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Putting the Bi in The Texas Biennial
with help from Anna Palmer
Jarrod Beck's unnamed sculpture (detail) with Pod units of installations
We fell for this piece. Big time. Grotty like unwashed laundry hung out on the rusting metal skeleton of an extended piece too large to enclose in a single photograph. A little scary, placed we thought badly, near the fence and invisible from the parking lot entrance. Obviously right where the artist wanted it, because some of its details continued on the black wrought-iron whose vertical slices visually competed with these angular spars. In a way, breathtaking. In other ways unlike most art and especially most sculpture. Beautiful in its own way. Stunning in several directions and difficult to classify. Just the sort of art we hope for at a biennial, although it's not shown in the catalog.
The 2007 Texas Biennial is a big show scattered across four venues in central and east Austin. It is by turns funky and fun, slick and sophisticated, educational and aggrivational, bleeding and trailing edge. Some selections soar, others are sore points. With lots to think and argue about, this Texas Biennial shows a wide spectrum of the best and most politic fine art in this state and a fledgling statewide exhibition learning its way.
The venues are as varied as the art. The aging Dougherty Arts Center seems a refugee from a couple of wars ago. The wrought iron fenced-in open field that is Site 1808 has wild mushrooms in its yard and magnificent graffiti growing from an adjacent garden; OK Mountain's densely tagged exterior and informal wood-fenced commons contrast significantly with its bright cube interior; and Bolm Studio's quiet darkness is contemplative inside while large wood projects are noisily constructed outside.
These endearing comic drawings, goofily elegant with their dense and lusciously textured totems charmed us repeatedly.
There's talk of centering the exhibition in one large space, and that would be marvelous, although I don't think they have one large space. What they do have is a community of littler spaces that require navigation, an issue they have not quite mastered. We liked the community feel and seeing more of Austin, but finding our out-of-town way was a hassle. Like any two-year-old, this show is still formulating its direction by making strides and mistakes. It's fun to watch it — and Austin — grow in two-year increments.
We loved the first TX BI two springs ago. Were happy to drive to Austin to visit this one. Had worried the 2007 version's posh new jury of art executives and academics would slick this show up. They didn't, entirely. We don't agree with all their selections or artists they chose to award $1,000 grand prize checks to, but most were on-target.
One of our favorite pieces at our favorite venue — Buster Graybill's dark, simple yet mysterious and intriguing sculpture was warping the big door at Bohm Studios. It reminded us of the also undulating, looped sculpture in the same place at the last Bi. This piece is in the catalog, but its installation here is scads more interesting — and appropriately darker — than that presentation.
This year's jurors included Austin's Blanton Museum of Art Assistant Curator of Latin American Art Ursula Davila; Marfa's Ballroom Executive Director Fairfax Dorn; San Antonion's Artpace Curator of Education and Exhibitions Kate Green; Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum's Associate Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver; and University of Texas in Dallas's Assistant Professor (and apparently the only artist on the jury) John Pomara.
They are more impressive on paper than the first Bi's bunch, although I miss the funky jurors and their potentially more outrageous choices. Last time's jury was who made this thing happen, so they are still to be lauded. Every selection had to be unanimous, which probably eliminated any wild cards that might have spiced up the show and the inevitable controversy.
I'm not going to do another complicated statistics page, and I care less now about who is from where and how their or their area's representative juror's geographic chauvinism may have entered into choices. But we have to wonder.
Hundley's three jumps — that's him jumping, wrapped, this time in a colorful rug. Other materials in other jumps, all against grafittied walls — were knock-out photographs, three of a spare few knockout leading edge pieces making particular use of their mediums in this extended exhibition. Buster Graybill's innertube is another.
Putting on one "biennial" is simple compared with continuing the process. The first one can't count as a biennial until there's a second edition two years later. This one puts the bi in biennial. Congratulations to everybody who pushed it this far up the hill. It is a major achievement.
