'CASHMERE ROADKILL' Tooled leather, resin, silicone rubber, thread, glass eyes, and cashmere knit, 16 inches by 11 feet by 24 inches, 2011, by Greta Bank from "Victoria's Wonderama."
Looking back over this year's art exhibitions, some of the most exciting shows could be discovered at uncommon venues. Museums first though. The PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART's show of works on paper by Edgar Degas and his circle of friends offered an opportunity to study Degas's ability to evoke intimacy not only through his choice of subjects but also by compositional means. To celebrate the opening of the newly-restored Winslow Homer studio the museum was in marketing and programming overdrive, which included "Weatherbeaten," gathering more than 30 works by Homer depicting Maine and the sea, with some gems of refreshingly free representation and paint handling.
At the BOWDOIN COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART, Lesley Vance's paintings brimmed with references to past art while intensely complicating and collapsing distinctions ingrained in art-historical discourse to occupy a middle ground where paint, space, and light are the only subjects. "William Wegman: Hello Nature" offered a multidimensional view of the artist's response to nature in its mediated form. His dry literalism gave rise to a plethora of appropriations and parodies infused by a distinct sense of nostalgia.
It was the CENTER FOR MAINE CONTEMPORARY ART's turn to host a Biennial, which drew mixed reviews. Combining invited and juried artists, changes to the submission rules, and purely aesthetic selection criteria resulted in a good-looking but unexciting show.
It was also time for another of AMY STACEY CURTIS's installations, "SPACE." Participants were guided through nine individual installations to explore space and our physical relationship to it. Curtis's long-term vision and determination appears matched by that of the curators behind the UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND GALLERY's "Women Pioneers III" exhibitions, of which her installation was a part. This year marked the opening of the first installment, "Vanguard," which brought together nine women artists who "are worthy of any superlative one could throw at them, and, gender be damned, together comprise one of the most remarkable exhibits of the year," Nicholas Schroeder wrote. (Disclosure: I contributed the catalogue essay.)
Some of the most memorable shows were of vaguely similar sensibilities and in venues not usually associated with showing art. Organized by Lisa Pixley, "Victoria's Wonderama" at the VICTORIA MANSION was a steampunk and gothic fantasy of exceptionally well-crafted art that freshly and freely reinterpreted Victorian obsessions. And the PORTLAND PUBLIC LIBRARY's Edward Gorey show offered a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catch a glimpse of the working process of this illustrator of a comically macabre world that does not wish us well.
Portland saw a number of shows that addressed social media and contemporary forms of communication, some more trendy than conceptually grounded. However, the ICA's shows of Michael Bell-Smith and the Whole Earth Catalog served well to consider the technical development of cultural media and its impact on our societal constructs. At SPACE GALLERY, Schroeder found "one of the most colorful and engaging art shows of the summer" in Carnovsky's layered and multicolored wallpaper reproductions of jungle life. Changing viewing conditions illuminated the contingency of sight and recognition, and highlighted interconnectedness.
Aaron Stephan's show at AUCOCISCO GALLERIES covered some familiar terrain but also evinced excellent craftsmanship and a broadening of conceptual scope. And just last week, Ken Greenleaf wrote an enthusiastic review of the gallery's current show of paintings by young and fresh Shirah Neumann and Jonathan Blatchford. Speaking of Jeff Kellar's new work at ICON CONTEMPORARY ART in Brunswick, Greenleaf described them as "elusive objects that courteously undermine whatever you are thinking about when you look at them."
This listing is necessarily very limited and must fail to mention much commendable art. Although some entrenchment and risk aversion is clearly happening, overall this was a strong year for the arts on view.