which the artist repeats a drawing of a tree in swirling script echoing words seized from radio news. The wires, looping script rhythms and landscape elements all together, make for a breathtaking oasis of brilliant wit.

The most powerful works of the show include a small group of identity-oriented photographic pieces. Not only are William Cox's two portraits of "cutters" (self-harm victims) incredible photographs, they also might bring you to tears. The illness of cutting is comparable to eating disorders, and it is frighteningly common among young people today.

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Additional Photos

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Gavin Laurence Rouille’s “Transgender Walkway,” wood, paint, photographs, silkscreen and varnish.

Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

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“Calvary #2,” oil and wax on collaged panel by Marissa Girard.

Courtesy of Museum of Art

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“Kwazy Wabbit,” acrylic on wood panel by Mark Wethli.

Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

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