Assembling Maine talent, CMCA’s biennial show itself ‘a work of art’

Posted Sept. 17, 2008, at 6:50 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — If a biennial gives artists an opportunity to show their latest work, then Kate Philbrick was a good choice for the 2008 Biennial Juried Exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

Philbrick, a Madawaska native now living in Gorham, has focused primarily on documentary photography, and while the photograph accepted into the biennial does have some documentary qualities, it also shows a new tack she has taken recently — semicreated work.

“The Conversion of Kevin” is one of 103 pieces in this year’s biennial exhibit, which CMCA curator Britta Konau said drew the biggest pool of entrants ever to the show. Submissions came from 737 artists, with 89 accepted. For the first time, CMCA also assembled a biennial catalog for the event.

Philbrick’s photograph of her son Kevin is an example of the shift her work has taken recently. As co-director of the photography program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, she was used to documenting what was already there — working with the natural light in an unaltered scene in front of her.

When she saw her son, 12 years old at the time, playing with some small action figures in his room one day, however, with a stream of light across the floor, she told him to lie down and raise his arms. Then, Philbrick told a group during a recent artists’ round table, she got her camera.

“It’s the idea of recognizing something and sort of putting more of my own hand into the work, as opposed to hoping to capture it at the right moment,” Philbrick said. “It was hard to break [the documentary sensibility]. It was hard to stop and say, do this for me.”

What she captured was a riff on “The Conversion of St. Paul,” a painting by the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio. In both paintings, the central figure is lying down, hands raised, awed by something above, a beam of light across the composition of the work.

The similarities are no coincidence. Philbrick said her upbringing in a Catholic family in Madawaska exposed her to pictures of Bible stories, which she now realizes influenced her work, which includes a similar take on Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

Philbrick’s photograph hangs next to another photo, “In the Kitchen #2” by Noah Krell. There are a lot similarities between the two shots — both focus on a figure doing something on the floor of a house — but Krell’s photo is of a scantily clad woman doing housework, watched over by a man. It’s a meeting of Philbrick’s more religious piece and Krell’s piece that examines gender and power roles.

“I think [the pairing] is what makes a show like this so strong,” Philbrick said. “The curation of the work and the way things are put together, that really is a work of art. I’m very glad these are together and when I saw these I thought, wow, somebody is right on.”

The two photographs illustrate the wide variety of subject matter in the biennial, Konau said recently. There is more traditional work such as Connie Hayes’ oil painting “Reflector, Vinalhaven,” but also pieces such as University of Maine graduate student Tyler McPhee’s mixed-media installation “The Whole Picture,” which consists of his collection of Bigfoot-related artifacts.

“To me what was striking was the variety of work in media and subject matter,” Konau said. “There are young, emerging artists as well as established artists. I find something of interest in every one of them.”

Artists who submitted work must be from Maine, live in Maine, or have spent time working in the state.

The Jurors’ Prize went to Portland resident Melinda Barnes, who won for three graphite drawings on paper.

Honorable mentions went to Kate Beck, who attended the University of Maine and the Maine College of Art and has a studio in Harpswell; Joshua Ferry, who also attended the Maine College of Art; and Anna Hepler, a faculty member at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Just as Philbrick is doing something new with her work, Konau said the catalog is new to the biennial. The goal is to make the images available to people who might not be able to get to the museum.

The works are displayed with a statement from each artist, as well as a statement from the jurors. The artists’ resumes are also listed in the book.

“It gives the artists an opportunity to share their work with others, if they want,” Konau said. “I made a point of including the artists’ own voice next to their work.”

The jurors were Carole Anne Meehan of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, photographer Scott Peterson of Hollis and Andrea Pollan, the founder and director of the Curator’s Office in Washington, D.C.

The 2008 Biennial Juried Exhibition closes Oct. 4. For more, go to www.cmcanow.org.

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