The 2012 Biennial exhibition at Center for Maine Contemporary Art collects seventeen artists: ten by submission, seven invited. Selected by director Suzette McAvoy and Daphne Anderson Deeds, an independent curator of esteem in the art business world, those exhibiting are among the most recognizable and talented in the state, yet the show itself sometimes feels like a prudent collection of medium representation, like how a Greatest Hits CD of a musical artist cautiously delineates their back catalog while omitting your favorite songs.
'ALL THIS TIME' Acrylic and felt on panel, by Cassie Jones.
Perhaps one problem is that many of the artists collected here have created exhibits that so exceed the sum of their parts that when the work is shown in sample quantities, it feels out of place. This is unfortunately the case for Lauren Fensterstock, whose black masses of cut paper overwhelm in the aggregate yet seem muted here, where two glassed-in beds ("Colorless Field") awkwardly line the third floor like a mislain shag carpet. It's also true of Grace DeGennaro, whose kaleidoscopically celestial paintings of geometric abstractions have the capacity to immerse an entire gallery in a palatial, introspective glow. Here, two massive, majestic oils do their best, but can't help ceding their gravity to the other busy conversations in the room.
Another concern with a biennial this size is its tendency to frame perfectly distinguished artists as token selections. This applies to realist art photographer David Stess, whose series of black and white photos is given too small a contextual window to leap through (the show's other photography artist, the mesmerizing and obsessive Luc Demers, shoots staged domestic intersections of darkness and light so stylized you forget the medium entirely). It's also partially true of Cassie Jones, who explodes the forms of line drawing and painting into colorful, low-relief sculptures of felt and acrylic. Her work is fantastically unique — childlike mutations of drawing, painting, and sculpture — but I couldn't help imagining them displayed more effectively than they are here, where they're anxiously clustered on the wall like shields in some cartoon armory, often too high up for close inspection. And poor Robin Mandel: by the time you might check the tiny room where his "Motion Studies" video lives (inexplicably his lone entry), its repetitive soundtrack has already abrasively bored its way into your subconscious.
Many who show multiple pieces are in terrific form. The work of James B. Marshall — a rather conceptual sculptor and painter with a fine and unique aesthetic — rests on plinths throughout the main room. They're graphite-layered paper bags lacquered in PVA and arranged in contorted, almost figurative postures, and they supply the exhibit with a graceful appreciation of structure and craft. Upstairs, the surprisingly fascinating geological studies of Jonathan Mess provide a similar rhythm, bridging the exhibit's more refractory works with numerous recycled clay sculptures in brilliant expressionistic patterns.
I found myself enamored of the encaustic and oil panels of Lynda Litchfield. Her playful, groundless line figurations are an unexpected highlight, particularly the "Narcissus" series containing horizontal lines of lyrically intersecting yellow paint. A rhythm too busy for melody animates Kate Russo's graph paper works upstairs, yet they dazzle all the same: barely perceptible colored pencil marks in dense agglomerations which reveal distinct, wallpaper-y macropatterns. Tom Butler, who transforms the faces of those depicted in 19th-century cabinet cards with monstrous and nightmarish features, lends the show a compelling motif of cultural subversion, while Aaron Stephan's "Girl With Pearl Earring" and "Splat" series deal in art-historical irony.