Adam John Manley, “Armada/Regatta,” 2012, 2 x 4s, ash, nylon, and string
Adam John Manley, “Armada/Regatta,” 2012, 2 x 4s, ash, nylon, and string
With just over 475 artist submissions, the reach and representativeness of this year's CMCA Biennial remains fairly limited. (In 2008, at its height, 730 artists submitted.) But it's a big improvement over the last iteration. For one, it is a purely juried show and not the controversial combination of invitational and juried, which antagonized so many artists in 2012. Secondly, this time the jurors did not, at least according to public statements, have the look of the final exhibition in mind when choosing the works, because that seemed immensely unfair to the submitting artists last time around. Quality alone should be the criterion in a non-thematic juried show. It is up to whoever lays out the selected works afterwards to make visual sense out of the jumble.

This year, that has been achieved unevenly, with the main gallery and larger section of the upstairs looking stunning, allowing the work to shine. In the remaining spaces, however, the artwork is not displayed to best advantage. Understandably, the strength of the work itself played a role in this.

With only 28 artists represented, the Biennial is tightly selected. Still, not all pieces excite, especially not if you have seen the same kind of work by the same artist in the same context so many times before. But jurors Jennifer Gross, chief curator of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and arts writer Deborah Weisgall chose a satisfyingly wide range of media, from painting (one) to ceramic and boatbuilding of sorts, to name a few.

Rightly so, the show does not have a thematic focus. The jurors explain that the exhibition "offers a sense of what artists working in Maine are thinking, feeling, and seeing: what has captured their attention - and ours." Now, when you look around galleries and museums in Maine, what you see first and foremost are landscape paintings. Much of what you see at CMCA, however, constitutes different kinds of interaction with the land, its flora and fauna. Not only are there no landscape paintings (John Knight's stylized drawings come closest), there's also little straight photography. Instead we have active interaction with nature with a scientific bent, or coming from pragmatic and inquisitive angles.

Is nature coexisting or competing with industrial presence in Dennis Pinette's impressive graphites? Clearly born of decades of observation and practice, they evidence masterful control of every possible nuance of the medium, allowing for a freedom in rendering rarely seen in Maine. In contrast, with hardly any tonal variation, Emily Brown's complex ink washes of woods appear only selectively represented, as if certain visual layers have been filtered out.

Sharon Townshend's terra cotta birch barks are best seen from a step away for their trompe l'oeil effect. Their rhythms, undulations, and finely worked surfaces seemingly deliver an ancient message from nature. Jeff Woodbury looks below the bark to find his medium - beetles. Wittily calling into question artistic authorship and a whole slew of ego-driven stances, he uses beetle tracks as matrices for rubbings, thus literally representing nature, or rather, its destruction. The resulting chance networks of lines are of a surprising and strange beauty.
Similar inquisitiveness and quasi-scientific record-keeping is at the root of Jordie Oetken's haunting composite of coastline satellite images, resulting in the image of an atoll, or an island whose center is rendered as an X-ray. The artist's second, equally beautiful work indeed uses a projected chest X-ray to allude to memory. Leah Gauthier's microcosmic constructions may be a little too do-it-yourself hip but form an interesting hybrid of making; the list of artists re-creating and actively engaging with nature could go on and on.

Among artists inspired by nature in a broader sense is Stephanie Cardon, whose wave-like "TransAtlantic" is like a cross between Anna Hepler's "Gyre," installed in the same space in 2009, and Orly Genger's rope work. Viewers of Cardon's "Lyre" will discover an intriguing inability to distinguish between the layers of strings suspended between cement blocks. The floor piece undeniably insists on its physicality, its low-budget minimalism. The same kind of making-do attitude pervades Adam John Manley's round craft made of insulation foam. His captivating "Armada/Regatta," basically a cross between a rocking chair (think wave motion) and a flotilla of sailboats, lightheartedly and imaginatively references the tradition of boatbuilding and Maine's craft tradition in general.

Of course not all work in the show draws on nature. Among other themes, systems of communication play a major role in the map- and book-based work of Cynthia Davis and in Lauren Gillette's confessional/voyeuristic multi-media installation,"Things I Did," with things ranging from the ridiculous to the sad, the supernatural to the mundane.

Combining these two thematic strands, the work of Daphne Taylor and Scott Davis becomes cosmic in scope. Taylor's incredibly well made quilt drawings are replete with subtle linear, that is, embroidered, surprises. Additionally, color accents on the quilts' edges act like cardinal points on a compass, anchoring the central motifs in a circumscribed but restful universe. True to its title, Davis's sublime "Sojourner" evokes the transitory nature of being. Thinly painted with multi-directional brushstrokes, the tondo's central form appears ephemeral, as if it might dissolve or change shape at any moment within its surrounding circular space - a space in which all directions are possible and equally weighted, yet a space that is never at rest.

Overall, this Biennial may not present the best art Maine has to offer, but it's also refreshing not to see the usual suspects. Of course, not all of the art succeeds, but the show provides an interesting collection of media and conceptual approaches.