Wolf Moon journal 

On view at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine
From April 10 to June 1, 2003

Reviewed by Laurie Meunier Graves

Lately, there has been a new wind blowing into the visual arts community in Maine. It is a good wind, a restless wind of change and renewal, and with it comes an excitement and an energy. It’s as though the Mary Poppins of art has suddenly blown into the state, and when I’m in Portland, I scan the rooftops for dancing chimney sweepers.

Naturally, except in my imagination, I don’t see any. However, what I have found—and this is also true in museums and galleries outside Portland—are giant mythic structures made of cardboard and Styrofoam; clothes families constructed from books; a two-headed sweater made of burdock burrs; tiny paintings spied through glass portals. And when I read the New York Times, I discover that this kind of art is being created all over the country. It is an art that often makes use of common but nontraditional materials, and it does it in ways that are symbolic and meaningful.

Now, for the record, I do want to make it clear that I respect the history of landscape painting that Maine has so richly nourished, and I admire the many fine works of art that have come from this tradition. Maine is a beautiful state with breath-taking scenery. It is only fitting that artists should be drawn to it and want to paint it.

However, just as parents have room in their hearts to love more than one child, so can states have room for more than one style of art. No choice is necessary; we can love and admire them all.

A new exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art reflects both the new art that is being created in Maine and the tradition of landscape painting that has been with the state for so many years. It is the 2003 Portland Museum of Art Biennial. According to the museum handout, the show features the work of seventy artists “associated with the state of Maine….This past summer, 877 artists submitted more than 3,500 slides to be considered by a panel of three jurors [which included] Lois Dodd, painter and summer resident of Cushing, Maine; Harry Philbrick, director of The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut; and Mary Ryan, owner / director of the Mary Ryan Gallery, New York…”

As with any juried exhibit that has so many artists and so many different styles, the Biennial is an uneven show. Some of the art caught my attention; some did not. Some of it seemed flat, but there was more than enough that was impressive to make this exhibit worth seeing. In fact, there were so many good pieces and paintings that it would be impossible to mention them all in this essay. Here then, is a ‘short list’ of the artists and the art that made me take a long look, and I must admit that there is a strong emphasis on the new art that has been coming into the state.

1. Diana Cherbuliez, Gift   A hand, roughly human sized, rests in a clear case. The hand has an alien, scaly look and it’s holding an apple made of matches and wax. The red tips of the matches color the apple. Naturally, this piece reminded me of humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Was this a curse or a gift? Elizabeth Barrett Browning must have wondered the same thing when she wrote “Get leave to work / In this world,–'tis the best you get at all; / For God, in cursing, gives us better gifts / Than men in benediction.”

2. Pia Walker, Truth is a Tree and Rats   A gleaming mahogany ladder stands in a corner. Glass eyes of various sizes and colors gaze out from the sides and the rungs. The eyes are watching. Underneath the ladder, three realistic rats—made of ceramic—huddle together. The whole assemblage has a creepy, fairy tale look. The rats are below; the staring eyes lead upward. There is no escape.

3. Sean Foley, Phantasmagoria   This massive assemblage fills all of one wall with black wooden shapes—a triangle, a circle, a square and many shapes that could be amoebas or pieces of a puzzle. Most of the amoeba-like shapes have painted eyes (more eyes!), and they don’t look friendly. Interspersed among these black shapes are various black and white cartoonish creatures—dragons, snakes, flying skulls, birds, and dogs—and the piece has an air of antic menace. Pop culture meets the imagination?

4. Alison B. Rector, Speed Queen, Exit, and Recess Here are three paintings that give new meaning to the concepts of silence and solitude. Speed Queen shows an empty Laundromat. All the lids on the machines are open; the chrome gleams; the noisy room is still. In Exit, there is a hallway with two blue chairs, blue and white tiles, and stairs. There is a door to the women’s restroom, but there are no people, no motion. Recess, with its windowless hall, bright ceiling lights, and chrome water fountain completes the trilogy. All is quiet and vacant, and I could almost hear the silence. This is a view of institutions that is seldom seen by any people except the night janitors.

5. Bruce Habowski, Jr., Morning Light   Lining the street is a vertical row of narrow houses with front porches. This street could be in Waterville or Augusta or Lewiston. It could be in any mill town. I’ve walked down many streets in Maine and have often seen this view. Even though this scene is just as much a part Maine as are the fields, the forests and the coastline, I have seldom seen it painted.