The Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s 2023 Biennial (in Rockland through May 7) is, like most open juried biennial exhibitions, an introduction to who and what’s new on the Maine art scene.
Jurors Misa Jeffereis of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and Sarah Montross of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, selected 35 artists among 423 who applied. About one-third of the biennial artists are from the Greater Portland area.
CMCA director Timothy Peterson and curatorial associate Rachel Romanski conducted studio visits with the artists, selected the works to exhibit and hung the show.
In terms of mediums, this year’s show features significant works of fiber art, paintings in various forms, sculpture, photography and a few interactive installations. Those selected range from established artists such as photographer Michael Kolster (Brunswick) and fiber artist Pamela Moulton (North Bridgton) to artists with newly minted MFAs such as Holden Willard (Portland), Nick Benfey (NYC by way of Brunswick) and Juliette Walker (Farmingdale). Befitting a biennial, most of the participants are young and emerging.
The pre-eminence of fiber art announces itself in the CMCA entrance lobby in the form of three signal quilts by Heather Lyon (Blue Hill). The patterns on the quilts correspond to Morse code and whale songs.
Rebecca Hutchinson (Rochester, Massachusetts) is represented by what look to be mesh laundry bags filled with balls covered in text cut from books. Pamela Moulton shows a pair of her signature pink constructions made from recovered fishing gear. Portlanders will know Moulton’s mop-like work from her pieces in Payson Park.
My favorite work in the show is by Elyse Grams (Portland). “Paper Trail” is an embroidered scroll, both infuriating and hilarious, that documents the artist’s pursuit of student loan forgiveness.
The sculpture ranges from found constructions by Anna Queen (Rockland) to a tomato frame and cement piece by Erin Woodbrey (Sebago and South Orleans, Massachusetts), elegant cardboard chandeliers by Lynn Richardson (Swanzey NH) and a large, showy anthurium blossom by Brian Smith (Portland).
There are paintings by Rachel Gloria Adams (Portland), Nick Benfey, Philip Brou (South Portland), Alanna Hernandez (Union), Alex Lukas (Santa Barbara, California), Geoffrey Masland (Yarmouth), Elaine Ng (Hope), Ransome (Rhinebeck, New York), Mariah Reading (Bangor) and Holden Willard.
Masland, a self-taught artist better known as a co-founder of Oxbow Brewing, shows a wonderfully mysterious collaged nocturne that appears to be summer camps illuminated in the woods.
The interactive installations include a gray office by Juliette Walker that invites viewers to post notes about unfinished projects; more of the absurd but earnest adventures of Camp Solong by Dafna Maimon and Ethan Hayes-Chute (Berlin, Germany, by way of Freeport); a wall of rubber objects, “Take a Tube, Leave a Tube,” by Mandana MacPherson and Gigi Obrecht (Freeport) and a beautiful celebration of the Chinese New Year by Evelyn Wong (Portland) that turns out to contain a hidden protest (see sidebar).
Though Portland Museum of Art promises that we have not seen the last of the PMA Biennial, the CMCA Biennial has become the go-to show for new art in Maine.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook opinion column.
Who hangs where?
What would a biennial be without a controversy?
Usually the contentiousness surrounds who got in and who didn’t and whether selected artists are truly “Maine” enough to pass muster. The controversy arising from the 2023 CMCA Biennial has to do with who hangs where.
Artist Evelyn Wong is unhappy with the space her artwork was assigned before she objected and claimed a different wall in the gallery space to show her work. To Wong, the placement of her art, a “celebration of a major global holiday for a marginalized group of people,” in a lobby corridor next to the restrooms raised the specter of racial bias.
In an email exchange, Wong said she understood the limitations of the building and that “someone ultimately has to go there,” and communicated that to the CMCA. But the nature of the work needed a more careful placement, she said, and recognized the problem as one that “had repeatedly happened to me in institutional spaces.”
“If I had made botanical drawings and paintings like I had in the past, this would have been no different than my previous similar experiences with the institutions that placed me by the public bathrooms, and in horribly lit, uncomfortable and inconvenient spaces,” Wong said.
Wong wrote a longer explanation of the dispute on her website and social media accounts.
“The CMCA has the privilege to decide who gets to be seen and how,” Wong wrote. “What were they hoping to say to the community of Chinese and Asian Americans in Maine? That the best place to celebrate our culture is in the back, by the public bathrooms, and at night when no one is around to see us?”
Wong mounted a protest with her installation “Context Is Everything in the Year of the Rabbit,” an elegant red wall with golden cloud designs and hand-folded paper cranes hanging before it. The Chinese characters on the wall spell out “Take Down White Supremacy” and “Institutional Equality for People of Color.”
“While the CMCA stated that ‘This space is not for BIPOC artists only,’” writes Wong, “they have thoroughly failed to account for how, as an institution, they can be complicit in upholding white supremacy and are able to perpetuate harm through curatorial decisions.”
CMCA director Timothy Peterson said the gallery responded to Wong’s concerns by relocating her art and extending an invitation to discuss the matter.
“There are two sides to every situation — and mutual understanding is tremendously important,” said Peterson. “Under the current administration, CMCA has radically increased diversity among exhibiting artists in race, gender, age, and sexual orientation, and has strived to remove economic barriers for visitor participation.
“That said, CMCA staff do not have all the answers. Instead, we are continually seeking to grow in conversation with artists and our communities at large. This requires ongoing listening, learning, collaboration, open dialog and trust. The invitation we extended to Evelyn Wong remains open.”
Edgar Allen Beem