The fourth annual “Rumpus” open art exhibition at Biddeford’s Engine is, once again, worthy. These shows are exciting because they feature scads of art from all over the stylistic, material and quality spectrum. And they are challenging, because the works of accomplished artists are placed without privilege among pieces by people of varying levels of ability and experience.

Some open shows are painful to experience, because they offer little of the good stuff. But the open shows at Engine and Portland’s SPACE include many excellent professional artists alongside local amateurs. These are not only entertaining shows, but they provide significant lessons about looking at art: Not only do they challenge your eye, but they help viewers learn how to prioritize their viewing. They teach the effect and power of a second, longer look. They force us to look critically. But critical viewing can take certain shapes, and open shows encourage viewers not to be so mean, since a work might be by a young child or a disabled veteran. Once you learn it’s OK to keep your hatchet sheathed, you generally find yourself shifting from the terms of good/bad to like/don’t like.

“Drive In” by Sebastian Meade

“Drive In” by Sebastian Meade

And when you focus more on the work you like, viewing widely mixed groups of art becomes much more enjoyable. (There is a place for schadenfreude, but it’s typically more satisfying to snicker at snobs than laugh at the failures of children.)

A full week after viewing “Rumpus,” I made a list of the works that were most memorable to me. I was surprised that they were all remembered on merit. (There are plenty of bombs, but they didn’t bubble up to the top.)

The work that held me the longest was Jocelyn Toffic’s epic oil on canvas “I Hope It Will Be War.” It’s like James Ensor’s “Fall of the Rebel Angels” in the style and scale of Henry Darger’s “Vivan Girls” paintings: A god’s face made of human bodies bookends a scene in which demonic warthogs head buffalo-like to the edge of cliffs overlooking a truly endangered valley village below; on the other side, a Darger-like pack of girls runs toward a battle between bloodied polar bears and giant, kilted figures wearing horned-skull helmets.

Beth Wittenberg’s “It’s All Just Echoes” (marker pen and spray paint on paper) thrives in the chaos because it uses a graffiti style and features some intriguingly enigmatic statements, such as its title.


Hunter Wahl’s 3D-printed piece titled “11:23 pm” is a tiny diorama hung vertically on the wall in which silver figures are seen breaking into a fight in a bar. The intriguing title hints this is an incident on the edge of infamy.

Rayne Hoke’s “Queen of Cups” features a frontal undergarment – half-bra, half-camisole – of moss, lichens and birch bark mounted with ribbon on a 1920s silk ensemble draped on a red Singer sewing mannequin (where’s Kate Moss when you need her?). Its presentation on a red pedestal table is so strong and witty that it practically hides the quietly beautiful camisole.

Kristin Malin’s piece from the Piano Roll Project

Kristin Malin’s piece from the Piano Roll Project

Several decorative pieces appear as welcomed oases of calm in the chaos. Debbie Schmitt’s “Seasonal Fabric” is a large, elegantly presented and technically intriguing multicolor intaglio print pulled from foam core matrices. Irina Skornaykova’s handsome “Current” is a swirling black monochrome monotype on fabric mounted on panel. Dan Perkins’ “Ferns” is a spray piece (think kid crafts) that surprised me; coolly calm and nicely framed, it drew me back several times.

Several works thrived on the oddly complex energies of the salon-style show. Sebastian Meade’s ink and watercolor “Drive In” features a ’70s cartoon-style world under a purple and cross-starred sky in which little cars with houses on poles above them gather to watch a movie on a drive-in screen we see from behind (or is it a trampoline?). Rachael Eastman’s elegantly minuscule rectangle of charcoal landscape carves out its own niche centered in its large mat. Jim Chute’s reductive black panel has three white bars, each with a primary smear; the red bar reaches over the top edge of the panel, rewarding its hanging near the floor. Nancy Keenan Barron’s brushes-in-the-studio still life “Constant Companion” thrives on the studio-like energy of “Rumpus.” I was particularly impressed by how Kristin Malin’s savvy piece from the excellent Piano Roll Project stood out among such varied works: It was the first object to grab my attention.

“11:23 p.m.” by Hunter Wahl

“11:23 p.m.” by Hunter Wahl

Usually this is the point where I say something like “the show isn’t perfect but the pros outweigh the cons.” However, open shows like “Rumpus” don’t really work without the weakest pieces – they are part of the balance that conveys the show’s sense of authenticity. Instead, let’s finish with the one piece I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Kim Largey’s “Neatening of the Past” is a small, enigmatic acrylic on paper featuring a pink smear of a flower dripping out of a centered circle. This piece in particular both attracted and challenged me. I could not tell if it was the work of a sophisticated artist or a lucky piece by a kid. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but the way it teetered on that edge held my attention the way a magnet holds a compass needle – and I wanted to see more works by this artist. And in the end, what is a better response than that?

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

[email protected]

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