Touring the PMA's Biennial

The Phoenix's art writers discuss the pros and cons of the year's biggest show

Michael Shaughnessy (United States, born 1958), “Cascade, Current and Pool (For the Vanquished Falls of the Presumpscot River),” 2011, hay and twine, 23 x 20 x 4 feet (variable). Lent by the artist.

The Portland Museum of Art 2011 Biennial features 65 works from 47 artists in an effort to showcase the best from today's local art scene. To find out whether it succeeded, Phoenix art critics Annie Larmon and Nicholas Schroeder took a physical and intellectual tour through the exhibit.

NS: Okay, Annie, here we are in the lobby, and already there are some impressive site-specific pieces. I think you and I both expect a biennial to contain rigorous, pathbreaking contemporary art, and some of the best examples are works in innovative mediums that transform a space. Would you agree? What do you think of Michael Shaughnessy's work?

AL: Shaughnessy's "Cascade, Current, and Pool (For the Vanquished Falls of the Presumpscot River)" actually provides ground for something I'd like to address right off the bat. A biennial, as I see it, aims to show innovative trends in contemporary art. In this case, it should showcase the most exciting work being made in Maine. A biennial is not the place to be restrained and outmoded by obligations to cling to or honor Maine's tradition of landscape painting or tired regionalism. Tradition can be honored, but in a biennial context, work addressing this subject matter should be challenging, recasting tradition in a contemporary light to provide new conceptual perspectives. Work that recycles nostalgia-ridden modes just does not belong in a biennial. Even if it is well executed. That said, Shaughnessy's piece, which won the Jurors' Prize, is an example of a work that filters the artist's experience with the Maine landscape through a new lens. His monumental knots and dreads of hay crawl up the wall, making semi-permanent the ephemeral eddies of the Presumpscot River. Hay as a material will begin to decompose and change, mimicking time's effect on the river's landscape. I would love to see this work come off the wall, somehow interrupting and changing the space in the lobby. I think a chance was missed to transform the lobby with a larger installation, but the two here are using the space well. The weight of Shaughnessy's piece lends a lightness to Gould's work. Thoughts on Alisha Gould's "Ejecta"?

Alisha Gould (United States, born 1979), “Ejecta,” 2010, clay, ink, 36 x 23 feet (dimensions variable). Lent by the artist.
I'm a fan, but I don't find her clay vessels particularly light. There's a sort of violence in this work — maybe if the sculptures were mounted onto floors or figures rather than vertical walls, I'd be able to see them as something other than a fleet of gunshot wounds. Not that I'm complaining. I think they're less energetic taken as flowers or growths. I'm generally intrigued by repetitious, process-based work; doubly so when the finished product maintains such urgency. And lo, it appears to have nothing explicitly to do with Maine. As for Shaughnessy, I agree that it's a fresh take on a Maine "landscape," but we should remember, as we see the exhibit's more conventional mediums, not every artist was given such generous space considerations to buck the yoke of Maine tradition. Let's go inside.

Hold up. We're walking on Carly Glovinski's "617, 857." I love this. The artist fashioned a subtly raised walkway out of phonebooks, a sneaky intervention. The drab effect of the yellow and gray pages condensed into bricks mirrors their decline in relevance as cultural objects. Phonebooks are largely trash these days, smartly appropriated here to a laughably unnecessary functionality. Glovinski's work, which appeared in a Circa show here last year, is a highlight of the biennial. Her meticulously fabricated mundane objects, like the crumpled cheeseburger wrapper in the corner over there, provocatively examine the role of the art object and critique our throwaway culture. What's striking you in this first gallery?

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Kim Bernard, Alicia Eggert, Photography,  More more >
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