Both Dallas' originally very independent DARE and Houston's Contemporary Art Museum mounted initial, supposed biennials, without following through with a number two two years later. The Austin group finally got this state a real biennial with this statewide competitive exhibition, and thereby deserves to keep the Bi in their city. No one else has gone to the trouble. This second edition, thereby finally a full-fledged Texas Biennial is amazing with 38 artists at 4 venues (down from 7).
This show has almost everything one could expect from a biennial — superb quality, leading or bleeding edge concepts and executions, work that pushes envelopes, choices that baffle, confuse and create controversy, intentional and unintentional wit and wisdom.
I was working on a long, involved story with gobs of images and commentary but probably wouldn't finish it before the show comes down Tax Day. Great show, worthy of its name. We visited each venue twice, took lots of pictures, interacted with the interactives, watched as much as we could of the videos, inspected every work and pondered and discussed the worthiness of the more controversial selections, more about which later.
I was not initially impressed with Frances' rug. Before I studied it and thought it through while arguing against it with whomever would listen or pretend to, it was just a rug. If we didn't know what it was made of, we'd just step on the thing and be happy for a moment of squishy warmth.
My reaction follows a tradition of reaction to her work. Questions first, answers only slowly, but deliciously. I know this artist. We've been friends, and I have fixed her Mac over the years. I have extensively photographed her and husband Tom Orr's studios as well as their costumes and sets for a recent Dallas Opera. The studio shoot wasn't particularly recent, but his work there shows earlier progressions toward what he did here.
This work of Frances' was a shock. She'd invited me to see her latest late last year, and I didn't. She wanted my reaction. Disbelief is what this one netted. Or wove. As I processed this image and its implication, I realized it is a beautiful piece of craft. Lush in a long series of related browns and tans. Lights and shades concentrically cuddled into the red end of the spectrum.
It fudges the edges between art and craft, leaning toward the latter with conceptual nods toward the former. One woman's work about Women's Work with human content twisted into it. That it won the big money, that it got in when all the judges had to agree, is noteworthy.
When I learned both Tom and Frances were in this show, my interest in it brightened 3 stops. They are Dallas' pre-eminent sculpture couple. Top tier artists lend sometimes questionable exhibitions (see feedback) a solider respectability. I don't know how the others in this show rank, but I hope it includes many of pre-eminence — and some scoundrels, too.
Elegant and eloquent, Tom's piece almost seem thrown together. An informal presentation of 3-D notions I remember from his and Frances' studio several years ago.
Lines, shapes, reflections pared down to their essence, the warping shimmer on the wall as important as the spiraling hoops of steel lines, splatter of mirroring surfaces and hard edge of floor meets wall. The red molding of this wall gets in the way, and the piece itself suffered from bright outside light gushing in on the left and darkness cascading from inside, so it was difficult to see all of at once.
Wish we could show the better videos here. They ought to be on the Bi's own website or linked. Some — like the ones at Dougherty Art Center (our least favorite venue, because it suffers from light pollution — too much coming in from outside and too little inside) — were decidedly less-than or too forcibly arty. As mentioned elsewhere on this page, Brad Tucker's nearly simplistic, probably home-made video in his pod installation at Site 1808 was remarkable. Like his sculptures, lean, clean and resonant. With good humor and a great soundtrack that intertwined.
This psychedelic mandala looks better in the catalog and here than it did on the wall at OK Mountain. Duller, less contrasty. There are artists in this show who got more than one piece in it. But three of the five $1,000 grand prize winners got only one in the show. There seems a contradiction in that statistic. This is a beautiful piece beautifully crafted, intriguingly conceptualized and executed.
But if these thousand-dollar-winning artists couldn't get any of their other pieces into the show, and many others did, is there something wrong with awarding them Bests in Show?
Roberto Bellini's Dark at Bohm Studios (our favorite space partially because of its selection — each venue chose the work installed there — and because of its quiet darkness and semi-labyrinthine spaces) was amazing. It did what video can do. Simply. Directly. A story that can be told no other way. Well, a movie could do it, but it wouldn't be as neat a package, would probably have been edited and tended toward slick. This was not slick.
