The PMA 2009 Biennial and Bill Thon

The names of the artists of the next Portland Biennial have been announced and it is quite a surprise. There are 17 of them, picked out of a field of 970.


What a number - 970! Nearly a thousand entries for a juried show in Portland, Maine. It staggers the imagination, but much of the art world of the twenty-first century is indeed boggling. There are way too many artists.


As it happened, I was an accidental witness to the genesis of the biennial at Portland. A number of years ago, in 1994 if memory serves, I had lunch with Bill and Helen Thon, and with Cynthia Hyde from the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, down at the old Sportsman’s Grill on western part of Congress Street. I had been writing about Bill’s work around that time and found it truly interesting. Bill had liked what I had written and there some thought of doing a rather more extensive publication about Bill’s work, but nothing came of it.


Bill was in his nineties and was nearly blind from macular degeneration. He continued to work, finding ways to use magnifiers, simplified imagery and black ink on white paper so he could see what he was doing. In my opinion, and that of others, he was doing some of his best work in years. I greatly admired, and still do, the level of character it took to keep painting under those circumstances.


The Sportsman’s Grill, for those who never had the pleasure of eating there, was a throwback to the fifties and was Bill’s favorite Portland eatery.  He knocked back a couple of wicked-looking martinis and proceeded to tell Cynthia and I about his offer of a staggering amount of money, in the low hundreds of thousands, as a bequest to the museum to support a regular, annual juried show. His vision was paintings one year and works on paper the next, alternating.


I was dumfounded. It had never occurred to me that he would possess anything like that level of resources. I didn't give voice to my objections about juried shows (which I dislike on principle) or about the limitations he was considering. His idea was a bit old-fashioned, but then we were in an old-fashioned drinkery, and it was none of my business. The museum was able later on to enlarge upon his vision of what should be in the show.


The show as it has worked out has been the same sort of mess, most of the time, as juried shows usually are. Juried shows are an art world artifact of the middle part of the 20th century, when there were fewer artists and they were trained better. In an age where a show in Maine is going to get a thousand entries, making a sensible selection from such a pool is next to impossible. In Bill Thon’s palmy days there would have been a few dozen at most, and that would be counting a lot of amateurs. And the standards would have been clearer, if more limited. Juried shows made some sense back then. Now they are just a way around doing the extensive curatorial work that a large show demands.


I’m hoping the current jury’s courageous selection of just seventeen from this mass will result in something coherent and informative with a distinct curatorial vision. It would be a great relief. I think that Bill, were he alive, would be pleased.


Full disclosure: I’m married to one of the artists who were chosen.

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