Look Back in Wonder

The fifth Texas Biennial celebrates its past glories

<i>Mirror, Mirror</i> (2007) by Linda Pace
Mirror, Mirror (2007) by Linda Pace (Courtesy of Texas Biennial)

As with a lot of ideas cooked up in Austin, it was pretty ambitious and audacious: a big juried exhibition of contemporary art drawn from the length and breadth of the Lone Star State. What made the scheme all the bolder was the fact that it was conceived and executed by just a handful of small studios and curators from one city (guess where?) with no serious funding support. But as with a lot of other ambitious, audacious ideas cooked up in Austin (East Austin Studio Tour, Fun Fun Fun Fest, South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, et al.), it managed to take root despite the odds against it and flourish. Now, eight years after its debut, the Texas Biennial is making its fifth go-round, with five major exhibitions around the state – one each in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Marfa, and guess where – pulled together by 16 curators, and another 80 arts organizations in two dozen cities from the Panhandle to the Valley taking part in it as well.

The keystone to the Biennial, the curated survey of work across the state, is concentrated in a single venue this year: San Antonio's Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, where more than 70 artists will be showcased. Supplementing that will be new work by performance artists at CentralTrak, the University of Texas at Dallas' artist residency center, and a show by the Dallas Collective at Ballroom Marfa. But the Biennial is also using its fifth anniversary to acknowledge its own history – or rather the art and artists that have built its history. Curator-at-large Virginia Rutledge tapped Michael Duncan, curator of the 2009 Biennial, to help her create a pair of exhibits that focus on artists from past Biennials, one at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston that will show work by Christie Blizard (2009, 2011), Marcelyn McNeil (2011), Tom Orr (2007, 2011), and Brad Tucker (2007, 2011); and a group show at Big Medium's new space here in Austin that presents previously shown art, such as Mirror, Mirror, an installation by Linda Pace, who died in 2007, and recent work by 26 participants in the first four Biennials. The Chronicle emailed Duncan to learn more about "New and Greatest Hits: Texas Biennial 2005-2011" and the philosophy behind this glance in the Biennial's rearview.

Austin Chronicle: The Big Medium exhibit is the part of this year's Biennial that speaks most directly to its history and addresses it in some scope. What was most important to you and Virginia in representing what the Biennial has been up to this point?

Michael Duncan: Virginia and I wanted to celebrate this fifth version of TXB by highlighting some of the sterling artists who have participated in past Biennials. The point is both to take a fresh look at some of the terrific art that was shown in the past and show what kinds of things the TXB artists are continuing to produce. Several of the artists have moved out of state since their TXB appearance, and their new works haven't been shown in Texas. The Big Medium show is a way for these artists to stay in touch with their Texan roots and show people here what they've been up to. Unlike the Lawndale show (which focuses on four wildly different takes on abstraction), the Big Medium exhibition is a kind of sampler of work in a variety of media with a variety of themes and styles. We tried to show the full range of Texas art.

AC: What was the process for selecting artists? With regard to "greatest hits," were there works that either of you knew right away you wanted to include?

MD: Virginia had heard several requests to see Linda Pace's igloo, and we both felt it was appropriate to acknowledge her as an artist who gave so much to the Texas art community. We also tried to include a fair sprinkling of artists from each of the Biennials and gave special privilege to artists who had works in more than one. We each tried, of course, to repress our prejudices in favor of the artists of our own Biennials.

AC: Do any works from past Biennials look different to you today than when they were first shown? Has time affected your sense of some of the past work, for better or worse?

MD: Some of the artists had undergone radical changes, but we looked for pieces that showed some continuity in theme or style with past works. Jules Buck Jones, for example, has shifted away from finely rendered drawings, but the fantasy and crazy-nature elements of his work are very much still present.

AC: Can you speak to where the Biennial is in its fifth incarnation? And how does the exhibition you curated work in the overall Biennial this year – what makes it a valuable (or even invaluable) piece of the whole?

MD: We hope that the Big Medium show demonstrates the extraordinary quality of Texan contemporary art. There is absolutely nothing "provincial" or "regional" about this work. The prejudice in this country against any art made outside of N.Y. and L.A. becomes more and more absurd every year. The word desperately needs to get out that Texan art is worthy of international respect. The best scenario would be for an exhibition like this one to travel across the country and abroad. That would take resources that an artist-run organization like TXB currently doesn't have. But why shouldn't a major institution join in on such a project?

"New and Greatest Hits: Texas Biennial 2005-2011" continues through Sept. 28 at Big Medium, 916 Springdale, Bldg. 2, #101. For information, visit www.texasbiennial.org.

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Texas Biennial, Austin visual art, Virginia Rutledge, Michael Duncan, Linda Pace, Jules Buck Jones, Brad Tucker

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