Portland Museum of Art Biennial Explores Contemporary Art


Walking around the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial Exhibit, I happened to be thinking about what a museum is. The definition by the books popped in my head: museums collect, conserve, and interpret objects. But as it often happens, after a few seconds, I realized that this model is limited, and that museums today do much more than that; the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) certainly collects, conserves, and interprets art, but the collaborative nature of the Biennial seems to have added something more. In the show, over 60 works of art on display represent an active, diverse, and diffused network of living artists that are connected to Maine. Representing 25 artists that had never shown at the PMA Biennials, guest curator Nat May facilitated a show that creates, reflects, and promotes unique narratives that find the state of Maine as their point of encounter. In an informal talk with May, his interest for letting artists speak up and represent their own works was evident. More than simply collecting, conserving, and interpreting art on its own terms, the PMA Biennial provides a space for artistic life to be celebrated.

It is sometimes easy to lose sight and forget that a museum is a part of a community. There are plenty of stories. Omer Fast’s installation at the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown pops in my mind as a moment when artist and administrator imagined art institutions as entities separate from the world that surrounds it. Fast attempted to have a site-specific installation by recreating a shop in Chinatown based on Fast’s imagined audience, without really collaborating with his real audience, the community surrounding the James Cohan Gallery in New York. The result was protests and poor reception for a number of reasons. How is an art institution to provide a genuine learning experience if it never truly goes beyond its walls? This is where art institutions that lack collaboration can fail. On the other end of the spectrum seems to be the PMA Biennial, which is intentionally aware of Maine communities and artists, its main public. Nat May, who was also the former executive director of SPACE Gallery in Portland, built his career getting to know artists in the state and seemed to be very committed to representing these artists in a collaborative and authentic way.

The results of collaboration are visible in the installation and content of the exhibition. As one enters the exhibition, the first painting is “The Twork – Torkwase Dyson,” by Angela Dufresne. The large painting of a black woman is visually striking; the vivid green background and form traditional of a court painting already demonstrate the interesting nature of the exhibition as a whole, subverting and re-appropriating narratives and identities that have historically been either misrepresented or absent. “The Republic of Hysteria,” by Anne Buckwalter has a similar political milieu; the grid of gouache and oil paintings on paper reimagines femininity by rewriting narratives of the female body and animality, subverting the negative connotations of the animal-like. Near Buckwalter’s art piece is “Reis Education Canoe,” by David Moses Bridge and Steve Cayard, a Wabanaki traditional demonstration birch-bark canoe. Nat May mentioned that this work is a mark of how knowledge flows in our contemporary society, since the indigenous knowledge of how to build these canoes seemed to have been partially lost or fragmented, but was able to be collaboratively reclaimed by Bridge and Cayard. Together, I would argue that these three pieces represent the complicated theme that emerged through collaboration in the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial. They show the deeply collaborative nature of art making, curation, interpretation, and distribution, which exists not as an “art world” separate from the real world in which we live.

The Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial is visibly contemporary. A quick look around and one sees installation pieces that combine multiple art objects, re-imaginings of WWI material culture, subverted “court portraits,” reinterpreted symbols of gender, classic painting form with contemporary content, and objects that mark the flow of indigenous knowledge. One of the strengths of the Biennial is that multimedia art coexists in a space that allows the audience to engage with a body of contemporary art without the obscurity of academic writing. Even the catalog essay is collaborative, constituted of transcribed interviews rather than an individual curatorial take. Saying that the personal is political seems redundant and collecting, conserving, and interpreting seems like a very limited list of verbs to describe the PMA Biennial; beyond those words, the Biennial is simultaneously responding to and defining new contemporary problems.