PORTLAND – The Portland Museum of Art is once again showing its annual Art Biennial – with some radical changes.

The focus is on one subject only, the environment.

And instead of the usual 75 to 90 pieces of art, the 2009 Biennial features only 29 works. Some are small in size; others are gigantic, as in covering a complete wall or filling an entire gallery.

A primary goal with all works, selected from 970 entrants, is to give viewers another perspective of the world around them – and for the artists to do this in atypical ways.

This contemporary art exhibit takes your breath away.

It shocks the viewer with its variety of mediums and styles. Its installation works provide many fresh and thought-provoking views of our times.

“The Biennial champions the excellence of contemporary artists that have worked or exhibited their art in Maine over the previous two years,” said Mark Bessire, the new PMA director, former director of Bates College’s Museum of Art. “The Biennial gives us a chance to do a survey of art in Maine and then we buy a work from the exhibit for the museum which expands our contemporary art collection. The Biennial gives the public a fresh chance to see what is happening in the art world across the state.”

Some works are electrifying and draw the viewer in immediately. Others require contemplation and inspire thoughtful viewing.

“Menace,” by Sean Foley, literally comes off the wall at you with multiple abstract designs in three-dimensional cutouts that are both pleasing and aggressive, flowing with playful activity. This multicolored piece and two other works by Foley occupy two full walls in a gallery.

“Paintings are questions, not answers. My work is not a static thing on the wall. You engage the work and the work engages you. That process together makes the work become something new,” said Foley in an interview at the PMA. “I view my work as a kind of suspended animation. I use bright colors to attract and repel the eye. Most of all, I want to engage the viewer.”

Another unusual and engaging piece is a steel sculpture by Sam van Aken designed in a geosphere dome. Made out of 50 subwoofer speakers and car stereo amps, the work, titled “Thumper,” explores sound and its impact on the environment.

“I am interested in space. I want to make someday a sculpture that will levitate by sound. This 200-pound sculpture can vibrate from sound connections turned up high through wires connected to an amplifier. I can move this sculpture across the floor by turning up the sound,” said the sculptor, a Maine College of Art graduate who teaches at Syracuse University.

The largest work in the exhibit is “Hermitage” by Ethan Hayes-Chute. It is an installation sculpture of a rustic cabin built with outhouse in the center of the Great Hall of the museum, where an imaginary hermit might live. It has two floors and the open door on the first level invites viewers to enter into the work and experience a hermit’s isolation. A major work that requires an entire gallery, it reflects the artist’s search for privacy.

“I find beauty in objects of everyday life like old wood planks, carpentry tools, old maps and postcards. This cabin is kind of an escape,” said Hayes-Chute. “It requires a great deal of space and can be viewed from many vantage points in the museum.”

Melissa A. Calderon’s “Permanence of Pain,” a sculpture made from tissues woven into an unseen grid, represents a personal experience. It captures the emotions surrounding the artist’s grandfather’s serious illness, with the tissues representing the many tears shed. Calderon also has several interesting photographs and a sculpture of a rooster in the exhibit.

“Visionary,” by Susan Prince Thompson, features a series of works made from brown paper bags, cut in fine, intricate, designs that look like little tapestries or lace wall hangings. They are pleasing to the eye.

A small stately oil-on-canvas titled “Two Oaks,” by Steven Perkins, offers a more traditional view of Maine’s scenic beauty. It’s a peaceful, rural landscape with a nostalgic feel reflecting the state’s quiet dignity.

“Falsework,” by Wade Kavanaugh of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Brunswick, is, in my opinion, the most aggressive piece in the exhibit. It is made of Sheetrock that looks like bricks. An L-shaped Sheetrock wall greets you as you enter the gallery. When you walk around that wall, you see the rest of the gallery filled with fallen Sheetrock blocks. What kind of landscape is this? The work could reflect the process of destroying an old building and the start of building a new one, a common sight in urban landscapes. This isn’t my favorite work, but it does inspire you to think more about the architecture and landscapes in your home town.

“Bus Stop, Finstown” a black-and-white photograph by Tillman Crane has a clean modern quality. It makes a functional place look like a glass sculpture.

“Let’s not and say we did,” by Andy Rosen, is an environmental sculpture of a bent branch of a tree, standing on its own with little matches for buds at the end of the branch. It is an eerie work with a fabricated imaginary animal standing under its isolated branch. It prompts the viewer to think about what we are doing to our natural environment.

PMA’s 2009 Biennial might not please everyone, but it has something for everyone. Most importantly, it inspires viewers to become more aware of their surroundings and to see what is happening on Maine’s contemporary art scene.

The exhibit runs through June 7. The museum at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.

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