Growing pains

By IAN PAIGE  |  April 8, 2009

Sean Foley's "Menace" is a Frankenstein installation of two traditional paintings and two 3-D groupings of shapes, flung far apart across the architecture of the gallery, all tied together with a snappy wall painting of winding red ribbons. Foley has created a world of building blocks out of his own body of work, interchangeable and adaptable, so the disappointment here comes not from the individual elements, but their site-specific assembly. The wall painting fades prematurely and fails to support the two canvases, which are lost in the morass.

Sam van Aken's geodesic sound sculpture, 2007's "Thumper," seems to glow with an aura of knowing play. The only problem is, "Thumper" looks better in the catalog. The same goes for Andy Rosen's "Let's not and say we did," in which a pleasurably vile woodland scene sits awkwardly among its biennial cohorts. These pieces are far more gripping when photographed than when squeezed into the survey. The biggest crime in this regard is committed against the often-impeccable Dozier Bell, whose small works run deep and reward your attention, but the effect in this biennial context is much like trying to read a poem aloud to an audience watching an action movie.

This fault does not necessarily fall in the lap of the museum, which is playing the hand dealt to it by jurors. In fact, coming down on the biennial seems more a matter of chalking it up to growing pains than dishing out blame. The 2009 Portland Biennial is exciting and engaging and worth the time, if a bit in an awkward phase. If you're looking for exciting contemporary work, you'll get what you came for. If you're looking to stand by a show as an accurate sampling of what Maine artists have to offer, you better start looking elsewhere.

Ian Paige can be reached at ianpaige@gmail.com.

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