Established in 1978, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s biennial is the oldest and most prestigious juried show in Maine. Its 2018 iteration is another compelling action pushing north the compass of contemporary regional art.

This year’s jurors were Kate Green, the guest director of Marfa Contemporary, and Robin K. Williams, a curatorial fellow of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.

Green’s and Williams’ biennial, juried from 659 submissions, is an honest gaze at the art of what’s happening here, rather than some showcase curated to prove its own premises. And that means, like American democracy, it’s often a bit of a mess: Ideas seeking the good, the right and the beautiful wind up leaking out all over the place.

And, mostly, that’s a good thing.

Featuring 43 artists, the 2018 CMCA Biennial is a huge show. And with so many video and sound pieces, it’s not a quick exhibition by any means. But it’s worth it. Certainly, many of the pieces aren’t terrific, but we should expect that, and even want it, from a show open to new names.

This biennial features excellent painting, installation, photography, multimedia and so much more. Sculpture has long been the missing aspect of art around here (i.e., the Western world), but even that is handsomely solved by Anna Hepler’s organically black-and-white painted wood form in the CMCA’s courtyard and Jesse Potts’ brilliantly witty ladder bending back onto itself in the center of the main gallery.

While the lead-runner baton might need to be handed to the concept-driven work, painting makes a strong case for itself. (And folks get insecure about voting for paintings when they can’t see the surface in person: I get that.) Suzy Spence’s three drippy-thick oil black-and-white figurative portraits, with their unself-consciously deft and efficient brushwork, would make Wayne Thiebaud proud. Kathy Weinberg’s leap into color with flasche painting explodes her affectively flat scenes of Delft-colored normalcy into a sizzle-toned world of heat and personal action: Light switches thrum with her repeated visits, and the remote controls practically keep a thumb-snapped beat while the channels flicker through repeating images, like Warhol’s nightmare-like repetitions of a newspaper-published car crash scene seen again and again. Whereas Weinberg delivered the rhythms of everyday before as images, she now slams them home as paintings.

K. Min’s little oils are even creepier. Looking at the summer’s bugs cataloged in plastic containers, her touch – so exquisitely uncomfortable – only gets uncannier. In whatever wrong way possible, they are sublime. Donna Festa’s tiny panels of old people are no less unnerving and painted with a gorgeously efficient hand. But their discomfort grows from within the observation, while Min’s builds from her own oddly inescapable hand. Festa’s brush makes me want to see more: She can paint.

Tom Flanagan, “Wave After Wave,” acrylic on canvas, 36 by 48 inches.

Tom Flanagan’s major canvases are, in many ways (design, execution, spatial expansion, etc.), the grownups of the show. Unself-consciously brainy and elegant, they breathe into the entire space from the far corner of the main gallery. Sharp-edged in terms of color, paint and visual wit, they practically dance in optical terms, like visual muscle – slender, handsome, taut and free.

Michael Winkler’s semiotic sentence paintings sparkle with a sentient specificity that at first eludes us. At first, we think it’s his brainy way of representing words as space shapes (which is more than a little extraordinary), but somewhere we get caught between the systems logic, the exemplary design and the execution of the works; they practically crackle with precision.

Michael Winkler, “Traced,” acrylic on canvas mounted on 15 panels, each 24 by 24 inches.

It’s not a painting show, yet there’s so much more to say about painting: Isabelle O’Donnell’s gorgeous fabric panels stand with Flanagan’s in terms of system efficiency, visual appeal and dynamic color. Ashley Normal’s and Shanna Merola’s collages, however creepy, also belong in the conversation about painting – powerfully invented, as opposed to observed.

The list of visually successful work is vast. Erin Woodbrey’s inked porcelain pieces cast from wood and fiber are some of the most elegantly beautiful works of any medium I have seen in Maine this year. Amy Stacey Curtis’s interactive ode to symmetry hums with black and white presence. Alan Fishman’s grid of watercolor and acrylic seascapes inspires. Eleanor Kipping’s installation reaches out with uncanny visual tendrils: so many afro combs over an unapproachably empty white wooden rocker becomes the lynching tree with its mortifying unpassable “Strange Fruit.” Baxter Koziol’s playfully Rauschenberg-like bed teases us as the “The Man with 1000 Abs” while visually flirting with Flanagan’s naked pinks. Flanagan’s drawing, on the other side, gets drawn in by Seth Koen’s incomparably spare bent wooden lines reaching across and then, separately, down the wall, claiming for itself not only the drawing title of the biennial but sculptural kudos as well.

Eleanor Kipping, “Strange Fruit,” installation and performance.

There is much more to laud and, in fairness, some to bring down as well. Some of the more frustrating works fall into traps of their own making. The TUG Collective’s installation work, for example, features several microphones hanging from a box in front of some old, paint-peeled panels. The mics act as speakers, though more as murmurs than voices. And the only ostensible clarity of the work arrives with the practically book-length label copy explaining how the work is about “restrictive covenants.” (However, I hammered John Bisbee’s vague show at the CMCA for not having explanatory labels, so I should watch what I wish for.) To be clear, little could be more important to me than fighting institutionalized bigotry, but it’s tough to condone work that merely tries to look “smart” or “cool” and then justifies it with a seemingly unrelated political narrative.

TUG Collective, “Restrictive Covenants,” topological prints on reclaimed wood, suspended microphones acting as speakers and gospel song, 47 by 60 by 12 inches.

If this is what it takes to get us to think about “restrictive covenants,” well, then, maybe. But works like “Strange Fruit” take on issues of identity politics in a way that furthers the cause by commenting on it with visual acuity: The wooden rocking chair is empty, a marker of death, while the afro combs speak of the lynched folks comprising “Strange Fruit”– the gold leaf on the combs testifies to the sense of memorial, value and loss, etc. So, to be sure, I commend the label copy political assertions of TUG, but what we are reading on the labels is justification rather than content.

Alicia Eggert’s work comes to mind when I think of the standards of the elegance of persuasion. Her videos show Bruce Nauman-style (I say that as a fan of “silence/violence/violins”) neon lights shifting with wise messages about, for example, possibility and realism.

Adam Ekberg, untitled, archival pigment print, 20 by 24 inches.

But, maybe ironically, Green’s and Williams’ biennial is best summed up to me by Adam Eckberg’s iconoclastically playful photos. One is focused on a winter campfire on a frozen lake at sunset; the fire is being blown sideways not by a chilly wind but by an electric house fan. The other features a chair launched into the air ala teeter-totter by a cement block and a 5-gallon plastic bucket. The elements seem so simple – and they are – until you try to puzzle in the human component. Then, suddenly, Eckberg seems masterful or, at least, Loki-like.

Yes, there are works in the biennial I didn’t find compelling, and a couple (out of many) I didn’t like at all. But there are more that I didn’t fit in here out of space than lack of quality. Hilary Irons is a terrific painter. Samantha Jones’ video is beautifully meditative. ARRT’s ceiling sculpture/projection is awesome. Ethan-Hayes Chute is brilliantly chill. Julie Poitras Santos is a bona fide poet. I could go on.

In short, the 2018 Biennial is a terrific show led by many new names and unexpectedly scintillating works of art. It’s huge, but it’s very much worth a visit and the time to take it in. There is much good stuff to see.

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

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