“Out There” at Maine College of Art

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Gail Spaien, Fall Garden: Garden Archive Project No. 5 (detail), 2008

Gail Spaien, Fall Garden: Garden Archive Project No. 5 (detail), 2008

Philip Brou, Pause, mixed media, 2008

Philip Brou, Pause, mixed media, 2008

George LaRou, Dam Nation, Video Game, 2008

George LaRou, Dam Nation, Video Game, 2008

Christina Bechstein, One Day (detail) 2008

Christina Bechstein, One Day (detail) 2008

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Faculty art shows at colleges and universities all over the universe tend to be wonderfully democratic yet wildly incoherent free-for-alls lacking any cohesive idea or theme. For that very reason, I stopped reviewing them decades ago. It’s just not possible to say anything meaningful about a show of random works by a bunch of artists and artisans who happen to teach at a particular institution. So imagine my surprise and delight when the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art in downtown Portland announced that it was going to start jurying its faculty shows.

“We already started doing that with our alumni shows,” says interim ICA director Lauren Fensterstock of the juried approach. “The old faculty shows didn’t serve our mission well and didn’t serve our faculty well. An ICA should be more than an illustrated course catalogue.”

For its first juried faculty exhibition, the ICA invited former Bowdoin College Museum of Art curator Alison Ferris and noted Portland architect Carol Wilson to serve as jurors for Out There: The Mediated Landscape, an exhibition of work by four of MECA’s faculty members focused on non-traditional approaches to natural and cultural landscapes. Out There (through December 21) is a very satisfying, thought-provoking, and entertaining exhibition without suffering from the usual clutter of a 30 to 40 artist faculty show.

Gail Spaien, who teaches painting and drawing, fills the ICA’s front picture window gallery with “Fall Garden (Garden Archive Project 5),” an installation that brings mediated and unmediated nature into the gallery. The centerpiece is an “Amaryllis Table” consisting of 42 amaryllis in full bloom sitting in glass vases in neat rows atop a large glass coffee table. Pots of amaryllis bulbs line the front window. Dried flowers in glass cases hang on one wall. Pressed flowers hang on another. Next to the glass cases, Spaien shows nine of her beautifully rendered natural history drawings, images of and notes on plants that read like a hybrid of folk art, Indian miniatures, and a naturalist’s daybook. “Fall Garden” suggests how human beings engage with nature through gardening and, like all artistry, help make order out of chaos.

Philip Brou, a member of the painting faculty, has a gallery to himself for three works that have a conceptual cohesion that might be thought of as artist-at-science fair. Brou’s “The Way We Were” is about as much fun as a work of art can be. He has created little gouache and colored pencil portraits of everyone in his high school senior class, cut them out like cameos, and placed then in a tornado chamber such that they whirl around wildly when the chamber’s fan is turned on. A yearbook in a blender. Just what high school felt like. Brou also contributes a realistic painting of NASA’s Mission Control center and an exact scale model of Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz suspended on a string in an inflated plastic dome so that it blows around as in a tornado. Colorful felt flowers litter the floor.

George LaRou, chair of the new media department, is a video game designer. His Out There art consists of “The Road to Dam Nation,” a video game starring a beaver as hero in a virtual reality where transformation of the landscape is the apparent goal. I’ve never played a video game in my life, so I might not have appreciated “The Road to Dam Nation” had it been operational when I visited the ICA, but the array of posters LaRou created for the game mix cartoon graphics and landscape photography in a way I have never seen before.

Christina Bechstein is nominally a sculptor, but she actually practices art as social activism and community building. Her “One Day” installation is a conceptual piece in which she has filled the ICA’s rear gallery with stacks of green cardboard containers, one for each of the 23,404 people who live on the Portland peninsula. The containers represent the 4.6 pounds of waste that each resident generates a day. Bechstein has also provided a glass suggestion jar into which gallery-goers are invited to submit their own aspirations for the world on “What If We” cards made using wind power and 100% recycled paper.

“What If We” stopped making a distinction between art and everyday life?

Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, 522 Congress St., Portland ME, 207-699-5029, Ext. 229.

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