Now that the Portland Museum of Art has decided to take a new direction with its biennial, transforming it into an international triennial, the juried Biennial at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art becomes the premier exhibition for discovering new Maine talent.
The CMCA Biennial doesn’t open until October, but earlier this year two distinguished out-of-state jurors – Miami art dealer Nina Johnson-Milewski and Providence curator Kate McNamara – scrutinized works submitted by more than 500 artists and selected 34 to be featured in the fall exhibition, which has been taking place every two years since 1978.
The 2020 CMCA Biennial essentially introduces Maine’s next wave of art and artists.
“Generally, I was touched by the intimacy of the work,” Johnson-Milewski said. “I felt that many of the artists were working from a very internal place that reflects our current moment of isolation and solidarity.”
Other than a handful of veteran artists such as Jeffrey Ackerman of Morrill, Susan Smith of Dover-Foxcroft, Richard Van Buren of Perry, and Susan B. Webster of Deer Isle, the majority of those selected are young and emerging artists. And, unusual for a statewide exhibition that defines “Maine artist” very liberally, 20 of the 34 artists, or close to 60 percent, are from the greater Portland area.
Back in 1981, only 40 percent of the 149 artists selected for the All Maine Biennial at the University of Southern Maine were from the Portland area. The only artist selected for both the 1981 biennial and the 2020 biennial is Webster.
When asked how she sees today’s art scene, Webster said, “my first reaction to your question about Maine’s current art life is that it is vibrant and becomes more so every moment as we grow to include people of varied genders, backgrounds, ethnicity, and race.”
Webster’s art is often strongly feminist, addressing issues such as domestic violence and reproductive choice, but the work that got her into the CMCA show is an elegant wall hanging of creased, cut, and folded tar paper done in response to the death of her brother.
“I was thinking about rituals and life’s passages and sanctuaries that provide us with comfort, solace, and a sense of belonging,” Webster wrote when “Remembrance” was shown at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art last year.
Portland’s art community
One of the reasons so many young artists from the Portland area were selected is that the city has such a supportive art community, where many of the institutions are run by and for artists. Maine College of Art and its Institute of Contemporary Art are primary resources, as are SPACE Gallery, Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery, Able Baker Contemporary, New System Exhibitions, New Fruit, the Kindling Fund and Border Patrol.
Eight of the Biennial artists – Anne Buckwalter, Jenny McGee Dougherty, Elyse Noelani Grams, Meg Hahn, Baxter Koziol, Isabelle Maschal O’Donnell, Maia Snow, and Benjamin Spaulding – are MECA grads.
Koziol, whose work often resembles costume design and is heavily influenced by film, is a co-director of the Border Patrol curatorial collective.
He pointed out that “all of Maine feels local, from Kittery up through the Midcoast area and inland towards all the resources that arts residencies like Skowhegan, Monson, and Hewnoaks offer. This creates space and opportunities to consider different audiences throughout the state.”
Three of the biennial artists – Henry Austin, Hector Nevarez Magana, and Elijah Ober – are fairly recent Bowdoin College graduates.
“I was so excited to see the people who were selected,” said Wyoming native Austin. “So many are close to one another and do maintain a conversation about art on a regular basis. It makes a huge difference having an art community.”
Austin and Ober are among the artists who started New System Exhibitions in a former Bayside commercial laundry building as a venue for young artists to work and show. Austin is an abstract painter, Magana a photographer, and Ober a conceptual sculptor.
While assisting noted sculptor John Bisbee on a commission to transform a derelict shipyard on the Hackensack River in New Jersey into a creative community, Ober, who grew up in Eliot, created his “Hackensack Meadowlands Tracking Desk,” using a motion-activated camera to track the comings and goings of raccoons, skunks, and possums in the industrial wasteland.
In visiting the websites of the CMCA Biennial artists, I came away with the impression that one of the recurring elements shared by many of them is a sense of fragmentation, an approach to images as bits and pieces rather than coherent wholes.
Biennial juror McNamara also noted a shared interest in patching together images, shapes, and forms, an inclination she compared to the Pattern and Decoration Movement in art in the 1970s.
“There was a great range of painting engaging Pattern and Decoration,” she said, “which is a very visible conversation within the art world right now.”
Two of the artists who acknowledge the influence of Pattern and Decoration on their work are Portland painters Jenny McGee Dougherty and Meg Hahn.
“I actually do freelance work as a surface designer,” said Dougherty, whose mural composed of discreet shapes and marks can be seen along the East Bayside Trail, “so I am inspired by textile designs and pattern designs.”
Dougherty, who was an associate director at SPACE for four years, added “there’s a lot of support for experimental work here and it’s only getting better.”
Hahn, a co-director of Border Patrol, also participates to a degree in Pattern and Decoration, her mosaic-like paintings often inspired by doors and windows.
“The network of people is relatively smaller here than other cities,” she said of Portland, “but it’s what I believe makes it more possible to have closer and varied relationships among other artists and art spaces.”
One of the artists who gained exposure through Border Patrol is Portland photographer Brian Doody. Border Patrol launched its R.I.P. series on the art of death and grief with a kiosk installation of a Doody photo of a tree at the Maine Mall in South Portland.
Doody has also been one of the central figures in New Fruit, which describes itself as “an alternative DIY art practice space based on queer/feminist/radical values.” New Fruit is located in the same building as New System Exhibitions.
“All the work I make is gay art, is resistant art, is community art,” Doody said, “because that is where I am coming from. … When you’re coming from the outside it will always feel like you can never actually take yourself seriously, or have a career, and New Fruit fights against this thought.”
For Maia Snow, who was adopted by a Maine couple from a Russian orphanage, art became a refuge when Snow’s adoptive family could not accept that Snow was queer. Snow was living in a car and attending Southern Maine Community College when Snow discovered the consolations of art and the community art provides.
“Community is everything,” Snow said. “Getting into shows at SPACE and Able Baker and getting a studio at SPACE were very important. It’s nurturing. And it keeps me on my toes because everyone is serious.”
Snow, who recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Texas, feels part of the Maine art community even when they are not here.
“I’m a nomad,” Snow said. “I’m in New York and Maine and Austin. I’m just following where the painting takes me.”
And mobility, ultimately, is another thing some of the CMCA Biennial artists have in common.
Buckwalter, who was one of the stars of the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, earned her MFA at MECA in 2012, but she has since had a residency in Texas and now lives and works in Philadelphia, where her roots are.
“I am inspired by a lot of narrative and decorative painting,” Buckwalter said. “Some key influences are American folk art – particularly Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art traditions; my family heritage is Pennsylvania Dutch – surrealism, children’s book illustrations, and Amish quilts to name a few.”
And Breehan James channels her Wisconsin childhood while living in Scarborough and teaching at Boston University. James first came to Maine as a teenager to work as a counselor at Camp Fernwood on Thompson Lake in Poland, so the paintings of her family cottage in Wisconsin resonate with Maine summer camp life.
One of the things James appreciates about the Maine art scene is its openness.
“Anything goes. It’s OK. That’s very healthy,” James said. “When I started to go to plein-air painting, I can’t tell you how embarrassed I was. It was so old-fashioned. But now it’s OK to make any kind of painting.”
True enough. There is no orthodoxy in Maine art. Landscape and figure, abstraction and realism, the decorative and the conceptual, the commercial, and the experimental all co-exist nicely.
And there is also no end to the new art and artists waiting to be discovered in a state with an artistic heritage as rich as any in the nation.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.