The Center for Maine Contemporary Art Celebrates Its 20th Biennial

Words By Allison Paige

Art can be a conversation, a provocation, an exploration. In fact, there is nothing it can’t be and very little it isn’t.

 ANNA HEPLER |  The Referee , 2017, plywood, paint, ink, 8’ x 6’ x 4’

ANNA HEPLER | The Referee, 2017, plywood, paint, ink, 8’ x 6’ x 4’

Art can be a conversation, a provocation, an exploration. In fact, there is nothing it can’t be and very little it isn’t. The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” The modernist Swiss painter Paul Klee believed that “art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.” But Pablo Picasso, the granddaddy of modern art as we know it, may get the final word: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

This November, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) in Rockland will present its 20th Biennial exhibition. And without question, the exhibition abounds with the work of artists of all disciplines who are making art that is necessary, that renders the imagination visible, and most of all, they are getting away with it.

 HILARY IRONS |  The Gleaners , 2017, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 43” x 32.5”

HILARY IRONS | The Gleaners, 2017, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 43” x 32.5”

Occurring in the fall of even-numbered years, the CMCA Biennial is a high point on the museum’s calendar and a keenly anticipated event in the Midcoast community. It strives to provide the public with a curated glimpse of the cutting-edge trends and movements currently being explored by Maine-affiliated artists.

The show is the longest-running competition of its kind in the state, and this year it will feature 43 artists and groups.

Suzette McAvoy, executive director and chief curator, explains, “The CMCA Biennial is a juried exhibition that happens every two years. It’s open to artists at every stage of their career who have strong ties to Maine. We routinely receive over 650 individual submissions. Those submissions are juried by two out-of-state curators or noted art professionals, and the resulting exhibition is a showcase of some of the best work that’s happening in Maine today.”

This year’s jurors, Kate Green, guest director of Marfa Contemporary in Marfa, Texas, and Robin K. Williams, the Ford Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, chose the 43 finalists from a pool of 659 entries.

 ELEANOR KIPPING |  Strange Fruit , 2018, installation and performance, afro picks, gold leaf, rocking chair, book of poetry, performance by artist

ELEANOR KIPPING | Strange Fruit, 2018, installation and performance, afro picks, gold leaf, rocking chair, book of poetry, performance by artist

This is only the second Biennial to be mounted in CMCA’s new building. Designed by internationally recognized architect Toshiko Mori, the 8,600-square-foot complex offers 5,500 square feet of exhibition space in its three galleries, in addition to an ArtLab classroom, gift shop, and administrative offices.

“Having the new building has brought visibility and exposure, attracting more, and higher-quality submissions,” notes McAvoy. “It’s incredible, the breadth that we’ve received since our move.” Furthermore, since acquiring the bigger space, she says, CMCA has received inquiries for larger installations, sculpture, and video, and now possesses the square footage to physically accommodate works of such magnitude. The spacious 2,500-square-foot Main Gallery has ceilings that reach up to 20 feet high and lately hosted sculptor John Bisbee’s solo exhibition, American Steel.

The building’s unique sawtooth roofline mimics the choppy waves of nearby West Penobscot Bay and crests the high windows in the Main Gallery. The museum is built around a rectangular courtyard, with large glass panels overlooking the outdoor space. It is open to the public, offering concerts on First Friday Art Walk and giving the pedestrians of the Arts District a place to rest, reflect, and get a glimpse of what is on display in the lobby and hall. It likewise provides an exterior view for museumgoers and encourages them to interact with the art outside, where currently, Jonathan Borofsky’s Digital Man, a colorful, dynamic sculpture of stacked, pixelated figures, soars skyward.

Associate Curator Bethany Engstrom reveals that the museum’s two wings that frame the courtyard were specifically designed “to be like arms welcoming people in.” The space is indeed welcoming, and never more so, one imagines, than when the days grow shorter and colder and the building emits a welcoming glow of color and light.

 TAD BECK |  Bicycle Crash 3 , 2015, archival pigment print, 26.5” x 40”

TAD BECK | Bicycle Crash 3, 2015, archival pigment print, 26.5” x 40”

The work presented during the 2018 Biennial varies greatly in scale and medium. Says McAvoy, “We have everything from representational oil painting to watercolors, drawings, photography, sculpture, installation, videos, and performance. It’s a really wide range and shows the diversity of work that’s being done here in Maine.”

Spanning from the delicate realism of K. Min’s Summer paintings of dead insects to The Referee, a curvaceous plywood sculpture by Anna Hepler, to Strange Fruit, an interdisciplinary work by Eleanor Kipping that combines installation with live performance, the show’s selections are fresh, unexpected, and thought-provoking.

McAvoy describes the mission of the Biennial as one that aims not only to showcase the broad scope and variety of styles and approaches happening in the art world today but also to offer a platform for new artists as well as those more renowned.

Engstrom agrees: “We’re really excited about this year’s inclusion of so many artists who we weren’t necessarily familiar with.”

The varied lineup ranges from veteran abstract painter Tom Flanagan to Probably Joel, a conceptual artist showing his photographs for the first time at this level.

“This year, we have some very young artists where this is their first museum exhibition, along with more established artists who are doing some exciting new bodies of work,” McAvoy notes.

McAvoy sees the Biennial as a way to provide a snapshot of the work that is currently being created and to “take the temperature” of the artists connected to Maine. She considers the exhibition “a great way for the public to get an overview of the art-making happening today.” What she calls “the most varied and exciting of her career” thus far, the CMCA 2018 Biennial is an event not to be missed. 

 ADAM EKBERG |  Lawn Chair Catapult,  2017, archival pigment print, 20” x 24”

ADAM EKBERG | Lawn Chair Catapult, 2017, archival pigment print, 20” x 24”

 John Bisbee’s solo exhibition  America Steel  was recently featured in the Main Gallery.

John Bisbee’s solo exhibition America Steel was recently featured in the Main Gallery.

The Biennial opens November 3, and runs through March 3, 2019, at CMCA in Rockland.

artSusan Grisanti