The story is a simple human one — a guy wandering around in the dark, a camera flash his only illumination. Firing it at long intervals in darkness. What he flashes is all we see. The flash. Rest of the time he's bumping into things and on unfamiliar territory. Dark. We hear his stumbles. The picture in the catalog is a flashed photograph of a tree. It was not from the video, so it really isn't what's shown in the show, either.
The 7-minute : 27-second video shows motion without showing the motion, is not caught up in action; shows light by concentrating on the darkness; makes art by exhibiting the spaces in between; concentrating on the ground, disfiguring the figure. Another knockout, bleeding edge piece hewing to the truth of its medium like biennials should show us the way with.
The igloo was grand fun as well as uniquely beautiful. Nice jigsaw puzzle, faceted reflective hump in the big middle of the space, but also pleasant to take shoes off and crawl inside for more facets and reflections.
I didn't want to at first, but Anna insisted, and I'm glad. It was soothing and quiet, a nice, tight little (!), two-person refuge. It's much more interesting than it seems in this photograph. So here's a detail view from inside.
If you plan the 400+mile round-trip from Dallas, print Page 1 of the online map in black-only, so you can read it. Page 2 is a blue line. There were no other maps on the tour, and that one printed in full color (white on light blue) is useless, though it looks nice on the screen.
The catalog has other interesting issues. There's no map there, either, but besides some of the photographs being wonky, many of the pieces illustrated are not in the show. Which is both dismaying and mystifying. I understand it had an earlier deadline than the installatioon and that Site 1808 (a field adjacent to Azul Restaurant on César Cháves) was little like a gallery space, comprising rent-a-storage boxes (pods — portable on demand spaces) and large areas of dirt (mud when we were there) and grass instead of wide white walls, which might have called for different presentations.
But that doesn't entirely explain the substitutions.
We were thoroughly impressed with both the sculptures scattered through his pod and the video looping via small TV near the back. Clean, utterly simplified shapes and solid colors. Very graphic art in three- but looking very two-dimensions on shelves and horizontal spaces throughout the trailer trashish room.
Apparently, some art submitted was accepted and shown. Other artists accepted via entered work were directed to submit new pieces. Which raises questions. I wish I'd kept the Call for Entries we had on the Ops page for the longest time. It might provide some answers.
Nowhere does it state which artists are from where, a sore point since most of this BI's exhibitors — like last time's — are from Austin. Unless you talk with one of the organizers, there's no easy way to discover who's from where. Hometowns are not mentioned, though gallery affiliations are. I could probably track individual artists' web sites. But do I wnat to know that bad?
I would like to know the Dallas artists beside Tom & Frances.
We found both of Anderson's tight, contrasting paintings — dark shapes intersticed by neon colors with apparent sharp edges — electric. Vivid. Startling. Fine.
Again, of course, Austin has twice as many artists in this show than any other Texas city. Statistically likely, because of the preponderance of Austin artists among the accepted artists. Statistically absurd, however, considering this state's overall population. Yet highly reflective of the publicity reach, or lack thereof, beyond the show's comparatively small, though centrally located (It is the state capital, after all.) home town.
By comparison, the DARE biennial only had 13 of 81 exhibiting artists from Dallas. I don't have statistics for the CAM's one-off biennial.
Biennial folk are discussing taking the show on the road before the competition for the third Bi. Traveling staff, artists or jurors. Lecturing, panel discussing or conferencing. In outlying areas, perhaps sparking an increase in entries. Probably an excellent idea. This year's show actually accrued fewer entries than the first, just under 600.
