Sunday, March 27, 2005

The 48th Corcoran Biennial

In discussing the 48th Corcoran Biennial with the curators, one encounters the words "traditional" and "earnest" quite often, and after a couple of rounds through the exhibit, it may be a bit if a head scratcher for some to try to figure out exactly where "tradition" fits in.

But like those color dot eye tests that are given to determine color blindness, once the clever thread that holds this exhibition together is discovered, then and only then can one see what co-curators Stacey Schmidt and Dr. Jonathan Binstock have accomplished in the 2005 version of the Biennial.

Titled "Closer to Home," the exhibition gathers fifteen artists from an initial field of around 150 artists initially considered by the curators. The title is both a metaphor for what Binstock and Schmidt attempt to accomplish (a return to more traditional artwork) as well as a signpost to show that the curators are proud of the fact that four of the fifteen artists selected are from our area (that’s three more than the sole DC area artist included in the previous Biennial). Our kudos to the curators for this sensitivity and awareness of Washington area artists.

But finding and examining the thread that unifies this exhibition is the prime objective of my discussion of the show. The second issue is the discovery that seldom has a genre (in this case photography) imposed itself so quickly and firmly, heads above the rest of the other forms of art included in this show. To tip my card early: photographers stole this show.

Sculptural Offerings and Other Oddities

Start by not missing the huge sculpture by Chakaia Booker on the extreme right wall of the ground floor.

Made of torn black tires, it is surprising organic and even visceral when you get right close to it. In the catalog, Schmidt writes that "the worn treads are particularly evocative, and Booker emphasizes their rich textural quality through her deft deployment of repetition." I don’t know about that, but in more plebian language, the artist (by the way, who could walk into any Star Wars movie or any Star Trek set in the world) has morphed the qualities of the discarded rubber into a believable sculpture support system, that (like Michelangelo’s David) seems almost alive and able to move. It was a good choice for inclusion in this show, and it was one of my early favorites in the exhibition, although I wish it could have been placed somewhat closer to the rest of the works, as I am afraid that its present location may make some visitors miss by the Rev. Acres

Then walk through the Rev. Ethan Acres inflatable and brightly colored yellow... uh... things, and examine the preaching pumpkin-headed sculpture surrounded by black felt birds in the Corcoran’s second level rotunda, and it takes a bit to gather the first subtle hints of what ties this exhibition together. And no, it isn’t Stephen King’s The Stand.

So where’s the traditional connection here? Meet the Reverend, a likable and vocal young man who truly has the charm and voice qualities of a street preacher, and he’ll let you know about how he’s been preaching since he was a child, and will soon be starting the "Church of Having Fun" (I think that church's name is in constant flux) in Los Angeles; I have dibs for the first outlet in our area.

For the Biennial, Schmidt and Binstock chose a series of inflatable contraptions, which using some sort of noisy blowing motor, keep the yellow plastic works inflated, sort of like an artsy version of those dancing air men one sometimes sees at outdoor concerts or a children’s bouncy castle. They are covered in writing extolling the virtues of what the Reverend likes to preach.

Therein lies the first hint of where tradition exists within the trying-to-be-outrageous work of the Reverend and our first hint of what the curators are going after.

Go up one level, and upon entering the main exhibit area, one runs into the balls of yarn and the cardboard and yarn floor sculpture of Kathryn Spence, strangely reminiscent (at least to me) of something almost identical that I saw at the last Art-O-Matic.
work by Kathryn Spence
There are also paper towels that have the decorations on them stitched by the artist, as if she’s underlining the quilting impression that Madison Avenue pushes when advertising paper towels. The quilted paper towels are displayed on a shelf, a bit of a heavy handed metaphor for the home, but also one which helps us bridge the "traditionality" of the artist’s work (quilting) to a modern context (the paper towels as the support medium).

Take something "traditional," and marry it with something more "modern." And the thread is now becoming a rope (or in this case yarn).

The paintings by Monique Van Genderen are displayed also in this area, and of all the work in this show, these were the one that I would characterize as most forgettable – they are the kind of sixty-year-old-looking work that one sees almost everywhere artwork is ever exhibited, from the most plebian of community centers in Manassas to the most hoity toity of art galleries in New York. I lost the thread there.

The thread is brilliantly pulled back into focus by the delicate and somewhat puzzling collages of Austin Thomas. Technically anchored by a set of tiny, flower-shaped paper forms, the collages float back and forth between the realm of geometric abstraction, to the illusionist viewpoint of one looking at aerial views or building and airports.

What Austin has cleverly done is fool us into becoming intimate examiners of her work, traditional in the sense that she’s just assembling paper on paper, while at the same time puzzling us with questions as to the significance (and identity) of what she’s trying to, or not to, represent.

Thomas also has a couple of sculptural pieces in this show, that even after a few close looks, still seem to me like nothing more than a glorified gazebo. I will admit that the bench that is now in the last room of the exhibition (looking strangely out of place in a gallery full of early American portrait paintings) is an improvement over the ordinary bench that it replaced and I encourage the Corcoran to buy it; but it's just a fancy bench.

