Portland Museum of Art/Portland


Among the island of Vinalhaven's many claims to fame is its “nude quarry,” a swimming hole expressly for those who consider the bathing suit to be a hindrance to communing with the elements. In his four-channel video installation roll, one of the works in the recent 2005 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Tad Beck offers a riveting study of the efforts of a few nude male athletes to conquer the sport of log-rolling in this quarry's chill waters. Penises bobbing and sinews tensing, they tread the log back and forth, hands holding onto invisible rails as they try to achieve a kind of balance in motion, a poised stride that never quite settles into the perfect equilibrium it pursues.

One of the highlights of the Biennial, roll is at once meditative and hilariously goofy, rich and sophisticated in its formal language and conceptual underpinnings, and ambitious in its effort to choreograph the flow of viewers in a way that would multiply the visual dynamics of the four-screen projection.

Beck was one of a record 948 artists who submitted work to be juried for possible inclusion in the 2005 PMA Biennial. Jurors were art dealer John Cheim, owner of Cheim and Read Gallery in New York, painter Yvonne Jacquette, and Judith Tannenbaum, curator at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art. After they had completed two full days of deliberations, a total of sixty-two artists and ninety-three works of art made the final cut.

This makes the 2005 exhibition as selective as an Ivy League college's admission's office. It includes just sixteen artists who have shown work in previous PMA Biennials, which means that the 2005 exhibition consists of an almost entirely new set of voices speaking for and as contemporary art in Maine. Indeed, as PMA's curator of Graphics, Photography, and Contemporary Art Susan Danly notes, one of the significant elements of this year's Biennial “is that many of the works that got in are by young and emerging artists. I think that this really bodes well,” she continues, “in that it shows that the contemporary art scene in Maine is very much in the hands of a younger generation.”

Even more compelling is the Biennial's genuinely cosmopolitan complexion. Whether they were born and raised in Maine or simply spent a summer here at the Skowhegan School, all of these artists imagine Maine to be a place worth connecting with and linking themselves and their practice to.

Thus its ability to serve as a confluence of artists from around the planet and its commitment to integrating various experimental media together with painting, sculpture, and photography make this Biennial an important intervention into the discourse of contemporary art in Maine. It has long been clear to Maine artists that the work happening here is part of a properly global conversation, one that challenges the orthodox and insular landscape-bound mode of narrating Maine art's histories—to encounter a Biennial that begins to do justice to this scenario is enlivening.

Chris Thompson