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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
While Chris Taylor explodes traditional ideas about the medium of glass blowing, New Hampshire-based artist Anna Von Mertens challenges conventional notions about quilt making and textile design. Von Mertens’s process is both modern and ancient. Using a computer program, the artist maps the night sky on specific dates and then captures these star maps in thread.
The provocative link between astronomy and personal belief is a theme in Von Mertens’ recent works. For Jupiter Rising, January 7, 1610, Padua, Italy the artist uses the journals of Galileo for inspiration, and traces the night sky on the day that Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moons, confirming that not all objects revolve around the earth. In another piece, she depicts an evening where a rare occurrence of astrology would have signified to the Magi a revelation of the birth of Jesus Christ and provided guidance on their journey to Bethlehem.
Each work is hand-stitched and dyed, a process that ties Von Mertens to traditional quilt-makers and textile artists through the centuries. And yet these pieces are shockingly contemporary in their minimalist designs. It is hard to think of a grander subject matter than time and the movement of the stars and planets, and yet the medium of cotton and thread brings an unexpected intimacy to these works of art.
Artist Cullen Bryant Washington, Jr. and photographer Matthew Gamber both explore the theme of blackness from two very different angles. Washington’s collages are a mash-up of references to pop culture, science fiction, and his Southern childhood. For Washington, blackness is a metaphor. In The Final Frontier “black” signifies both an asphalt road and the depths of the universe. If you look closely at the piece, you will see the Starship Enterprise, the face of young black man, and a Cadillac symbol.
For his series Any Color You Like, Matthew Gamber photographs a variety of objects whose primary function is to describe, draw our attention to, or test our reactions to certain colors: objects like NTSC color bars, 3D Glasses, a Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test, and an Ishihara Test represented through the medium of that ever-popular children’s toy, Light-Brite. The absence of color in Gamber’s compelling photographs is momentarily confusing, for without color many of these commonplace images become abstract. I was surprised by how long it took me to recognize certain objects without their familiar hues. It is an interesting effect, and one that ultimately challenges the veracity of black and white photography—a medium that has traditionally been used for documentary purposes.
Corin Hewitt, an eighth-generation Vermonter, is another artist whose process is as important as the final product. For his series Recomposed Monochromes, Hewitt selects a natural item—a rock or handful of soil—and digitally scans the object. He then reduces that image to a single pixel in order to derive the mean color of the object; a pinch of dirt becomes cerulean blue, a rock becomes a bold yellow. He prints that image—which has now become a monochrome color study—and buries it in the soil. Months later he unearths the print to see what effect time and nature have had on the pristine image surface. Nature has inevitably invaded his highly technical process, returning the reductive image of “dirt,” back towards being dirt again. From here, he once again scans his findings and presents the final image, now hardly minimal but heavily modulated and evocative of the soil itself.
The paintings of Ann Pibal are another notable standout in the Biennial. Pibal’s entrancing, modestly-sized paintings will reward the attentive viewer. Her works are elegant, concise, and colorful. (I’ve often thought of Pibal’s paintings as a visual equivalent of Morton Feldman’s elegant compositions.) Pibal works in the tradition of both Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, but as art historian Robert Storr points out in a 2011 exhibition catalog, Pibal is not dependent on her precedents any more than she is on the stylish currents of today. For instance, despite her overt reference of and homage to Barnett Newman’s room-scaled ‘zips’–large colorfield paintings with single stripes of paint that bisect their surface–Pibal offers her own unique variation on this male-dominated tradition by scaling down and reining in her paintings.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the work of the South End Knitters or Ven Voisey’s Ghost Radio project, which are also part of the Biennial. There are many other artists featured in the show, not mentioned here. You can see a full list on the deCordova website.
Between the 2012 Biennial and the deCordova’s Sculpture Park, there is enough art on view in Lincoln to keep you occupied for an entire day. With spring approaching, I highly recommend visiting when you can take your time exploring the grounds. The Sculpture Park occupies the entire deCordova campus, and is 35 acres of beautifully landscaped lawns, forests, fields, gardens, and terraces along the shore of Flint’s Pond. At any given time, approximately 65 sculptures are on display, and the Sculpture Park is open 365 days per year from dawn to dusk. The 2012 deCordova Biennial is on view through April 22nd. For directions, hours, and more information about the museum, please visit the deCordova website.
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