In case you're not familiar, MERC (Maine Energy Resource Company) is a massive waste-to-energy facility (a/k/a trash incinerator) that's been looming over Biddeford since 1987. To say it's been vital to the community may be overselling it, but it certainly has had an influential presence. Most people despise MERC for environmental, commercial development, and aesthetic reasons (most notably the smell), but it's so woven in to the civic and economic fabric that city officials keep renewing its contract anyway.
‘SHOOTS’ Recycled cardboard by Laura Dunn.
It's a tenuous relationship, to put it politely, yet MERC is so inextricable from Biddeford's cultural identity that it's the foundation for a very interesting gallery show at Engine, the city's new, multipurpose art space.
While "MERC: Mainers Recycling Cardboard," doesn't explicitly take sides on the waste facility issue, its powerful concept (artists can make whatever they want, provided they use cardboard) and collective efforts speak volumes. "MERC" features the contributions of 16 artists, and along with masks from students from UNE's Creative Arts in Learning program, turns the Main Street gallery into a brimming jungle of weird, cheap fun.
Some of most successful pieces of cardboard art in Engine's show do little to disguise the material. Peter Bennett's "Wastecoat" is an immaculately delicate blueprint of a sportcoat, its exposed design artfully layered over its multiple cuts, folds, and staples. Krisanne Baker's sculpture re-imagines Picasso's cubist guitars from 1912-14 — one of which was done in cardboard — as a 21st-century pop culture pastiche, leaving affixed the labels of Pizza Hut, Guitar Hero, and Shipyard Brewing Company.
Some works managed to transform the material into functional decorative pieces. Laura Dunn's "Rare Earth Triptych," three panels' worth of cardboard slats drenched in warm shades of encaustic resin, might be the most immediately saleable work. Either that or her "Vessel," an austere sculpture of cardboard strips and staples which bears passing resemblance to antique pottery. Michele Caron takes this process to its logical extreme, adding studious and ornate patterns of gold leaf and copper to a heavily gessoed square-foot box.
Many artists responded to the cardboard medium as they might have when they were kids. TJ Baldwin has a fantastic (and simple) piece titled "Van," in which a boxy green vehicle dangles precariously in mid-air like it has already stormed off the nearby high-arch ramp, its trajectory promising a clean break through the gallery window. Jason Rochelo's "Rowboat" is an ode to the getaway act of creativity, and Paul Mathews's "Untitled" wrangles with the youthful ideal of the imagination as well, bringing to life a magenta-colored kraken that threatens to capsize a plain old box.
Though many of the works may seem whimsical, "MERC" is at core a political show. It exposes and showcases the manifold talents of a large group of artists in a medium that almost thoroughly negates the economic value of its artistic labors. Because of its universality and deterioration rate, cardboard carries little innate aesthetic value, and despite its pliability, there's virtually no way to alter it to make it more valuable or useful than it originally was. Sure, some of these pieces are priced (many modestly, of course, and will probably sell), but that's beside the point. In essence, it's a massive demonstration of volunteer artistic labor, a collective expression that neatly parallels the efforts of Biddeford's cultural core.