A couple of floor sculptures by area stalwart Jeff Spaulding (a Trawick Prize finalist last year) hark back to the halcyon days of found-object assemblage and return us to tradition, especially with the bike seat sculpture. As soon as Picasso married a bike seat with the bike’s handlebars to create the head of a bull, back in the early years of the last century, those objects entered the pantheon of tradition, while at the same time remaining modern-looking parts for generations of sculptors to come.

The Triumph of Photography

The next room reveals the true great find of this Biennial: the daguerreotypes of Adam Fuss. And it was Fuss, during my first walk-through, who provided me with the key to unravel the unifying force of the exhibition.

What can be more traditional that a 19th century photographic process? And is there a geekier group of people in the fine arts than techno photographers, with their love of wet plates, pinhole cameras, and even daguerreotypes. Some people think that digital photography will soon eclipse the dark room and film.

To them I say bull! As long as there are Adam Fusses in the art world, there will always be bridges between the old and the modern.

Couple a modern-looking image (in this case wave-like forms made -- I think -- by a drop of water), repeated in multiple instantiations with the technical beauty of a daguerreotype, and then present it in a super clean, barely-there minimalist clear frame, and you have a room of photographs that are the essence of post-modern hi-fallutinism but owing their birth to one of the most traditional of photography’s ancestors.

This is what the 48th Biennial is all about -- Bravo Fuss; you rule this show!

And I think that Binstock and Schmidt know this, because as we sail past Fuss' photographs, the next few artists (all three of them area residents) all seem to get it, and better still offer it back.

That is if you skip Matthew Buckingham’s slide show. This is the one piece that truly fails by trying too hard.
slide show by Buckingham
Like an awful lot of conceptual art, Buckingham’s entry in the Biennial suffers from conceptualititis, that strange and common disease where the conceptual idea is a lot more interesting than the actual visual project. In this case, Buckingham bridges the road between the traditional and the new by re-visiting the 1910 project by photographer Rudolph DeLeeuw, who photographed every building on both sides of Broadway (from Bowling Green to Columbus Circle) in New York City.

Buckingham returns to the scene of the original photography, re-shoots the exact same views, and tries to bring it to a modern setting through the pseudo installation process of showing fade-away slides in a dimly lit room.

And it doesn’t just fail because the interesting concept is just that (interesting as a concept), but it also fails because Buckingham’s photos are some of the drabbest, plainest, fill-in-the-blank-with-a-negative-word "est" photos that I’ve seen since I last attempted to take photographs (in an eerily similar project) as an art school student in Seattle a couple of decades ago.

Locals to the Rescue

But the local boys rekindle the show. We first encounter Colby Caldwell (represented locally by Hemphill Fine Arts), and who is easily one of the most innovative photographers in our area. Caldwell has two bodies of works on exhibition – both of which reinforce what Binstock and Schmidt are trying to assert.

In the first series of works, he displays the 8mm film of his friends (shown in modern looking video monitors). The traditionality of the 8mm film, which has been a key part of Colby’s work for the last few years, is married to the modernity of the video as art (although this form of art is getting a bit long in the tooth now -- it’s in its 40s).

The 8mm film is scratchy and color-flooded enough, and short enough (three minutes each) to warrant attention (as opposed to the interminable bores of Tacita Dean for example).

Caldwell left individual friends alone with the 8mm camera running, and let them choose what to say and do. It works well in this exhibition – underline another artist who solidifies the exhibition premise.

example of the Caldwell work I am discussingCaldwell’s other pieces are enlarged color works derived from single frames from old 8mm film. He has chosen various frames, but it is the "error" frames, where perhaps the rastering of the 8mm has gone off, which are the most interesting.

Once these colorful raster images are gigantized to the proper Teutonic scale required by modern day museum curators, and presented on the walls, it is easy to handcuff them to the tradition of the Washington Color School.

Yes, yes, I know that no stripe painter ever painted anything like Caldwell’s old family movies have birthed, but if they’ve had the visual idea, they would have done so and Caldwell’s modern works would have fit right into the painting dialogue of the Color School (not to mention that Colby’s would have been "thinner" than the "thinnest" of paintings).

I love it when intelligence, technical ability and historical glue all come together to deliver great artwork. Bravo Caldwell!

And the rest of this room belongs to our own, for Caldwell’s neighbors are James Huckenpahler (represented locally by Fusebox and also a Trawick Prize finalist) and Baltimore’s John Lehr, who is not represented by anyone locally, but who I am sure will soon be in the stable of a good local gallery and a powerhouse LA or NYC gallery.

John Lehr is a very young photographer whose work came through the attention of co-curator Jonathan Binstock through the jurying process for the Trawick Prize (are we seeing another thread here?). Two bodies of work are exhibited, but it is the first set, a series titled Sound and Fury that truly identify young Mr. Lehr as someone to keep an eye upon.

And let me be frank and tell you that Lehr’s photography is that sort of photography that does not speak to me personally; I don’t like boring, blasé photography, but an awful lot of important contemporary art world voices do, and thus I predict good things for this likeable young man, who is not yet 30..

About his work: start with the "everyone is photographing empty streetscapes" formula, but then add something compositionally (and contextually) different. In this set of photographs, Lehr has skillfully bisected the large, drab images with a neat view of the slim side of a large sign. Imagine your typical billboard, or neon advertising sign, etc. When viewed from the side, Lehr denies us (and the sign sponsors) the message. All that’s left is a bisecting line that divides the landscape into shapes, sometimes eerily unrelated.

But after that's over and done with... what then? That is the biggest challenge for young Mr. Lehr. In fact, his second body of works in this exhibition, aligned to the left of the Sound and Fury photographs, are just another set of common, colorful, poster-like photos. The challenge then for young John Lehr, even before he pops into the national stage, is the curse of the "what's new?" crowd... after all, one can't photograph signs sideways for the rest of your life (can they?).

Iñigo Maglano-Ovalle Cloud Prototypeno.1A blob of silver suspended from the ceiling directs us to the computer-generated work of James Huckenpahler.

The blob of silver is by Iñigo Maglano-Ovalle, although for a minute there I thought that perhaps Huckenpahler was trying his hand at sculpture and was taking one of his computer-generated works into the third dimension.

As any Washington area art junkie knows, Huckenpahler’s palette is the laptop, and his art are the computer manipulated images that he distills from the original input files, in this case forms and parts of the body that eventually yield amorphous forms and designs that struggle to leave the two dimensional trap of the flat surface though the intelligent use of highlight to give the illusion of three dimensions. They are beautiful, almost sensual images, and yet, after seeing Huckenpahler push his laptop to the limit, one but gets the feeling that he’s beginning to accomplish all that can be done with the avenue that he has so well explored.

Somewhere in some lab in Silicon Valley, some techy geek is now inventing holographs for the masses, so that our kids can play their Xbox games in three dimensions. As soon as he does that, Huckenpahler can probably explode his formidable artistic vision away from the wall, but for now I think that he is dangerously close to becoming trapped by his own ability and success. He does well in this show, and his work is by far some of the best in the Biennial, as he was clearly pushed by Binstock and Schmidt to stretch the boundaries of his art, but I think he’s now reached max speed and needs to invent a new acceleration scheme.

The Failure of Painting

As I mentioned earlier, Van Genderen's paintings left me in a complete state of apathy, and the other two painters in the show also fail miserably to impress anything memorable for the "ancient medium."

The curators do try to impress upon visitors that there’s no irony in any of the works selected; these are artists working in "earnest," and perhaps while not at the vanguard of the irony-driven front lines of the art scene, they are nonetheless an important and serious part of it.

But if George Condo’s paintings are not supposed to be ironic, then what the hell are they supposed to be about? I suppose that with enough art jargon anyone could coat these silly, cartoonish, badly painted works with a certain sense of decorum and purpose; I for one, lack that much talent.

The imagery itself is puzzling: distorted heads and community college night school surrealism. And although the catalog describes them as "exquisite, painterly portraits," this is not true. In fact, they are (technically) badly painted by someone who makes tones and hues by mixing everything with white (the unfortunate and common pseudo technical weapon of choice of self-taught Sunday painters).

The lack of technical skill as a painter is not the only thing that makes these works fail, although if Condo’s works are truly to be seen as "earnest," then a few painting classes wouldn’t hurt.

But the imagery itself is just plain... uh... silly! Not "bizarre," just silly. Like what would come out if you commissioned Zippy to create a new series of paintings for Sears. I can see it now: Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light and Zippy the Pinhead: Painter of Silliness.

Dana Schutz's paintings have been in a lot of Biennials all over the world since this young painter got her MFA at Columbia in 2002. And they are an improvement over Condo’s, but they are nonetheless still somewhat of a surprise to me, simply because, when viewed in person and up close, they seem so pedestrian and art school assignmentish.

Surgery by Dana SchutzWith the sole exception of "Surgery," which earns some respect by employing that powerful trump card of representational painting that will always keep it as the king of the fine arts: the ability to capture our attention by offering an unusual (in this case slightly gruesome) scene.

In "Surgery" a female figure is being dissected by a set of other figures around her. It is the most memorable of paintings in the show, but fails to rescue painting from the bottom of the pile in this exhibition.

Finally, the Richard Rezac sculptures left me without a deep opinion. They are minimalist enough, and simple enough, a colorful enough, so that they could easily (if anyone wanted to) be mass-produced into a "make your own modern sculpture" kit. Perhaps the "tradition" here could be a "family art night" where family members could all re-arrange the clean, elegant pieces into different shapes to create modern sculptures.

Well Done!

The 48th Corcoran Biennial is a clever and interesting show, which by design and intention delivers an intelligent marriage of what is seen as traditional, but often able to cross into what we now perceive as modern.

As with any group show, the failures are jaw-dropping in their lack of presence, but the successes, led by Fuss, Caldwell, Lehr and Huckenpahler, more than make up for the weak links in this top notch group show. It is well worth the two-year wait and well worth a visit.