It features about 75 works by two dozen artists and diverges in terms of media.
BY DANIEL KANY
The 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial is possibly the most handsome since the Thon Bequest set the every-other-year exhibit in motion about 20 years ago. This year’s biennial was organized by outside curator Nat May, who worked with a committee that included PMA director Mark Bessire, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture co-director Sarah Workneh and Theresa Second, the founding director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. May (who is not related to PMA curator Jessica May) is the executive director and co-founder of Hewnoaks Artist Colony but is probably best known regionally for his tenure as executive director of Space Gallery from 2004 to 2016.
The biennial features about 75 works by two dozen artists. It diverges in terms of media. There is plenty of painting this year but also photography, video, sculpture and fine craft. The show’s content is overarchingly political, with an eye to identity politics and a subtle but pervasive theme knit around the human body.
May and his committee’s stated theme is “plurality.” Because the number of works and artists is down from typical PMA biennials, this comes across as what we might generally describe as “diversity.” It’s an interesting theme for the biennial, since it is now a curated show, while the Thon Bequest was specifically for a juried show. I mean this quite seriously: The idea of using an outside juror and blind jurying a show is that it largely removes the identity of the artists from the selection process. Justice is blind, after all, right? But by curating the show, the committee was able to take control over the identities of who was selected. This is where artists (and others) generally complain that the already connected folks have more access. But this is also where we can hang the responsibility of the selection process on very specific people – for better or for worse. In this case, we see a program led by a couple of cis, straight white guys that appears to be intentionally inclusive of people with black and brown skin along with other identities, such as queer, feminist, etc. There are many conversations that should come out of this, and as long as they are conducted with respect and honest inquisitiveness, that will be a good outcome.
To begin, entering the biennial’s first gallery, we are met by paintings of black people, photographs by a black artist and paintings by a black artist. Around the corner is a huge installation of paintings by Daniel Minter, a vast and complex altar to the African American experience. We’ll come back to the initial curatorial presentation later, but Minter’s installation is a masterwork. It exudes a presence that outstrips anything I have ever seen in that space. Sean Alonzo Harris’s four photographs of young black males playing basketball at Kennedy Park in Portland are also extraordinary. Harris’s technical skill is outstanding, and his sensibilities for photographing black and brown skin are superb. My take on Harris is expanded by a solo exhibition of his work now on view at PhoPa Gallery in Portland, which I recently reviewed.
And I have also written extremely positive reviews of the work of Minter and David Driskell (both of whom show at Greenhut Galleries in Portland). Driskell is a national treasure, and Minter’s “A Distant Holla” show at Portland’s Abyssinian Meetinghouse topped my year-end list of Maine’s 2017 visual-art high points.
I could go on. I have written very positively about many artists in this show, including painters Sascha Braunig and Elise Ansel, ceramicists Jonathan Mess and Tim Christensen and sculptor Elizabeth Atterbury. And I have long admired Shaun Leonardo’s work and the paintings of Angela Dufresne.
I have long followed fellow Bowdoin graduate Leonardo’s work, and I am impressed by Erin Johnson, a visiting professor whose video piece “Lawrence” visits the extras from the 1983 movie “The Day After,” in which the locals who performed as extras had to perform their own deaths from a nuclear attack. It was an uncanny bit of Cold War culture. Johnson nails it, and including it here is timely, to say the least.
Leonardo’s works are drawings of video stills relating to the controversial deaths of young black men at the hands of police and vigilantes, such as Laquan McDonald and Trayvon Martin. In some ways, it is a direct reprisal of Christopher Brown’s pictorial fascination with the stills of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination: The work is about data, both that we have and that we lack from the video/film process of evidence. But Leonardo’s works feel less about conspiratorial unlikeliness and more about normalcy, and that is both poignant and disturbing. Such things should never be normal.
Minter’s “A Distant Holla” (yes, same title) is the key and model to the biennial. It comprises dozens of painted panels presented as a single work. Within it are relics: old ax heads and railroad ties (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the Underground Railroad, etc.), brooms worn down to their stubs, little jars, found images, prints and so on. So it is not only an altar, but a reliquary. In ecclesiastical art, a reliquary is a fancy container for a sacred object – which is often a piece of a human body, like the 4-inch portion of the eponymous saint in Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. Minter’s panels generally feature portraits and images of individuals – like altar pieces. But his images show black people in various actions, activities and meditations, including meditations on death. It’s a spiritual piece that both memorializes and, to a certain degree (like altar pieces), is a call to action. Notably, in a separate element that soars 20 feet into the air, we see the cross-section of a ship. But it is a set of shelves, packed with cans. We can’t miss the idea of the slave ship and its contents packed like sardines, commodities rather than people, in some ways already dead and ready to be consumed.
While Minter’s work has a legitimately angry edge, it also finds and delivers evidence of humanity. Those worn-down brooms, for example, showed the daily presence of a person keeping her house clean. The evidence is the lack of bristles, their having been worn away by the ritual use of the broom, like a spiritual footprint. Minter then celebrates these by carving and decorating their handles.
