State of Wonderment

The Texas Biennial's first outside curator describes what he saw in Lone Star art

<i>Sideshow</i> by Jeanette Hernandez
Sideshow by Jeanette Hernandez

A biennial – or "biennale," if you prefer – makes an appearance in more than 50 cities worldwide every other year. Istanbul, Moscow, New York City, São Paulo, and Venice are just a few of the cities that host their own sprawling survey exhibitions.

Biennials are by nature a combination of a curator's microscope, trend snapshot, forecaster, forgotten artist reviver, and emerging artist's career launch. Each biennial's incarnation is received with either enthusiastic fervor or repeated yawns.

In 2005, a group of young Austin artists and gallery directors decided to put on a survey exhibition of its own to showcase only Texas artists. Branding it the Texas Biennial, a name with much gravitas, it demanded attention. (The name was up for grabs after two failed attempts to create exhibitions with that name at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 1988 and at DARE, the Dallas Artists Research & Exhibitions, in Dallas in 1993.) This kind of bravado is such a maverick Austin thing to do.

It is helpful to remember that Austin never seems to shy away from fulfilling a vision or challenge. Major cultural events such as South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which were once small, are now firmly established and attract national attention. One day the Texas Biennial could become a major event too, fitting the size of its name. Changes and expansion of the 2009 Texas Biennial indicate that it is well on its way.

The group exhibition format will remain the same as in the successful 2005 and 2007 Texas Biennials. This year, however, four solo exhibitions representing the four geographic regions of the state have been added, as well as a public art component that will stay on view after the gallery shows close. In addition, the Texas Biennial will pay special tribute to artist Kelly Fearing through a special exhibition of his work and a lecture presentation.

By far the most significant change to the Texas Biennial is the inclusion of an outside curator. Previously, artworks were chosen by a panel of arts professionals from across the state. This year, Michael Duncan, an independent curator and corresponding editor for Art in America as well as a frequent contributor to Artforum, selected the art. The Chronicle spoke with Duncan from Los Angeles to find out about his curatorial process.

Austin Chronicle: Does it surprise you a Texas Biennial like this actually exists?

Michael Duncan: It is a wildly ambitious undertaking on a shoestring budget. It seems particularly right for Austin – a culture-friendly city with independent thinkers and alternative ways of cultural distribution.

AC: What was your role as the first Biennial curator?

MD: The intention this year was to have one curator and one point of view. I happen to be a critic and curator with a very particular point of view. I tend to like figurative and narrative art as well as artists who invent their own worlds, and my selections reflect that.

AC: Did you have any particular concerns?

MD: I didn't want these exhibitions to be off-putting. A biennial should be something immediate. I'm a big believer exhibitions should be generous to the viewer, presenting things that are pleasurable to see.

AC: How does an independent curator differ from a curator on staff at a museum or nonprofit?

MD: An independent curator gets to pursue his own taste and his own vision in any direction it takes him. One is not limited to pleasing a specific constituency. There are so many museums that feel they have to be more conceptual than thou or politically correct than thou. Nothing irritates me more than people going through the trouble to go to an exhibition and then being bored.

AC: What audience is this Biennial intended for?

MD: You don't have to know anything about the artists in the show. There are many hooks that will surprise viewers who are unaccustomed to looking at contemporary art – especially the accessibility of the seven public artworks, like Bill Davenport's giant mushrooms and Buster Graybill's giant catfish. [The outdoor projects were co-curated with the Blanton Museum of Art's Risa Puleo.]

AC: So the "art insiders" will be disappointed?

MD: I see no point in making a self-congratulatory, hipster show. The point is to broaden the audience and [its] taste, even the hip East Austin crowd. I am curious to see what the reaction will be to some of my selections. We have a couple [of] traditional painters and several unknown artists. Vivian Wolfe didn't go to art school and hasn't shown. It didn't matter. Her painting of her grandson in the swimming pool is fantastic. It is so hard to depict water. I was happy to include her.

AC: Were there any recurring themes?

MD: Oh, yes! Artists positioning themselves against the world, such as Terri Thomas' outrageous paintings of herself nude with a gigantic glittered peacock or Dawn Okoro painting herself into billboard-sized postcards.

AC: Describe the selection process for the group exhibition.

MD: There were over 524 submissions, with 217 from Austin alone. Each artist submitted five artworks for consideration. I really tried to balance out the final list to represent a cross-section of the state. I chose 61 artists for the group exhibition, which consists of more women artists than men.

