PORTLAND — Open juried group art shows tend to be eclectic grab bags, but the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, the seventh in the museum’s biennial series since 1998, strikes me more as three shows in one.

Somehow, the three predominant strains of the exhibition – installation, photography, traditional painting – seem to remain separate and distinct.

For the 2011 biennial, 902 artists submitted 3,600 images from which a three-person jury selected 65 works by 47 artists. That’s a pretty selective show – just 5 percent of the applicants and 2 percent of the art.

The jury consisted of New York painter David Row, a Portland native who summers on Cushing Island; New York art dealer Jim Kempner, who shows several Maine artists, none of whom are in the biennial, and Joanna Marsh, contemporary curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“There was a lot of really good work,” Kempner said. “The depth of work from Maine was very impressive. In the end, we were all pleased with the selection. It was solid and diverse. We looked for diversity.”

The biennial usually has a few big show-stoppers and this year they are installations by Michael Shaughnessy (Windham, University of Southern Maine faculty), Alisha Gould (Kennebunk), Natasha Bowdoin (Lyman and Houston), Avy Claire (Blue Hill), and Lauren O’Neal (Cambridge, Mass. and Vinalhaven).


Shaughnessy has installed one of his distinctive hay sculptures climbing all three stories of the museum’s Great Hall. Gould creates the illusion of perforated space by installing clay eruptions that look almost like a pattern of bullet holes on the opposite wall of the Great Hall.

Bowdoin, who went to Kennebunk High with Gould, has installed her cut paper “Untitled (Alice)” on a two-story wall in the main exhibition gallery. The installation looks like a bed of seaweed wafting in underwater currents, but upon closer inspection one sees that Bowdoin has transcribed the text of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” on the paper branches.

Claire contributes the exhibition’s most sublime work with “For the Trees,” a transparent ink on polyester film forest of trees which are “drawn” in words, the troubling news of the world being filtered through the trees like the air we breathe.

O’Neal has piled a cascade of some 60 chairs against a gallery wall in what strikes me as a work of comic Cubism.

Close to a third of the biennial artists (14) are photographers, among the best being Siri Kaur (Los Angeles), William Pearce Cox (Auburn) and Liv Kristin Robinson (Belfast).

Kaur, who grew up in Portland, shows a portrait of a young female wrestler that asserts the power of women. Cox contributes a pair of oblique portraits of people who practice self-mutilation. And Robinson, whose hand-painted photographs have been mainstays of the Maine photographic scene for years, ups the ante with a quartet of digitally printed metal plates of New York urban landscapes that blow away the 19th century pastoral quaintness of her hand-painted images.


Most of the painting is surprisingly conservative: landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes by, among others, Mary Aro (Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. and Sargentville), Carol Aronson-Shore (Portsmouth, N.H.), Thomas Connolly (Portland), Sarah Faragher (Stockton Springs), Kathleen Galligan (Bristol), Marissa Girard (York and Goffstown, N.H.), Sarak Knock (Freeport), Rebecca Rivers (Searsport), Robert Shillady (Brooklin) and Suzannah Sinclair (Brooklyn, N.Y. and Greenville).

The few abstract pieces of note are by paintings by Mark Wethli (Brunswick), Don Voisine (Brooklyn, N.Y.), and Tyson Jacques (Providence, R.I.), a print by Colleen Kinsella (South Portland), and a series of drawings by Clint Fulkerson (Portland).

Only six of the 47 artists in the biennial have been included in a previous biennials – Aro, Gould, Kinsella, Knock, Robinson, Shillady and Wethli. Though I have looked at and written about art in Maine for more than 30 years, fully 25 of the artists in this year’s PMA biennial are new to me. But then that’s what biennials are all about – discovery. That, and trying to figure out what the jurors were seeing and thinking.

The 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial is April 7 to June 5 at 7 Congress Square. Call 775-6148 or go to portlandmuseum.org.

Sidebar Elements

Siri Sahaj Kaur’s 45-by-35-inch chromogenic print, “Kristie,” is one of the photographs in the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial.

“Cascade, Current and Pool (For the Vanquished Falls of the Presumpscot River),” a 23-by-20-by-4-foot work of hay and twine by Michael Shaughnessy, is the largest piece in the 2011 Portland Musuem of Art Biennial.

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