Steve Lambert, "Capitalism Works For Me! True/False," 2011. Aluminum and electronics. 9 x 20 x 7 feet. Electronics by Alexander Reben (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
A few weeks ago I attended the opening for the 2012 deCordova Biennial, which is on view in Lincoln, Massachusetts, through April 22nd. This year curators Dina Deitsch and Abigail Ross Goodman have created a regional Biennial that features the work of 23 New England artists.
As Greg Cook points out in his recent review, the one billion dollars that have been invested in expanding and endowing Boston’s museums over the past decade is finally paying off in a newly vigorous Boston contemporary art scene.
And yet, contemporary New England artists aren’t benefiting from this expanded exhibition space as much as one might expect. As an example, Cook cites the new contemporary wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, which “features big shots upstairs,” with locals “segregated out in a downstairs hall alongside art by Boston youth.” The deCordova Museum’s 2012 Biennial is a welcome remedy to this situation.
In an interview with WBUR, the two curators explain how they pored over portfolios, road-tripped across six states, and visited about 100 studios in order to choose the work featured in the show. As is typical of these types of group shows, both the press and the museum itself have been eager to prescribe common themes for the work.
A lot has been made about the 2012 Biennial being reflective of the larger anxiety currently being experienced in our culture. While I have no doubt that many people are feeling anxious right now, particularly artists struggling to make a living in a bad economy, forcing artists’ work into pre-determined categories only ends up feeling contrived in the end. There are some interesting parallels that can be made between specific art works, but let’s put the grand pronouncements aside for now, and allow these affinities to emerge organically from the work itself…
DeCordova curator Dina Deitsch and guest curator Abigail Ross Goodman pored over portfolios, road-tripped across six states, and visited about 100 studios in order to choose the work featured in the 2012 Biennial. (Courtesy photo via WBUR)
An interesting irony about Lambert's "Capitalism Works For Me! True/False" is that he used Kickstarter to raise the money he needed to build the project. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
Steve Lambert's "Capitalism Works For Me! True/False" is a fun, provocative way to engage visitors outside of the museum walls. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
Steve Lambert's sign will travel to various towns around Boston and the rest of the country. As an interactive project, the work asks viewers to cast a simple vote—a common act in the era of the Facebook “like” button. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
One of the highlights in the show is also the first piece visitors see. While darkness prevented me from enjoying the museum’s outdoor sculpture park on the night of the opening, Steve Lambert‘s Capitalism Works For Me! True/False was a fun, provocative way to engage visitors outside of the museum walls.
Although I’ve never met Lambert, I’ve been following his work for some time now, and always find his projects intriguing. Lambert is an artist interested in dialogue, particularly in the public sphere. He co-organizes workshops for artists and activists at the Center for Artistic Activism, gives lectures and performances, and examines advertising’s effect in public space with the Anti-Advertising Agency (an art group founded by the artist). In 2008, he led a collaboration with hundreds of volunteers circulating thousands of fake New York Times Special Edition newspapers that announced the end of the war in Iraq.
Sign making is also an integral part of Lambert’s art practice. An interesting irony about this particular project is that Lambert used Kickstarter to raise the money he needed to build Capitalism Works For Me! True/False. Lambert is in sync with the times and came up with the idea for his project before the Occupy movement ignited. The sign will travel to various towns around Boston and the rest of the country. As an interactive project, the work asks viewers to cast a simple vote—a common act in the era of the Facebook “like” button.
“I want my art to be relevant to those outside the gallery – say, at the nearest bus stop – to reach them in ways that are engaging and fun,” the artist explains on his website. “I intend what I do to be funny, but at the core of each piece there is also a solemn critique. It’s important to be able to laugh while actively questioning the various power structures at work in our daily lives.”
Capitalism Works For Me! True/False works on all of these fronts, and best of all it is provocative without being preachy. To my mind, Lambert’s art is the perfect combination of humor and gravitas. With Capitalism Works For Me! True/False Lambert harnesses the power of a simple question to make us think about a economic reality we typically take for granted in our daily lives.
