Gary Sweeney, Are You a Psychopath? (2012); paint, routed wood, plastic signs; 38 x 26 x 2”
This conversation appears in the catalog for TX★13, which also celebrates the 5th anniversary of the Texas Biennial. The catalog is available online and will be released in print soon.
CATS, DOGS, BIENNIALS: A CONVERSATION WITH THE TX★13 CURATORS
Arguably, at the heart of the Texas Biennial is a desire for exchange. The instigators of the Biennial were a group of artists based in Austin, where they found themselves working among an active local artist community but longing for more connections with peers in other communities, and hoping for more of the kind of infrastructural support that comes with established contemporary art museums, commercial galleries, and a collector base. In 2005, they put out a call open to every artist in Texas, recruited jurors, and installed a show.
Rather amazingly for a project that started almost as a joke (“Hey kids, let’s put on a biennial!”), there was a second Texas Biennial, and then another. The fifth iteration of the exhibition took place in the fall of 2013, organized under the auspices of Big Medium, a small nonprofit based in Austin. Big Medium is directed by one of the founders of the Biennial, Shea Little, who has served as director or co-director for most editions of the show. Also closely involved since curating the 2011 exhibition is Virginia Rutledge, who returned for 2013 as Curator-at-Large to continue exploring the potential of the platform.
The Biennial’s format has varied over the years, and various special projects have been added to the menu for particular editions. But the central feature of the Texas Biennial has remained the open call, established as an exhibition opportunity available to all artists living and working in the state. The result is an “independent survey of contemporary art in Texas”, selected in previous years by either a panel of jurors, or a solo curator. The basic idea was and is to provide a forum for artists in Texas to have their work seen and discussed in relation to the larger community across the state, and perhaps beyond.
This interest in reaching and connecting audiences for contemporary art inspired the participating organization initiative, introduced in 2011. Essentially this is a group-promotion effort, intended to help highlight the ecosystem for contemporary art in Texas. During the run of the Biennial, participating nonprofit arts organizations and artist-run collectives statewide join in promoting their own independent programming focused on Texas-made contemporary art. This aspect of the project was repeated in 2013 with the participation of over 70 arts organizations throughout the state, from large museums to artist co-ops.
The Biennial’s commitment to collaboration is also demonstrated by its approach to exhibition venues. The first three shows—openly DIY and sometimes quite scrappy affairs—were each distributed across multiple venues in Austin, a mix of nonprofit arts organizations and alternative spaces. In 2011, generous partners in Houston and San Antonio enabled placing portions of the group survey at nonprofit arts venues in those cities, though the largest concentration of works continued to be on view in Austin. There, the exhibition again was spread between several locations, including both established galleries and temporary spaces created from vacant office suites in a downtown commercial property and an empty home on Austin’s east side, where a significant portion of the city’s artist community is based.
In 2013, the Biennial organizers pursued several different experiments. For the first time in the history of the project, the group survey exhibition was installed in a single venue beyond Austin, at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio. Another first was a special TX★13 project co-commissioned with Ballroom Marfa and presented in both San Antonio and Marfa. And in an effort to showcase possible avenues of support for more ambitious installation and performance work, the Biennial also partnered with CentralTrak–The Artist Residency of the University of Texas at Dallas, which hosted a month-long artist residency and an evening of performance as part of the exhibition programming.
As the project has grown and interest in each iteration of the Texas Biennial builds outside of the state’s borders, the organizers have invited dialogue with other efforts to mount regionally-focused survey exhibitions and with other biennials in the U.S. and around the globe. The flip side of this catalog documents some of the history of the Biennial’s collaborations and forays, as well as the TX★13 special exhibitions at Big Medium in Austin and Lawndale Arts Center in Houston, which celebrated the project’s fifth anniversary.
