Don't imagine that Virginia Rutledge has anything against Our Fair City. Quite the contrary. "I love Austin," insists the New York-based art historian and attorney. "I identify with Austin as being my home in some ways, since I spent a fair amount of time here as a younger person and my parents live nearby and I travel here a lot."
But when Rutledge was invited to curate the 2011 Texas Biennial, she was concerned about the survey of the state's contemporary art scene being perceived as "Austin-centric." Since the Biennial's 2005 debut and subsequent editions were organized by artists and gallery directors in the capital city, exhibiting the selected artists here was a natural way to go. For Rutledge, though, it was equally natural "to want to be in more places geographically in a state that's just so large." So she told the organizers: "I'd like to do it, but only if you're up for making a push to make it truly statewide in as many ways as possible." Happily, she says, they were. So with Rutledge possessing, in her words, "more than a little bit of organizational drive – some people would call it a mania," they proceeded to blast beyond Austin's city limits. Partnerships were established with BOX 13 ArtSpace in Houston and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center in San Antonio to exhibit work by Biennial artists, and upward of 60 arts organizations from Corpus Christi to Abilene and Lufkin to El Paso agreed to take part in the Biennial through their own Texas-oriented art exhibitions, artist talks, and special events. Plenty of art will still be exhibited in Austin – in such familiar venues as Big Medium, Pump Project Art Complex, the University of Texas' Visual Arts Center, and Women & Their Work, as well as in less conventional spots, such as the fifth and 14th floors of 816 Congress and a vacant house in the 1300 block of Rosewood – but now the Biennial stretches to every point on the Lone Star.
Owing to her Texas roots and frequent travel to Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, Rutledge was aware of the diversity and quality of the work being made here: "Texas art participates nationally and globally in the trends of the contemporary art world, and I don't see anything provincial or backwater or outsider in any way, shape, or form."
Now, that's not to say that Rutledge sees Texas artists as being like those anywhere else: "What is different here – and it's really significant – is the sense of purpose behind the project, the identity of what it means to be a practicing artist in a place that is not Los Angeles [or] New York City, the two internationally recognized cities in the United States for art production. What is amazing is that the visual arts here are just as strong and the artists' communities are just as strong and connected. That speaks a lot about people's identity as a Texan in that sense."
So what's the basis for that connection and strength among artists here? "Texans still have an identity out in the world," Rutledge offers. "You can fly to Istanbul, and people will say: 'Oh, you're from Texas? Oh, of course, you're so friendly and open.' Maybe that's part of it. There is a sense of Texas self, crazy though it may sound and generalizations being what they are. Maybe that has something to it. I don't know. But it is really clear to me that the Texas university system allows artists who might otherwise have no hope of a formal entry of any kind into visual arts studies to do something. And I don't think that's true necessarily in other states. The more you talk with people, the more you find out so-and-so studied with so-and so. I was just in Lubbock, where there is a strong, strong, strong sense of identity as an artist in a community among a pretty large group of people, with Texas Tech being kind of a hub for that. I was in San Antonio, and I was struck by the number of very active arts departments throughout that city's universities. They're also very diverse. They're not all Caucasian. I'm white, but the Texas visual arts scene at the university level seems to be quite mixed, which is great. And not true in a lot of other states."
Despite her familiarity with the art of the state, Rutledge found some pleasant surprises in the Biennial submissions. "I'm happy to say there was an amazing amount of really strong work," she says. "The photography and video that I selected for the show are as exciting as anything I've seen anywhere. Although proportionately, there was far less photography and video submitted than I would have expected today, when those media forms are so prevalent everywhere else. Wow, there is amazing abstraction going on in Texas that's really fresh looking to my eye. I was thrilled to see that, having a not-so-secret obsession with abstraction. So in the show you'll see a lot of abstract painting or work that moves between abstraction and figuration that's really exciting."
Perhaps most exciting for Rutledge were works that managed to be at once images in their own rights and conceptual explorations of art. "It's almost as if the visual art is just a touchstone, a trigger for all the other ideas [of] what that person thinks of as being the work of art," she says. "And that is happening in a bunch of different places. It's happening with people doing photography and video, but there are even what look like straight-on paintings that the more you look at them the more you realize, 'Wow, there's some other stuff going on here.' It's not just about the artist confronting the canvas, working with the history of art. There's a lot of activation among this stuff. Quite a lot of work in the show will have people thinking about what exactly the work of art is. It's not confined to just the thing you see in front of you visually."
All Texas Biennial exhibitions run April 9-May 14, though days and hours vary by venue. They are free of charge. For more information, visit www.texasbiennial.org.
816 Congress, fifth and 14th floors
Artists: Matthew Bourbon, Shannon Cannings, Bernardo Cantu, Kristen Cochran, Catherine Colangelo, Clarke Curtis, Cassandra Emswiler, Michael Anthony García, Anthony Garza, Lori Giesler, Rigoberto A. Gonzalez, Nathan Green, Nicholas Hay, Katy Horan, Kathryn Kelley, Tom Orr, Jessica Mallios, Richard Martinez, Marcelyn McNeil, Brandon Miller, Rahul Mitra, Kia Neill, Ricardo Paniagua, Jason Reed, Sam Sanford, Shane Tolbert, Brad Tucker
Artists: Joshua Bienko, TJ Hunt, Dion Laurent, Abby Ronaldes
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Barbara Jordan Terminal
Daily, 4am until final flight of the day
Artist: Brent Ozaeta
Big Medium, 5305 Bolm #12
Artists: Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Brent Ozaeta, Carin Rodenborn
Pump Project Art Complex, 702 Shady
Artists: Esteban Delgado, Gabriel Dawe
Visual Arts Center, UT-Austin Art Building, 23rd & Trinity
Tuesdays-Thursdays, 10am-7pm; Fridays-Saturdays, 11am-5pm
Artist: Hana Hillerova
Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca
Mondays-Fridays, 10am-6pm; Saturdays, noon-5pm
Artists: Susi Brister, Elizabeth Chiles, Jonathan Faber, Anthony Sonnenberg, Barry Stone, Cathie Tyler
Saturday, April 9
5-9pm: The True Artist Bears the Weight of the World
Performance by TX11 artist TJ Hunt, 1319 Rosewood
Friday, April 15
5-10pm: Exhibition openings
7pm: Performance by Ryder Jon Piotrs of Nomadic Gallery, 1319 Rosewood
8pm: Performance by TX11 artist Brad Tucker, Trailer Space, 1401-A Rosewood
9pm: Performance by Ryder Jon Piotrs of Nomadic Gallery, Pump Project Art Complex, 702 Shady
Saturday, April 16
2-4:30pm: Like a Whole Other Country? The State of Contemporary Art in Texas
Panel featuring artist Margarita Cabrera; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curator Alison de Lima Greene; artist Trenton Doyle Hancock; Los Angeles Times art critic David Pagel; 2011 Texas Biennial curator Virginia Rutledge; and UT-Austin art history professor Richard Shiff. Blanton Museum of Art, MLK & Congress
5-8pm: Mexico Abre la Boca
Special installation by artist Margarita Cabrera, southeast corner of Seventh & Congress
5-10pm: 2011 Texas Biennial Video Screening
Artists: Michelle Devereux, Scott Gelber, Joey Fauerso, Sam Sanford, Kelly Sears, Angela and Mark Walley, the Zellner Brothers, Arthouse at the Jones Center, 700 Congress
Party honoring 2011 Texas Biennial artists with a performance by TX11 artist Dion Laurent (8pm), Arthouse at the Jones Center, 700 Congress
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.