Biennial artists Steve Lambert and Ven Voisey with Gavin Kroeber and Rebecca Uchill (Photo by Melissa Ostrow of Mel O Photo courtesy the deCordova)
Mary Lum, "Index 2." Acrylic and photo collage on paper. 10" x 13" (Photo courtesy Mary Lum)
An installation shot of Mary Lum's collages and photographs at the deCordova (Photo by Clements Photography & Design, Boston, Massachusetts, courtesy dailyserving.com)
The colorful, surreal collages of Mary Lum were another standout in the 2012 Biennial. For a start, Lum’s works are beautifully presented in tightly grouped white frames lining a long hallway. Placing Lum’s works in a corridor works well, for there is a real sense of movement in these pieces, which is only heightened by their placement.
I was not surprised to learn that Lum considers herself in the role of a latter-day flâneuse (a French term meaning stroller coined by Charles Baudelaire). Lum’s work owes something not only to Baudelaire, but also to Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project, and to the concept of psychogeography as practiced by 1950s and 60s writers and artists of the Situationists International. At the root of psychogeography is the idea that we all experience our environments through intuition rather than cognitive organization.
Lum strolls around the city photographing the urban environment—buildings, railings, stairwells, and other architectural details. She then deconstructs these photos and collages them with acrylic paint, creating dynamic, unique spaces for viewers to occupy and explore. Lum’s images left me feeling both exhilarated and disoriented, as though I were in a dream where the environment was familiar, yet not quite right. What is fact and what is fiction? There’s no easy answer to this question when viewing a Mary Lum collage, and it’s this uncertainty that creates a fascinating tension.
Mary Lum, "Incident 1073." Acrylic and photo collage on paper. 11" x 9". (Photo courtesy Mary Lum)
Artist Mary Lum (on right) with guests Monique Johannet and Harwood Egan (Photo by Melissa Ostrow of Mel O Photo courtesy the deCordova)
Mary Lum, "Fifth Glance." Acrylic and photo collage on paper. 12" x 9". (Photo courtesy Mary Lum)
Mary Lum, "Seventh Glance." Acrylic and photo collage on paper. 12" x 9". (Photo courtesy Mary Lum)
I also found the work of Chris Taylor absorbing. Although Taylor is a glassblower, he is as much a conceptual artist as a craftsman. For Taylor, process is often more important than product. The artist was born in Tehran, Iran, and now teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Taylor’s previous projects include SCHOTT Return (2003-10), in which Taylor fabricated a replica glass lab beaker with slight imperfections, which he then shipped to the SCHOT manufacturer as a flawed object for return. After receiving a new ‘perfect’ beaker from the factory, Taylor exhibited the two works side-by-side, challenging the viewer to reconsider what was “real.” For another project, Taylor learned how to reproduce a 16th century Venetian goblet (a technique that had been lost for over 500 years), and then planted his reproduction next to the original in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Taylor continues to play with the idea of authenticity in the Biennial. I love his collection of hand-blown glass cups made to look like cheap, throw-away styrofoam. Taylor’s video, Small Craft Advisory (2009), is also on view at the deCordova. For this danger-filled performance, Taylor blew glass in hot furnace while sitting in a seven-foot dinghy floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
"I love Chris Taylor's collection of handblown glass cups made to look like cheap, throw-away styrofoam." Chris Taylor, Untitled, 2004–2010, glass, dimensions variable (Photo courtesy Chris Taylor and the deCordova)
I circled Antoniadis & Stone's sculptures a number of times before I realized that what appeared to be aged metal, stone, and concrete was actually plaster, particle board, and paint. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter for The Boston Globe via boston.com)
Anna Von Mertens, "Jupiter Rising, January 7, 1610, Padua, Italy," 2008. Hand-stitched, hand-dyed cotton, 54" x 100" (Photo courtesy Anna Von Mertens)
For "Jupiter Rising, January 7, 1610, Padua, Italy" Anna Von Mertens turned to the journals of Galileo for inspiration, mapping the night sky on the day that Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moons. (Photo by Melissa Ostrow of Mel O Photo courtesy the deCordova)
Illusion is also the theme of Alexi Antoniadis and Nico Stone’s large-scale sculptures. While not initially attracted to these industrial, slightly menacing works, something compelled me to continue looking. I circled Antoniadis & Stone‘s sculptures a number of times before I realized that what appeared to be aged metal, stone, and concrete was actually plaster, particle board, and paint. They are impressive fakes and once the visual joke is revealed the temptation to touch these pieces is overwhelming (though for the record, I didn’t). Luckily, the museum’s Process Room provides materials for viewers like myself who want a hands-on experience with the artists’ materials.