Susan Smith, “Witness: Mourning Cloth,” 2019, raw linen, screenprint, hand and laser cut woodblock print, cr boro stitch, earth pigment (soils collected from border wall) Photo by Dave Clough/courtesy of CMCA

Biennials are, as a rule, aesthetic grab bags. It’s a thankless – and, I believe, impossible – job to capture the prevailing art zeitgeist, especially in a world that lately seems to be going in all directions at once, and doing it at high speed. This ambition makes for such a plurality of voices that the results can feel cacophonous and disjointed. So, the first rule of attending any such survey, including the “CMCA 2020 Biennial” at Rockland’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art (through May 2) is to abandon all expectation that this lofty goal will be attained. Then you can open yourself completely to the many wonders – and a panoply of emotional responses – the works of these 34 artists from 17 Maine communities have to offer.

Trends do emerge in spite of the disparate nature of works on view, which include painting, sculpture, video, fiber art, collage and photography. The exhibition’s 22nd edition (it’s been going since 1978) is particularly strong on socially activist work. The catalog of art that was inspired by issues of the day stretches to antiquity, and we have our share of controversies at this tumultuous moment in history: the pandemic, morphing ideas about gender and sexual identity, environmental degradation, racism, abuses of power.

Susan L. Smith’s work, a high point of the show, is heartbreakingly poignant. Three of her pieces here examine the plight of migrants at our southern border. One is simply a sculptural assembly of chunks of earth from the desert imbedded with quotidian items like flipflops that were left behind by those fleeing poverty, political persecution, gang wars and other horrors. “The Passage: Mourning Cloth” is a quilt sewn into being while staying in one of the refugee camps, its fabric panels displaying photo transfers of chain-link fencing, razor wire and migrants on the move. Most affecting is “Witness: Migrant Memorials,” a group of etchings on teabag paper that are arrayed edge-to-edge in a shadow box and feature migratory birds. At the bottom of each she has recorded the GPS locations where corpses of refugees who didn’t make it were discovered in the Sonoran Desert. This work is at once elegiac, poetic, beautiful, and quietly devastating.

Gregory Jamie, “Untitled,” watercolor and graphite on paper, 15 x 20” Photo by Dave Clough/courtesy of CMCA

From a distance, Greg Jamie’s brightly colored, childlike watercolors look like scenes from a fairy tale. Upon closer inspection, however, we instead find a nightmare: humans and deformed creatures being devoured by an angry environment that is punishing us for the ecological disasters we have wrought. The pseudonymously named artist Ashley Normal created an assemblage of postcards on one wall that combines various bodies of her work: “Presidents & First Ladies (White Mask)” flips the idea of blackface by practically obliterating the visages of Thomas Jefferson, Pat and Richard Nixon, Nancy Reagan et alia with white polka dots. The heads of figures in others are replaced by colorful COVID particles or faceless washes of color that fuse the figures together. And Aaron Rosenblum’s “Audio Flag (After Nam June Paik)” projects a blurry section of one of the late Korean artist’s well-known “Video Flag” installations onto three television monitors, which in turn reflect the American flag upside down on a shiny floor panel while audio from protests in Louisville, Kentucky, over Breonna Taylor’s murder plays incessantly.

Maia Snow, “Bathtub Painting,” 2019, oil on panel, 48 x 33” Photo by Dave Clough/courtesy of CMCA

Anne Buckwalter tackles female identity in brightly hued paintings that incongruously juxtapose objects in scenes of domestic bliss (a hand-sewn sampler on the wall of a bedroom where a television projects a Tampon string dangling from a woman’s sexual organs, bright pink panties oddly discarded on a meticulously manicured lawn). Meanings are hard to discern here, but they are even more inscrutable in the work of Maia Snow. “Bathtub Painting,” the wall plaque tells us, “celebrates the soft and hard complexities of queer sexuality, gender, and the non-binary body by centering the subject of the figure, which gestures toward the body as an entity that is both marked by sex and a marker of sex.” Well, OK. Does that mean the circular rings represent condoms or sex-enhancing paraphernalia? Is that a carved phallus on the floor? I didn’t much care. The painting itself is dreamy and sensual, whatever is being implied.

If, after a while, all this begins to feel too conceptual and taxing, take heart; there are genuinely lighthearted moments in the exhibition. Fanny Brodar, a self-described “naïve artist” (despite the fact that she holds a BFA from the Art Institute of Boston, even if her specialty was commercial illustration), creates charming canvases from eye-popping acrylic paints, oil pastel and oil stick. Their inspiration comes from childhood (the Muppets and Sesame Street characters make frequent appearances), and their joy is infectious. Nearby, Tom Jessen’s “Thomas” is a wall installation of plastic train tracks colorfully transformed with acrylic paints. Though the plaque alludes to a possible commentary on our culture of discarding, it is actually meant to be interactive, with players rolling a dice for a chance to place individual sections in a constantly morphing arrangement on the wall.

Fanny Brodar “Garden in the Middle of a City,” acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 36 x 36” Photo by Dave Clough/courtesy of CMCA

A friend with whom I attended the show worried aloud about the sorts of difficult topics with which most of the artists seemed preoccupied. But I found it invigorating and exciting to know that they are so engaged in (and, yes, enraged by) the state of humanity in 2020. Their art compels us to think about what brought us to this moment and to actively participate in its – and our – transformation.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland.

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