PORTLAND, Maine — There must have been a great deal of physical effort that went into mounting the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial — but not so much the kind of effort that involves hanging paintings and placing sculptures.
The biennial includes some of the largest installations the museum has mounted, including Wade Kavanaugh’s undulating piles of Sheetrock, Sam Van Aken’s sphere made of speakers and car stereo amps, and Freeport artist Ethan Hayes-Chute’s cabin and outhouse, a work so large it sits in the museum’s lobby.
Those works are juxtaposed on the other end of the scale by Portland, Ore., artist Julianna Swaney’s small, delicate sketches and even tinier works by Dozier Bell of Waldoboro.
The extreme shifts of scale — as well as some artists’ use of nontraditional materials — in the exhibition has received mixed reviews from visitors to the museum, PMA Director Mark Bessire said, but for some of the 17 artists accepted to the biennial, that variety is what makes the show special.
“What I’ve found is visitors who love the notion of the shifting scale of size and the shifting materials within the show itself,” Bessire said during a recent round-table discussion with Bessire, Kavanaugh and fellow Biennial artists Tillman Crane, A. Jacob Galle and Susan Prince Thompson. “By the same token, there are also people who don’t love the Biennial because of the switching scale and the use of what I would call low materials. [But] I get very excited about going through the show and not seeing that level line you’re used to in a more traditional show.”
The show starts with two large pieces. In the first, viewers can actually walk into and go upstairs in “Hermitage,” Hayes-Chute’s mixed-media cabin and outhouse. The work itself is large, but the small details inside the buildings demand the viewer’s attention on a much smaller scale. The work’s name itself is a play on scale — this mixed-media cabin is hardly the size of the huge Hermitage museum in Russia.
The work of Kavanaugh, who is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Brunswick, and has family in the Bangor area, asks the same attention of the viewer. His “Falsework” is made out of hundreds of bricks of sheetrock, piled in waves, that starts in the first room of the gallery. In some areas the bricks are piled nearly to the ceiling; in other areas, the bricks lie in one layer.
“I feel a little bit on the hot seat because my work takes up a gallery,” Kavanaugh said, eliciting laughter from the roundtable audience. “… Scale should be pushed. That’s my personal preference. I think an artwork needs to engage the viewer and to do that an artwork needs to engage the space.”
It’s a huge piece, but there are so many variations in color and texture in each individual brick that the work seems small at the same time.
“I like the idea of the macrocosm and a microcosm simultaneously in a piece … [to] have things that compel people to look really closely,” New Hampshire resident Thompson said. “That’s something I strive for.”
“Falsework” spills into the rest of the galleries, leading the visitor almost directly across to Bell’s three pieces, including two acrylic paintings on panel, the largest of which is just 5 inches by 6 inches. Swaney’s three pieces, the largest of which is 10-by-10, are also mounted near the sheetrock spillover.
“The big pieces are easy to find,” said Galle, I think Wade’s piece flows really nicely because it shoots you across to Dozier’s.”
Kavanaugh made a mess with his bricks of sheetrock, Bessire joked, but the use of construction materials may be a sign of the times. It’s certainly a sign of the Biennial. Melissa Calderon of New York used a box of tissues — tissues that were supposedly cried upon — for her installation “Permanence of Pain-1100.” Andy Rosen of South Portland used fake fur and wood for his taxidermy-like “Let’s not and say we did.” The stereos and amplifiers in the work of van Aken, a former University of Maine professor, were certainly unconventional.
“It’s finally come to be widely accepted that you can use whatever you want to make art, and maybe you don’t have to pay a lot of money to buy a big block of marble,” Kavanaugh said. “… I think artists are working differently. Instead of buying a piece of marble and making something out of it and then have that be a self-referential object in a gallery, they’re thinking about the gallery first and what makes sense in reference to the built-in, natural environment.”
The extremes of scale and materials works, at least, in forcing viewers to think about the mix.
“You can have a biennial that’s got a million pieces and you can end up being bored,” photographer Crane said. “You may like it, you may hate it, but you’re not bored, and as an artist that’s the worst thing. That’s the kiss of death. If people are talking about it, that’s great.”