PORTLAND — A bright spot to keep you warm in Maine this cold winter is the 2018 Biennial Art Exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art. Don’t miss it. Like a burst of light, this exhibit will stimulate those who see it. The color and warmth in it lifted me immediately.
More than 70 works of art from 25 contemporary artists who are working in Maine are in the exhibit. Each work reflects a different medium from contemporary quilts, which bring history poignantly alive, to a canoe reflecting Passamaquoddy culture, to the abstract works of David Driskell, artist, scholar and author. While Driskell is known nationally, most of the other artists in the exhibit are emerging and are new to the general public in Maine. Their works include photography, collages, artifacts, found objects, calligraphy and pottery, as well as oil paintings — both realistic and abstract. In addition, several videos are included in the exhibit.
Some artists have multiple works in the exhibit, giving the public an opportunity to see their style and the thread of characteristics that run through their works.
This exhibit raises the question: What is art? The PMA 2018 Biennial unites all its works — not separating fine arts from crafts, but rather focusing on the beauty and quality of artistic expression that unite them. This exhibit cuts right through past definitions of artistic boundaries and moves into the future where there are no boundaries in art as in life, and respect for expertise in each medium is given.
Driskell leads the way with his abstract compositions on view as you walk into the exhibition. He works in encaustics, an ancient medium involving creation of a wax coating and collage over painted surfaces. Driskell is a master of that medium.
Looking at “Girl with Sunflowers,” we see semi-abstract forms of nature surrounding a woman’s face. The symbols of green leaves and yellow sunflowers give a feeling of hope and serenity to the work, but the woman’s face remains a mystery and does not look totally happy. Driskell’s work leaves us to wonder about her.
All great art inspires a sense of wonder and Driskell’s art has that special quality. “I like to use encaustics because it allows me to connect with ancient methods of painting,” Driskell said in an interview. “I can use it as a transparent medium to glaze my surfaces. It also preserves my work. Some of the paintings done in ancient Egypt used encaustics — a mixture of damar — which comes from pine tree resin — varnish, wax and dry pigment. Heat is used for a fusion of the mixture. The heat seals it,” Driskell said.
A sense of wonder can also be seen in the quilts of Gina Adams. Her five quilts record historically the many times the United States has broken treaties with Native Americans.
Quilts are tapestries of our nation, telling stories of what has gone before. Adams’s contemporary quilts tell the stories of the Native Americans’ struggle to survive. Hand-cut calico letters on antique quilts bring history alive with dignity and beauty. Looking at the works you can see parts of the treaties spelled out with calico lettering. Enough of the print can be read to understand what the document said, but some letters inside words are faded; they are visual metaphores for the government’s broken relationship with the Native Americans.
Living history can be seen in the work of David Moses Bridges and Steve Cayard, who created a handmade canoe from white birch in the tradition of their Passamaquoddy ancestors. Creating the canoe by hand was a spiritual journey in honoring his great grandfather and ancestors, Bridges said in the catalogue.
Bridges’ experience in creating the canoe with his teacher, Cayard, is a symbol of Passamaquoddy culture’s tradition of marrying form, beauty and function. If you look at it carefully, the canoe is a sculpture in wood that provides sustenance to a people.
Seeing this handmade canoe in the Biennial exhibit gives it recognition as an art form, and brings to the public an awareness of the beauty found in Native American culture.
Fred Tomah’s handwoven Wabenaki basket has a soothing effect in its perfect repetition of design and beautiful form. Traditional and timeless, the pattern could be an op art design from today, yet it reflects a culture of centuries ago.
The most powerful work by an artist in the exhibit is the work of Elise Ansel titled “Damascus,” an oil on canvas translating an a piece the the old master Caravaggio into a contemporary, semi-abstract work revealing passion and sensuality. Its colors are classic and the shapes in the work magnify reality into abstraction. It has a powerful majestic quality.
Daniel Minter’s work titled “A Distant Holla,” is a spectacular installation piece, taking up one whole wall in the center of the exhibit. Carved wood and found objects are assembled in overlapping patterns like images coming to surface from a mystical experience. “I am working toward a practice where every piece of my work is created in different layers and layers. The notion that all things are connected is important to me,” Minter said in the exhibit catalogue.
The PMA 2018 Biennial exhibit is outstanding. It is a challenge to mention every artist in the exhibit. Just to be selected to be in the exhibit is a compliment.
The Biennial does require many visits to absorb all of its content. Its purpose is to introduce to viewers artists who the general public may not have seen and to spotlight what is being created in Maine today. The 2018 Biennial achieved both those goals. Congratulations to Nat May, former director of the Space Gallery and curator of the 2018 PMA Biennial exhibit, and his team in selecting art for the exhibit, including Theresa Secord, founding director of The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance; Sarah Workneh, director of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and The Judy and Leonard Lauder Director of the PMA, Mark Bessire. “We selected art as a team … We selected a collection of works that we feel are important to be seen. That is the message of the exhibit,” May said.
Like all good exhibits, it makes us think and see things differently.