Biennial of today: PMA showcases artistic process in Maine with new exhibition

art_biennial Alison Ferris (left), curator and Greg Welch, chief preparator_100815“You Can’t Get There From Here” seems a doubly apt title for the Portland Museum of Art’s 2015 Biennial, the first to be selected by an individual instead of a jury. The work selected by Alison Ferris, curator, was deliberately picked to accentuate the artistic process at play in the contemporary art scene in Maine. Its origins are in a familiar saying that sums up so many appeals for traveling directions. The theme serves to echo that emphasis: The artistic journey is the here here.

The PMA invited Ferris to organize its ninth Biennial as part of the museum’s mission to present a cohesive narrative of contemporary Maine art to its audiences.

Ferris is currently the curator of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis., where she has organized several exhibitions, including “the kids are all right: an exhibition about family and photography” (2013), “Material Fix” (2015) and “Photography and the Scientific Spirit” opening this fall. Ferris has lived in Maine for 20 years and spends most of the calendar here, with about six weeks away in Wisconsin. Ferris previously served as curator at Bowdoin College Museum of Art for 12 years, followed by a position as assistant director of the Maine Arts Commission.

I asked Ferris what type of art experience visitors to the Biennial should expect.

“I tried very hard to make it as varied as I possibly could, in terms of (the artists’) age, where they lived, their art background, the materials,” she said. “Hopefully, everybody will find at least one thing they fall in love with, from the baskets to Renaissance-inspired oil paintings.” Her scope included the baskets made by Jeremy Frey, George Neptune, Theresa Secord and Sarah Sockbeson and the oil on linen by Brett Bigbee called “Josie Over Time” (2011-2015).

Ferris is looking to correct local ignorance of creators like Frey, an accomplished artist with work in the Smithsonian “that nobody in Maine knows about. He’s nationally recognized in the American Indian world, making baskets in the same tradition for 12,000 years.”

Around the corner, an exhibit of a much newer type takes shape when visitors to the PMA lie down on their backs on yoga mats and take in the four films that Dr. Owen F. Smith created while waiting for inspiration. He stopped filming each time his artistic light bulb flashed.

A professor at the University of Maine at Orono for 25 years, Smith has spent much of that time developing the newly opened Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center. He works in new media, or intermedia, “a term that came out of artist/writer Dick Higgins,” Smith explained. “He saw a lot of people who worked with multiple media and varying formats, saying creative work happens in the space between things — for example, combining things like dance and sculpture (and other) hybrid forms that have developed over the last 30 years or so.”

College art students are more media savvy these days, to be sure, but Smith is impressed with the consistency of caliber he’s encountered over the years.

“Even 10 years ago, you could see a difference between those with digital backgrounds and those without. That baseline is now a given,” he said, noting that UMaine draws as much as 60 percent of its students from in state. “I’ve been really impressed by the quality and curiosity of students I’ve had a chance to interact with.”

Ferris is similarly taken with Smith’s work, and the way he combines the old and slower artistic method, with new tools.

“There are two things I notice that are profound and beautiful,” Ferris said of Smith’s “Dreaming of Possibilities.” “The creative process is very evident, and that’s really the theme of the entire exhibit. And he is illustrating that the creative process requires you to slow down and get lost in your thoughts. You need considered time and space, peace and quiet. At the same time, he’s using new media to suggest to us to slow down, turning new media on its head.”

"You Can't Get There From Here: the 2015 PMA Biennial" | Opening Oct. 8 | Curated by Alison Ferris | The exhibition will be on view through Jan. 3, 2016 | www.portlandmuseum.org