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Art Review

Old and new meet at Portland Museum of Art Biennial

A piece from DM Witman’s “Melt” series.
A piece from DM Witman’s “Melt” series.(DM Witman)

PORTLAND, Maine — Contemporary art biennials, striving to capture their time, can be too busy, trendy, and earnest. It’s hard to bottle the zeitgeist. The 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, on view through June 3, comes at us brandishing language on the website citing “the cultural moment in Maine and America.”

Cue the trumpets.

Guest curator Nat May, former executive director of Portland’s SPACE Gallery, approached the project by gathering a curatorial team: Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance founding director Theresa Secord; museum director Mark Bessire; and Sarah Workneh, co-director of the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.

For a large group show with such broad parameters, curating by committee is risky. A clear organizing vision is called for.

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May has pulled it off. He aimed for plurality, but kept the exhibition relatively small, at only 25 artists; most have not shown at the museum before. For the first time, many have several works on view, which gives this nimble show depth.

Secord’s inclusion was a shrewd stroke. The biennial features traditional basketry by Fred Tomah and a birch bark canoe by Steve Cayard and David Moses Bridges (who died last year, at 54) — elegant, grounded works drawn from Wabanaki styles. Such traditional crafts don’t often appear in contemporary art biennials, at least not without some clever conceptual conceit.

The baskets and the canoe are not clever; they’re simply, masterfully wrought. The quatrefoil weave on Tomah’s “Katahdin Butterfly Basket” radiates out like a clover. Bridges and Cayard’s canoe has fleur-de-lis patterns along the sides.

These works don’t attend to the cultural moment; they’re timeless. Coming from outside the contemporary art discourse, they pull this biennial’s door open and flood it with fresh air. In the show’s catalog, Bessire aptly says, “Native American art should be part of the entire thinking about . . . American art. How can we speak of ‘American art’ without including that work?”

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Gina Adams’s installation of “Broken Treaty Quilts” hangs nearby. She has stitched on to antique textiles hand-cut calico letters spelling out the terms of treaties between US officials and Native American tribes. Sewing the pacts into textiles underlines the intimate effect of the government’s broken promises.

Adams’s quilts, like many art works wrestling with social justice, are urgently contemporary. Installing them near the works of Tomah, Bridges, and Cayard brings their trenchant message home. If the canoe and the baskets were not here, Adams’s work might simply be one on a checklist of art about societal wrongs.

Instead, the rest of the biennial springs from the ground turned up by these artists, who together draw a picture of America’s original sin. Other topics broached, from climate change to nuclear annihilation to policemen shooting down young black men, grow from there.

Works addressing such issues make tender impact again and again. The reference is historical in Somerville artist Rosamund Purcell’s “No Parachutes to Save Them,” but her theme — war’s consequences — is today’s. Her installation of found objects from a junkyard in Owls Head, Maine, and collages made from unearthed relics there, are poetic talismans of soldiers and landscapes devastated in World War I battles.

Daniel Minter’s shrine-like installation, “A Distant Holla,” unfurls with animated and at times unearthly majesty across an entire wall, alternating bold paintings of black people, African ritual objects such as brooms, and symbols of oppression — including a collection of tin cans, some with wooden sculptures of figures in fetal positions trapped inside. It’s an epic, fraught with peril, glowing with strength and hope.

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Then, to the Earth: In her series “Melt,” DM Witman prints black-and-white satellite photos of mountainous scenes using a 19th-century salted-paper photographic process. One of the ten is not chemically fixed, and it fades over the course of the exhibition, like a glacier melting. When I visited, it was dark and ghostly in shadowy purples, as if the Earth itself was becoming just a memory.

Not every work in “Biennial 2018” has political or social overtones — thank heavens — but several very good paintings inadvertently enter into that dominating conversation. Stephen Benenson’s brilliantly awkward figure paintings in jumpy, sizzling colors, all smush-faced and dear, are like the parts of ourselves — or our society — that we most fear and suppress.

Elise Ansel borrows imagery from Old Master paintings and explodes it with swift, daring brushwork. “Emerald Light” comes from 17th-century Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s “Dead Bird.” Where the Dutch artist was exacting, Ansel captures breast, wings and beak with brash strokes. Even her jet-black ground is laid on fat and glossy; the fact of death seems, in these gestures, a vital figment.

Just the opposite is the case in Erin Johnson’s video, “The Way Things Can Happen.” Johnson visited Lawrence, Kan., where “The Day After,” a 1983 television film about a nuclear attack, was filmed. More than 100 million people tuned in. Close to 5,000 locals played victims of the disaster.

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Here those extras recount what happened, but they make no mention of filmmaking. They might as well have survived a nuclear explosion. Their often cool and reportorial tone is as unnerving as their seemingly traumatic memories. As nuclear tensions again rise, “The Way Things Can Happen” is particularly sobering.

Amid such works, Tomah’s baskets and Bridges and Cayard’s canoe are a solace not because they conjure up Eden before the fall — every society contends with hate and violence — but because, in a fractured and frightening time, old ways such as theirs embody resilience.

2018 PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART BIENNIAL

At Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through June 3. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.