AC: That must have been quite a task.

MD: I was actually in France at the time and reviewed the submissions online. That was so strange, looking at Texas art that far away. First, I'd skim the artist statements, which were usually dismal, and then get right to the images. I graded them from A to F. All along, I really didn't know how many A grades I was giving, but all of those got in. I erred on the side of generosity, so a few B-pluses were included as well.

AC: So many survey exhibitions trot out the same artists over and over, yet this Biennial has so many fresh faces. Why so?

MD: Museum curators often float the same cornucopia of well-known names. That's a quota they feel they have to fill. The premise of the Texas Biennial is to surprise people, and there are so many great Texas artists who have not been discovered.

AC: How did you select the artists for the solo exhibitions?

MD: I wanted it to be broad and generational with the inclusion of one established artist, two emerging [artists], and one newcomer. I initially created a short list of 33 through recommendations and searching Internet sites like Glasstire and Art Lies. I traveled around the state conducting studio visits. The way the organizers conceived of the format is very clever. The four solo exhibitions give substantial weight to viewing a body of work by a singular artist, which is rare in a biennial format.

<i>Figure #6</i> by Jade Walker
Figure #6 by Jade Walker

AC: The tribute to Kelly Fearing is a great surprise. How did that come about?

MD: Initially, I wanted to visit his studio for personal reasons. I was so blown away by his work, I knew we had to do something. He is such a major artist, although he has been labeled as a regional artist. Regionalism is a product of the New York art world's myopia and [its] region. It's a complicated issue, because the marketplace is so involved. Word hasn't gotten out yet on Texas art, just how good it is. There are quite a few significant artists in Texas.

AC: Your video selections are very short in duration. How did that happen?

MD: One of my pet peeves is having to sit through a long video in a museum, which just isn't practical. I have always thought it would be great if they adapted a Netflix-type system.

AC: Is there a theme running through the state?

MD: Texas art is about cultivating interior vision – artists feeling at odds with the place but doing their own thing regardless.

AC: How do you keep a fresh point of view as a critic and curator?

MD: Some of my favorite artists are Florine Stettheimer, Pavel Tchelitchew, Alice Neel, Jess, Bruce Conner, and Joan Brown. I am by no means interested in just contemporary art. I get renewed by looking at different periods in art history, often going all the way back to the Italian Renaissance, especially Jacopo Pontormo and Piero della Francesca. Also, by studying art history, you don't fall for the retreads, the young artists doing the same thing that was done, say, in the 1960s.

AC: Before we close, any suggestions for viewers navigating the Texas Biennial?

MD: All the art included inspires a sense of wonderment. There is no secret to discovering that. You just have to look at it and let it have its way with you.


The Texas Biennial runs March 6-April 11 at various locations.

Friday, March 6

6-8pm: Opening of group exhibitions Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.

Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca

Saturday, March 7

Noon-5pm: Opening of solo exhibitions

Jayne Lawrence (South Texas) MASS Gallery, 916 Springdale

Kelli Vance (East Texas) Big Medium, Bay 12 Gallery, 5305 Bolm

William Cannings (West Texas) Okay Mountain, 1312 E. Cesar Chavez Ste. B

Lee Baxter Davis (North Texas) Pump Project, 702 Shady Ln.

Plus five of the Temporary Outdoor Projects in parkland locations in Central and East Austin

7-10pm: Afterparty with special performance by Jill Pangallo, Okay Mountain

Sunday, March 8

Noon-5pm: All exhibition spaces open

2pm: 2009 Texas Biennial Tribute to Kelly Fearing, Mexican American Cultural Center

Video documentary of Kelly Fearing, lecture by Michael Duncan, and special re-creation of Fearing's 1976 Introduction to De Sonorus Coloris, a visual accompaniment to Three Polonaises by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

2009 Texas Biennial Regular Hours

Mexican American Cultural Center Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-6pm; Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday, noon-5pm

Women & Their Work Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm; Saturday, noon-5pm

Big Medium, MASS Gallery, Okay Mountain, and Pump Project Wednesday-Friday, 7-9pm; Saturday, noon-5pm

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Texas Biennial, Michael Duncan, Kelly Fearing, Risa Puleo, Buster Graybill, Bill Davenport, Terri Thomas, Dawn Okoro

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