Growing pains

The 2009 PMA Biennial steps awkwardly forward
By IAN PAIGE  |  April 8, 2009

LOOKS BETTER IN THE CATALOG Sam van Aken's "Thumper," from 2007. 

Two years ago, I wrote about the '07 Biennial's senses of scope and adventure, though it was also sprawling and inconsistent, as a comforting mirror image of the Maine art world's idiosyncratic inclusiveness. I eagerly anticipated the tighter focus of this year's exhibition as our state's calling card for a worldwide contemporary dialogue. Although no one piece in this spartan biennial is lacking in value, the collective effect is one destined to get lost in the Rolodex. If I didn't know better what Maine artists have to offer, I'd be asking, "Wait — is 
2009 BIENNIAL | through June 7 | at Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | 207.775.6148
that all you've got?"

The jurors, Elizabeth Burke of New York's long-standing Clementine Gallery, video art pioneer Dan Graham, and Mass MoCA's Denise Markonish, developed a streamlined vision as they confronted a record number of submissions and creatively culled them to a severe 17 artists. There are several impressive large-scale works where magnificence within the museum space is paramount and presence overwhelms previous biennials' occupation of accounting. Unfortunately, many of the works are dwarfed by what should be a savvy sea change heralding what is expected to be a bold new chapter in the PMA's history.

Ethan Hayes-Chute's "Hermitage," a full-scale construction of a cabin in the woods, seizes the viewer upon entry into the museum's large lobby. Coaxed into a voyeuristic fascination, you peruse all the minute details of a life out of context. Every object in every corner has the mysterious aura of story. You leave the immersion eerily affected, but marveling at the hand that created it.

Wade Kavanaugh outdoes himself with the formidable piece that begins the show. The viewer is ushered down a narrow hallway created by a massive wall laid out in compressed-sheetrock bricks. By the time you turn the tight corner, the wall has reached the ceiling to create a spatial vantage point where the only focus is the material. As you are led into the next gallery, the space reopens to reveal a cascading sea of bricks, filling the entire first gallery room. The right angles become choppy waves as the singular becomes mass. All viewpoints reveal new relationships to the space. In a masterful stroke, Kavanaugh transmutes our expectations by manipulating our perceptions.

A. Jacob Galle's ambitious video work, "Spring Fever/Pilgrimage," is a lengthy video narrative that is worth the 20 minutes. Cinema vérité with fixed camera is the rule. The protagonist puts his laundry in the washer, packs his bag with the results, and begins a long hike. Hard edits between landscapes establish an austere sierra through which the artist diligently trudges, slowing the rapid digital medium to nature's crawl. You begin to empathize with the sense of accomplishment that accompanies the summit. Galle performs his appointed task, slowing to a godly pace not of the instantaneous miracle, but of our miraculously small place in the world.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Dan Graham, Jacob Galle, Sean Foley,  More more >
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