Ruminations inspired by the PMA Biennial

 Think time
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  October 14, 2013

‘Winter stealing the sun’ Oil on canvas, 64.5 by
51.5 inches, 2001–2005, by Matt Blackwell.

The Portland Museum of Art completely reworked its Biennial this year, opening it in fall rather than spring, forgoing the prizes, and providing a theme that yokes together its 30 Maine-based artists. As a result, the exhibit seems cleaner and more digestible than years past, for better or worse containing fewer conceptual and formal outliers. Rarer are the monstrous, unclassifiable constructions which spanned entire gallery walls, or the topical pieces confronting us with the conflicts of contemporary life. That’s a mixed blessing, but I have to say I’m thrilled not to have to wade through tired inkjet prints of pretty Maine shorelines, or the shopworn nostalgia of colonial New England landscape paintings. And though a slight preference for two-dimensional works might initially dull the spectacle, there’s little that won’t inspire some measure of awe, empathy, or prolonged consideration.

Instating a unifying theme for a festival show is risky, but the museum’s decision to run with it here is mostly successful. This one’s, “Piece Work,” is catchy enough, but its purpose goes beyond getting people in the doors. According to curator Jessica May, it’s intended as a kind of historical tribute to laborers in manufacturing industries, who were often paid by the unit of production, or piece, that they crafted.

It’s a useful lens through which to view these works, many of which are labor-intensive to an obsessive degree, even if its full social and political resonance holds with only some. An exhibit essay, included in a handsome collection of individual postcards profiling the show’s artists, cites as inspiration Ai Weiwei, the Chinese political artist and dissident whose massive-scale 2011 installation at the Tate Modern employed specialized workers to manufacture one hundred million handcrafted sunflower seeds. As a statement about his country’s role in international labor — the omnipresent stamp reading “Made in China” — the grandiose production of Ai’s work was matched by its bold political, social, and economic significance.

This is a worthy starting point, though for its many merits, “Piece Work” is ultimately more successful at re-creating the sense of intensely laborious production than any profound political sentiment. Many works here look inward, involving methodical practices requiring countless hours, like Candace Plummer Gaudiani’s hazy photographs on cabinet cards that capture visits to all 48 states, or JT Bullitt’s impossible attempt to plot his own life through a recording of the names of everyone he’s ever met. In several of the show’s highlights — Michael Zachary’s illusory photorealistic drawings; Joe Kievitt’s mesmerizing geometrical acrylic drawings*; Lauren Fensterstock’s abyssal black garden; Kate Beck’s meditative graphite line applications; and Abbie Read’s precious wall collage of bound books and artifacts — one gets an immediate sense of the hours invested and practical rituals involved. The sensation is an almost material one — where exactly does your free time go?

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