Artists at each of the four exhibition spaces in Austin:
Dougherty Arts Center Andrew Anderson, Frances Bagley, Erin Curtis, Emilie Duval, Corey Escoto, Michele Grinstead & Nancy O'Connor, Lily Hanson, Charlie Morris, Tom Orr, Matthew Roberts, Soody Sharifi, Michael Velliquette;
Okay Mountain Candace Briceño, Jeffrey Dell, Peat Duggins, Virginia Fleck, Heyd Fontenot, Devon Grey, Baseera Khan, Linda Pace;
Site 1808 Jarrod Beck, Tom Matthews, Kurt Mueller, Gary Sweeney, Noah Simblist, Brad Tucker, Michelle Gonzales Valdez, Rebecca Ward; and
Bolm Studios Robert Bellini, William Betts, Tiffany Carbonneau, David Chien, Mark Collop, Buster Graybill, William Hundley, Mimi Kato, Kelly O'Connor and David Ubias.
After our first tour of the show, we met with Biennial co-founder Jon Lawrence and enjoyed a long, spirited conversation at Azul, whose back yard is Site 1808. He had a stack of flyers he wanted us to hand out in Dallas. I'm no good at that, but Anna took them. We later realized they were maps. In the following weeks, Jon emailed that
13 of this year's artists are from Austin,
8 from San Antonio,
5 from Dallas,
4 Houston, and
1 each from from Cedar Creek, Georgetown, Denton, San Marcos, Amarillo, New Braunfels, Pasedena, Beaumont, Dripping Springs and Lubbock. To a total 38 artists. He didn't say who was from which.
Andrew Anderson - Austin
Frances Bagley - Dallas
Jarrod Beck - Austin
Robert Bellini - Austin
William Betts - Houston
Candace Briceño - Cedar Creek
Tiffany Carbonneau - Georgetown
David Chien - Houston
Mark Collop - Denton
Erin Curtis - Austin
Jeffrey Dell - San marcos
Peat Duggins - Austin
Emilie Duval - Beaumont
Corey Escoto - Amarillo
Virginia Fleck - Austin
Heyd Fontenot - Austin
Buster Graybill - New Braunfels
Devon Grey - Dallas
Michele Grinstead & Nancy O'Connor - Houston
Lily Hanson - Dallas
William Hundley - Austin
Mimi Kato - San Antonio
Baseera Khan - Austin
Tom Matthews - Lubbock
Charlie Morris - San Antonio
Kurt Mueller - Austin
Kelly O’Connor - San Antonio
Tom Orr - Dallas
Linda Pace - San Antonio
Matthew Roberts - Austin
Soody Sharifi - Houston
Noah Simblist - Dallas
Gary Sweeney - San Antonio
Brad Tucker - Dripping springs
Michelle Gonzales Valdez - San Antonio
Michael Velliquette - San Antonio
Rebecca Ward - Austin
David Ubias - Pasadena
Nobody is saying which jurors — or where they were from — chose which artists to award thousand-dollar checks to. Probably good nobody finds out. Last time (the first time) there was only one money winner. I was hardlly the only who disagreed with that choice.
This year's grand prize winners were
Brad Tucker - Houston
William Hundley - Austin
Virginia Fleck - Houston
Peat Duggins - Austin
Frances Bagley - Dallas
I've discussed four of these five artists at some length on this page. Four with illustration of their art. The one not is Peat Duggins, whose work we included in our coverage of the first show, but his untitled watercolor and ink drawing escaped us this time. I wondered when I was told it was the same artist whether it was included for old time's sake.
His several pieces last time were elegant and pristine. This one is busy and crowded. Where there was elegance of line and an abundance of ground now is piled on thick and deep. I guessed he was the same artist we'd delighted in last time only because airplanes still dominate the subject matter. His lines haven't changed that much. Nor has his style. And I've enjoyed his disparate pieces on the internet. They have style, grace and humor. But this one didn't do it for me.
Ubias' work was raw, rambunctious, fun, funny, weird and wonderfully varied. It brightened three short walls in the entrance at Bolm and set our minds to wandering. Pure color and shape as well as pure foolishness. We spent long minutes exploring his line and his lines.
And not in the catalog.
stories from the first year's Biennial
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