Minter’s work is powerful. It dominates the room. It defines the biennial. It also announces Minter as one of Maine’s leading artists.
The opposite wall is occupied by Stephen Benenson’s three abstract-ish portrait paintings. I had not seen his work in such a light before, but I don’t know any other work that would have stood across from Minter’s quite so well. Benenson, in some ways, is an old-school modernist. Using the idea of the portrait as a set piece of painting with an assumed figure/ground format, Benenson drains the specificity from his figures, leaving us with the idea of the figure as void. Imagine this: Standing in a room with others, you can inhabit any of the space except where the others are. Working flat with print tools on the surface of the paintings, Benenson delivers this bit of insight to a show where such insight matters.
The body as void is echoed in other work as well, including the extraordinary four paintings by Sascha Braunig. Her technique and subtlety are uncanny: A silhouette of a person peels and folds, another fades into the painting system, another figure is more coat rack than person, and in “Motes,” the space of a face is barely mapped out by the jack-like bits. One of the disappointments of the show is that Braunig’s work is sequestered in a tiny, cramped pass-through space. I wish her work had, perhaps, greeted the entering viewer.
As it stands, my major curatorial criticism is the greeting of the viewer by Angela Dufresne’s “The Twork – Tworkwase Dyson.” It is the most confrontational work in the show, so it is potentially misleading: A strong black woman encounters the viewer in a traditional full-body portrait, only it’s green. In fact, two of Dufresne’s three images feature black people, while the other is, more predictably for the artist, a woman wearing a “Eat (expletive) for Mental Health” T-shirt. The problem is that the curatorial placement of Dufresne (who is white, though patently queer) potentially overdetermines the reading of show in (confrontational) terms of identity politics. Moreoever, Dufresne is quite well-known for her ability to sling the paint around the canvas while, as paintings, these are duds. I understand they were works she made at Skowhegan, but considering the exciting stuff she does (like lesbians and satyrs urinating on each other) and how well she can paint, these feels like studio leftovers.
My other major concern is more nuanced. As a model for the show, Minter’s work opens up to everything else. But Gina Adams’s “Broken Treaty Quilts” dominate the center of the main room (two would have been sufficient, four is a bit much), and their model seems to be precisely wrong for the show. I absolutely support the political content of the work: Adams, who is a part Native American and part European, takes old quilts and sews hand-cut calico letters onto them. The idea of taking antique but still functional quilts out of service to be used as supports for her text pieces feels wrong to me; it’s like a sort of object imperialism. This might be a personal thing (the librarian in me has complained about Aaron Stephan’s use of discarded books and Dan Mills’s use of old maps on these terms, but I have come to admire both of their work), but I don’t think so. The message is that white men did the Native Americans wrong. And what worries me here (as a model for the whole show) is the idea that the problem being addressed is white men. But using anyone’s genetics as the basis for complaint is simply wrong. We should be held responsible for our actions, not our genetic makeup. Like Mark Bessire and Nat May, I can’t help being a straight white guy. I can, however, take responsibility for my actions. Besides, what if the only abolitionists were black? What if no men supported women’s suffrage? The key here, I think, is that we have to consider the audience and whom we are trying to persuade. White guys might have authored a bunch of our social woes, but isn’t it better to have us as allies?
I suspect a bunch of folks will walk through the biennial, notice the bold presence of African-American artists and Native Americans (I love the canoe, by the way: Traditional craft might be the most conversative art possible, but it’s absolutely art) and say, “It’s about time.” And I agree. It is about time. But we need to ask, who is the audience for the 2018 Biennial? Is it the regular PMA visitors? Is it the broader art communities of Maine? With the Skowhegan folks (and are they becoming more of an NYC thing with a summer home in Maine? Or is it still a Maine thing?) and the willingness to look to national artists like Dufresne, who barely have a connection to Maine, is the audience something like a curators’ club?
This might sound a bit cynical, but I think we need to use this biennial in particular as an opportunity for dialogue. We need to talk about the role of black and brown people in Maine arts. We need to talk about our communities, our perceptions, our problems, our potential solutions. The best conversation I heard at the opening followed when someone said that it seemed May was fetishizing black people. (He isn’t.) The art convinced me otherwise, but we shouldn’t shy from that kind of conversation. Another asked, “And what about anti-Semitism?” So much else – from feminism (Becca Albee) to environmentalism (Jonathan Mess & DM Witman) – gets addressed that it feels almost like an intentional omission.
The funniest shot I heard about the makeup of the show was, “It’s like a checklist for entitled liberal cis male white guilt.” It’s potentially a serious point, but, again, what I believe matters most is the kind of conversation that wells from such a comment. Pith is easy and fun, but we need to go beyond Twitter-length conversations. And more than talk, we need to listen.
To a certain extent, I am concerned the show is designed to preach to the converted, the liberal pro-arts ideological base. But would it be right to have asked May to soften his stance so that more moderate audiences would be more able to connect? After all, I couldn’t agree more with May’s apparent politics, and if he came in with a more balanced approach, I might be excoriating him instead of saying this is an excellent show. And it is an excellent show.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: