Texas Biennial is lead cover on ArtInfo
On the increasingly bloated and homogenous global biennial circuit, the Texas Biennial — now in its fifth edition — is setting itself apart by keeping tightly focused on Texas. The Biennial has been steadily expanding since its beginnings as an Austin-based exhibition spanning five local art spaces in 2005. In 2011 it spread to Houston and San Antonio, taking over nine non-profit spaces in three cities with works by 48 artists. And this year, with more than a dozen curators and over 70 artists showing in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Marfa, Dallas, and many points in between and beyond, the Texas Biennial is truly Texas-sized. The exhibition’s curator-at-large Virginia Rutledge, a former curator at LACMA and a lawyer specializing in art and intellectual property who splits her time between Texas and New York — she curated the 2011 Biennial solo — has had to herd innumerable moving parts into place ahead of the September 5 opening.
“I have been more involved in wrangling,” Rutledge says. “What ended up happening was rather than this being a curation-by-committee process, every curator had the option to select the artists that they were most interested in, and that is the work we used — the work they found the most interesting. There’s a real range, a real diversity that is unexpected in some ways. This won’t look like a show that you’ve seen before, even though there will be many works that participate in all the same national and international trends.”
What remains most distinctive about the Texas Biennial, though, is its very rigorous geographic focus. All the artists are based in the Lone Star State, and all 13 curators have some kind of connection to the state, from Fort Worth-born artist K8 Hardy to Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick and El Paso Museum of Art curator Christian Gerstheimer. The Biennial’s main exhibition at San Antonio’s Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum will feature one or two pieces by a whopping 64 artists, three artist duos, and two collectives. And though the lineup includes a few familiar names, for the most part it will showcase the state’s less well-known artists.
“The curators all seemed to skew toward emerging artists,” says Rutledge. “Texas has a very rich university art system, maybe even surprisingly so — the caliber is really, really high. So probably the thing that I noticed most, which is not surprising, is that recent graduates from the better in-state programs are very highly represented.”
In addition to the main exhibition, the Biennial’s fifth edition features special anniversary programming. Among them is a pair of exhibitions in Austin and Houston that Rutledge co-curated with Michael Duncan — co-curator of the 2009 Biennial — inviting back artists from previous years. At Houston’s Lawndale Art Center, the Texas Biennial Invitational will feature works by Christie Blizard, Marcelyn McNeil, Tom Orr, and Brad Tucker.
“Michael and I have very different tastes, but the thing we share is an enthusiasm for the offbeat,” Rutledge says. “And we were able to find a group of artists that in many ways have an incredible formal rigor — I’m thinking of the sculptor Tom Orr specifically, or the painter Marcelyn McNeil — they’re brilliant formalists, just stunning.”
With so many artists and exhibitions spread over so many hundreds of miles, the Texas Biennial is uniquely decentralized. But that hasn’t stopped certain trends and tendencies from emerging.
“The thing that surprises me the most — because I’m used to the New York scene or even the L.A. scene — is that there’s surprisingly little overtly politicized work,” Rutledge notes. “There are many artists and artist collectives [in Texas] that are very actively involved in using their work to talk about political issues. But relatively little of that work was entered into the Biennial, and it’s one of the questions that we have raised in the catalogue.”
Beyond tapping into the many emerging artists and MFA programs that are making the state an increasingly important region on the global contemporary art map, Rutledge and the organizers of this year’s Biennial have courted the state’s many art institutions. Through the “Participating Organizations” initiative, some 80 groups, schools, organizations, galleries, art centers, and project spaces from Abilene to Wichita Falls will present complimentary programs during the Biennial.
“We’ve asked them if they would do something that focuses on a Texas-made work during the time the Biennial is up,” Rutledge says. “And we’ve done that so that there is again a tie back to the specificity of what the infrastructure is in Texas.”
But she also stresses the importance of reaching beyond the state’s art community to reach a broader public.
“I think we’re still making case for why contemporary visual art should be given the same sort of social recognition and resources that certain other art forms just get without having to be defended,” she says. “So a big challenge has been to make sure that the conversation doesn’t happen just within the relatively small group of people who already get it.”
The 2013 Texas Biennial runs at venues across the state September 5-November 9.