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2009 PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART BIENNIAL

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2009 PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART BIENNIAL

By Elena Sarni

In a striking change of pace from the past nine Biennials, this year’s Portland Museum of Art Biennial jurors accepted about 1/3 of the number of works as their typical shows. In the course of two days the three judges doggedly pared down 970 applicants and 3,800 works of art to 17 very unique artists and 29 pieces of art. The judges selected for this event are, as Mainers might say, “from away,” and this year consisted of: New York art consultant Elizabeth Burke, video, installation and performance artist Dan Graham (whom I have to believe influenced this installation heavy show), and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary art curator Denise Markonish. Biennial submission guidelines are simply that artists must either be from Maine, or have worked in Maine within the last two years. The success of this year’s Biennial is immediately obvious upon entering the Museum; the layout and logistics worked out by Portland Museum of Art’s young and talented curator (and artist herself) Sage Lewis, and veteran curator Susan Danly.

The crowning glory, and in my opinion the most fascinating installation piece of the exhibition, is Maine native, Ethan Hayes-Chute’s Hermitage. It is a two-storied house, complete with a balcony and a crude version of a skylight window, popping out from the slanted rooftop--- providing a never-before-seen view of the Museum. The hermit house is genuine in every aspect with opening and shutting doors, windows, drawers and, appropriately, an authentic Maine touch with the inclusion of an outhouse. The interior is bursting with many relics from Hayes-Chute’s own grandmother’s home, and scavenging trips, including a recent one to the infamous Fort Andros flea market in Brunswick. A Stanley thermos reminds me of my dad leaving for work in the cold N.H. mornings of my youth, a green Tupperware flour container reminds me of the sunburst yellow one that used to line our kitchen counter. The entire structure is made out of found objects--- right down to the wood clapboards and nails. I am sorely disappointed that Hermitage didn’t win the annual Jurors’ prize, where jurors recognize the work of certain artists with monetary awards.

Instead the winner of this year’s Jurors’ prize consisted of former biennial participant Wade Kavanaugh for his impressive sheetrock installation, humorously titled Falsework. Its solid corner wall of individually stacked sheetrock blocks guides the viewers into the rest of the Biennial gallery space, achieving the artist’s vision of incorporating visitors into the piece. Within the confines of the sheetrock walls, the blocks cascade out, as if hit by a wrecking ball, although the installation was a building process.

Although not as literally “eye popping” as the lyrical, magnificent, sprawling installation titled Menace by former and current prize winning Biennial artist Sean Foley, is the more understated work of Melissa A. Calderón. In what she describes as work that is “obsessive, compulsive, emotional, hyper-reactionary, ephemeral,” Calderón daringly exposed herself in her tissue work titled Permanence of Pain. The piece consists of a tubular structure of white tissues, flowing out of a silver tissue box attached to the wall. The tissues were all personally cried upon by the artist; ironically the accumulation of her pain resulting in this beautiful structure. As a Latina woman, Calderón feels the work expresses the widespread stereotype that Latina woman are over emotional and too dramatic. She keeps a barrel in her bedroom and stores tissues that she has cried upon to save for her installations. The tears give each tissue a different pattern and texture, lasting remains of her pain.

Calderón’s work definitely stands out, as Biennial judge Denise Markonish describes in the exhibition catalogue, she judges “collective admiration of humor and large immersive gestures” and “atypical representations of the landscape.” The work of Mary Aro, the oldest artist in the exhibition at age 79, is more characteristic of this Biennial. She paints in a style akin to the spirit of Hermitage, capturing the often ramshackle, seemingly nonsensical gathering of remnants that dot the Maine landscape. Aro’s low horizon painting of a transfer station’s pile of discarded microwaves is very Maine. Driving down the street in North Berwick, Maine I once saw a toilet, a refrigerator and a stove all boldly sitting out in people’s front yards, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.


Portland Museum of Art

"Portland Museum of Art's Bienniel 2009" will be on view from April 8-June 7, 2009

All images are courtesy of the artists and Portland Museum of Art.


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