Portland Museum of Art’s North Atlantic Triennial (through June 5) is an innovative international exhibition that creates a regional cohort where there has never really been one before, at least not in the arts.
“Down North” grew out of the museum’s series of biennial exhibitions of Maine artists and expands the zone of eligibility to include the entire North Atlantic region. It is a collaboration of three museums and three curators that features 31 artists from Maine, Atlantic Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway.
PMA’s Jaime DeSimone co-curated the exhibition with Anders Jansson of the Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden (where the show will spend the summer), and Markus Thor Andrésson of the Reykjavik Art Museum in Iceland (where the triennial will be from October 2022 to May 2023). The exhibition catalog, written in English, Icelandic, and Swedish, is a bit tricky to maneuver – but then so is the show.
The majority of the art and artists reflect a direct involvement with the North Atlantic experience divided loosely into three broad categories: nature, environment, and people. But DeSimone insists the curators were not looking for “North Atlantic art;” some of those selected are just good artists who happen to live within the defined regions.
“We hope the ideas presented are universal and global,” DeSimone said, “but with local or personal significance.”
“Down North” does not lend itself well to casual viewing. The average museum visitor spends 27 seconds in front of a picture. But this is a thoughtful exhibition that requires more time and rewards attention.
When you enter the exhibition, you are greeted by a wall of colorful graphic prints by Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq artist from Newfoundland, who was inspired by the 13-month Mi’kmaq lunar calendar. Facing the abstract moons on the opposite wall are five large-scale photographs by Christopher Carroll of Skowhegan. Carroll extirpates flora from the forest, reconstructs it on the floor of his studio, and photographs it.
On the end wall of the first gallery is a performance video by Jason Brown, aka Firefly, a Bangor resident and member of the Penobscot Nation. Brown’s video, one of seven in the triennial, is a Native American dreamscape.
There are seven Maine artists – one woman and six men. But overall the triennial artists are evenly divided by gender. No doubt, however, some will take issue, as they will to an international exhibition replacing a Maine-only biennial.
In addition to Brown and Carroll, the Maine artists are Lauren Fensterstock, Justin Levesque and Joshua Reiman of Portland, Reggie Burrows Hodges of Lewiston, and Peter Soriano of New York and Penobscot.
Fensterstock is represented by one of her signature black cabinet of curiosity installations made of seashells. Levesque shows photo-based images and data from a project that involved sailing on a container ship from Maine to Iceland. Reiman created an underwater video of Icelandic clams, red sea urchins, and Greenland sharks that is disarmingly narrated by his 5-year-old son.
Hodges, who is African American, shows two of the triennial’s handful of traditional paintings, a pair of pictures of women in bathtubs. And Soriano, who is better known in France than in Maine, is one of several artists in the show who exhibits works based on icebergs.
The dominant works of sculpture are Fensterstock’s “The Order of Things” wall cabinets, the Swedish pair Gideonsson/Londré’s waxed wooden “Arch” and the Danish firm Superflex’s “Vertical Migration,” a flesh-colored cubic construction of what looks to be compressed intestines.
There is a strong strain of art-as-investigation to the show: Artists presenting not objects but information, a series of drawings of polar bear bones, for example, measurements of glaciers, and a 50-minute video of an ice cube melting in an outstretched hand.
High seriousness reigns in the galleries as artists address climate change, population displacement, and environmental degradation. But the show is not without touches of humor such as Icelandic artist Magnus Sigurdarson’s “IN COD-liver WE TRUST” ready-made lamp.
The exhibition is so extensive that it spills over from the featured exhibition galleries out into the Palladian Gallery at the rear of the museum. Two of my favorite bodies of work are exhibited there: Mattias Olofsson’s color photographs of homeowners in a Swedish village standing house-proud in front of their homes, and Norwegian-Nigerian artist Frida Orupabo’s cut-out collages of African women.
The PMA triennial is diverse and dispersed, yet it is more focused than the past Maine biennials it replaced. The exhibition probably could have been even more tightly focused with the elimination of a few artists and the inclusion of a few others who better fit the “North Atlantic” brief, but then debating who got in and who didn’t is a game the art world plays with every biennial/triennial.
DeSimone and the PMA have done a great job of placing artists from Maine in a meaningful international context. This is a show to be seen repeatedly.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978.