Austin: The Texas Biennial
March 6 – April 11, 2009
Eye to Eye, Mexican American Cultural Center
DIY: Double Wide, Women & Their Work
William Cannings, Okay Mountain
Lee Baxter Davis, The Pump Project
Jayne Lawrence, MASS Gallery
Kelli Vance, Big Medium
Temporary Outdoor Projects (through December 31, 2009,) Great Meadow area of Butler Park Town; Lake Metropolitan Park – Auditorium Shores; Mexican American Cultural Center grounds; Fiesta Gardens
After visiting Austin to see the 2009 Texas Biennial and other art venues, the clearest underlining quality regarding the city’s art community that comes to mind is its ability to collaborate. Working together to increase the dialogue and push Texas art forward is what Austin does well. Texas art is sometimes deemed provincial, but regional artists, writers, curators and venues are rapidly obscuring and reversing this preconception on a national and international scale. And, indeed, there are many great artists from Texas to platform. The Texas Biennial had the right idea in mind by inviting a guest curator, Michael Duncan, to provide an outsider’s perspective while collaborating with area professionals. But there are some kinks that need to be worked out: Its purpose and unifying theme are unclear, and, frankly, too much work is included.
Like the recent Prospect.1 New Orleans Biennial, the Texas Biennial featured work by over 70 artists scattered across the city. But here, the exhibition spaces were fewer and set in closer proximity; two group shows, four solo exhibitions, and several outdoor sculptures were installed in two city parks. The two group exhibitions, Eye to Eye at the Mexican American Cultural Center and DIY: Double Wide at Women & Their Work, consisted of juried selections from an open call for works. This format is not exactly conducive for most mid-to-late career artists. Consequently, there were inherent and unfortunate gaps in representing important Texas artistic production.
To provide thematic framework for the biennial, Duncan selected Kelly Fearing as the tribute artist whose work commences both group shows. Austin-based Fearing has worked for over seventy years; his paintings are strange and quiet, often of mystical narratives set within intricately painted natural environments. For example, The Place of Tobias and the Angel (1955) features a small boy, the biblical Tobias, on the edge of a colossal red cliff reeling in a fish; he is diminutive in relation to the natural environment. Duncan asserts Fearing’s work is not regional, but closely tied to Morris Graves and, presumably, the other mid-century northwestern mystic painters. Fearing’s paintings are, however, far more realistic than the abstracted works by Graves and Mark Tobey.
Perhaps it is Fearing’s ability to both adopt and counter contemporaneous artistic approaches that makes his work both engaged with a larger context while remaining unique—an intrinsic trait in much contemporary Texas art that, ideally, should be illustrated in the biennial. But possibly due to the nature of the open-call submissions constituting the group shows, many of the other works reaffirmed—in both positive and aloof ways—that Texas is a self-contained, self-serving location for artistic production. Moreover, the intriguing connections to be found between this independence, and the often historically rooted and expansively engaged quality of Texan art, weren’t fully nuanced or developed throughout the biennial.
The two group shows were, overall, the least effective. Including works much stronger than others, the gems were easily missed in the crowded installations and confusing overarching theme. The figurative and allegorical qualities of Fearing’s paintings seemed to mainly guide many of the included selections, as both group shows lay focus on figurative paintings with relatively few sculptures and videos on hand. Most of the artists are also from Austin, perhaps resulting from the call-for-works approach.
A highlight in Eye to Eye was Christa Mares’s Emprendendora Mujer—a Mexican-style street vendor cart adorned with paper flowers and a crocheted parasol—that addresses the complexities of traditional gender and cultural identities in contemporary society. Another gem was Ivan Lozano’s Paul (For Peter and Luke), DVD projection. Here, an overly saturated image of the actor bestows a hypnotic gaze that parallels religious iconography, slyly conveying our culture’s near-religious obsession with celebrity and popular culture. Some strong works were also to be found in DIY: Double Wide, such as Jules Buck Jones’Warthogramhawk (2008). A complex, lively depiction of a centrifugal animal hybrid, the drawing is especially intriguing as installed next to an imaginative, childish drawing of the same title and subject made in 1988 by a much younger Jones.
The shows that focused on fewer works were most successful. The four solo exhibitions—each set in different art venues across the eastside of Austin—provide adequate breathing room for apt insight into these artists’ work. The artists, William Cannings of Lubbock, Lee Baxter Davis of Greenville, Jayne Lawrence of San Antonio, and Kelli Vance of Houston, each hail from the four cardinal points of Texas. Duncan and the Biennial’s Director, Xochi Solis, chose these artists after a series of road trips and studio visits—certainly a huge task, but, overall, well-chosen despite the regional limitations of this system. William Cannings’ artworks at Okay Mountain were seductively sleek, brilliantly colored steel sculptures mimicking soft, inflatable plastic forms such as inner tubes. Merging Koons and Brancusi, Cannings’Perpendicular: Ode to Brancusi’s Endless Column (2009) is a totemic reinterpretation of Brancusi’sEndless Column (1937); done here in a white, inflatable-like form, it is much more playful than infinite. However, Cannings’ connection to Fearing completely eludes me. Kelli Vance’s cinematic figurative paintings, such as She Imagined I Could Help Her—a painting of a woman spread out on a spiral staircase after being, presumably, pushed down by the shadowy high-heeled figure at the foot of the stairs—uneasily merges homoeroticism with violence, and seduction with repugnancy.
The temporary outdoor projects, co-curated by Risa Puleo of the Blanton Museum, featured six sculptures and a one-night-only performance in central and east Austin parks; it was a valuable format to both explore the city and see Texas artworks rightfully set in natural environments. Bill Davenport’s Wild Mushroom Forest features three large, colorful fungi made of concrete. The piece is humorously odd—especially amidst the joggers and Frisbee players in the park—and playfully nostalgic of the 1930s highway dinosaur sculptures found, for example, at Dinosaur Park in Rapids City, South Dakota. Sasha Dela’s Variegated Continuum are rainbow-colored metallic streamers strewn between two light posts at the MACC. The quotidian nature of these sale-indicating streamers caused Dela’s work to be easily missed, which effectively communicates the pervasiveness of such materials within a consumer-driven culture.
While biennials are overly omnipresent in the present-day, the sheer enormity of Texas and the amount of great artists here lends our state the ability and credibility to pull off its own biennial successfully. Many aspects do indicate that the Texas Biennial is moving in the right direction. However, with the Austin art scene’s ability to seamlessly collaborate in many ventures, also reaching out to state-wide art professionals to compile an invitational might be a better approach for the future.