The idea of exchange is particularly present in TX★13, as this fifth edition of the project invited thirteen curators (including one artist duo) to select the work of the 69 artists and artist teams or collectives that are included in the group survey exhibition. In the spirit of open exchange, Kurt Mueller, a longtime observer of the Biennial, an artist participant in the 2007 exhibition, and an editorial colleague in producing three special features for the journal Art Lies in connection with the 2011 exhibition,1 was asked to organize a “conversation” with the curators of TX★13 about the exhibition specifically and the project in general. What follows is a virtuality, in that it is composed of many conversations that took place over several months with different configurations of participants, some inhabiting the same physical space, others connected telephonically, and most in communication over email. Nevertheless, through the ebb and flow of the overlaps, circlings, and tangents below; in the many very thoughtful and critical observations and insights; and following the invitation to dip in or dive in as interest dictates, this conversation represents where the Texas Biennial is, and maybe points to some places it could go.
1 These features by Richard R. Brettell (“Sited and Situated: A Brief Account of Art Spaces in Texas”); Margarita Cabrera, Alison de Lima Greene, Trenton Doyle Hancock, David Pagel, Virginia Rutledge and Richard Shiff (“Like a Whole Other Country? The State of Contemporary Art in Texas”); and Benjamin Lima (“Biennials and Texanicity in Contemporary Art: A Survey of Surveys”) are available as pdf downloads along with the entire TX★11 catalog on www.texasbiennial.org.
Kurt Mueller: I’d like to start by asking Virginia to explain why and how the 2013 Biennial curatorial team was formed.
Kurt Mueller is a writer, curator, and artist living in Los Angeles.Virginia Rutledge: It was an experiment driven by pragmatism. As the solo curator for 2011, I enjoyed the challenge of selecting work that I thought represented the spectrum of the entries, and which hung together in terms of accomplishment. But it was also a horrific time challenge because of the sheer number of entries that came in. Michael Duncan, the brilliant independent curator who put the 2009 show together and encouraged me to accept the invitation to curate the next one, had to do some handholding.
After the increased attention the 2011 show generated, it seemed prudent to expect even more entries for 2013. Leaving aside the question of whether it would be desirable, it simply wouldn’t have been reasonable for a single curator to review all the work, unless that was her full-time job.
One of the best features of the Texas Biennial is, I believe, its willingness to tinker. Given the numbers potentially involved—and it turned out artists submitted almost 5,000 works to the open call—it seemed clear that multiple curators was a good idea, but also that curation by consensus was unlikely. Not that I’d say that selection by unanimity is ideal, regardless. So it was decided to form a team in which each curator could exercise an independent voice but had no veto power.
Virginia Rutledge is an art historian, advisor, and attorney living in New York and Texas.KM: That configuration is rather unusual, as is the decision that each curator’s individual choices would be anonymous to each other and remain so to the Biennial artists and audience.
VR: Yes, and that came about by request from several curators—who shall remain nameless. Interestingly, the group was content to go along with that request. I think everyone saw there were pros and potentially cons to identifying the specific picks of each curator, and my personal belief is that this team came together in the first place because they are curious about the larger experiment, the Texas Biennial itself, and wanted to help figure it out. So there wasn’t any pushback on the question of curatorial anonymity. The entire process was very collegial and largely drama-free.
VR: A discreet silence will be maintained.
KM: Who selected, or curated, this curatorial super team? And what were they looking for?
VR: You and I have talked previously about how loosely the word “curate” is used these days, so sure, we can say I curated the curators. But it was really a crowdsourced solution.
Shea agreed we should include artists as well as a range of others involved in putting art before an audience, all across the state. And, looking for some additional perspective, we wanted to include a few people who had some knowledge of the Texas scene but are based elsewhere. I did a lot of canvassing, and the potential group recommended by colleagues both in and outside the state got big, fast. So we settled on thirteen. Get it?
KM: I actually didn’t notice the significance of the number thirteen until you just pointed it out.
VR: Good, because it was super corny.
KM: How did having such a large number of curators work out?
VR: These are very busy but also very professional and engaged individuals. Not surprisingly, they were all generous with their time, and gave the works entered an impressive amount of consideration. From my inside view facilitating the process, in which I was not charged with making any selections myself, they did a remarkable job of reviewing entries. The selections were deeply thoughtful and often, to me at least, unexpected—something I do feel was lost to the public eye, because of the anonymity of the choices.
KM: What exactly was the selection process for TX★13?
VR: As is common these days, it was based on online review. That can be OK, but in the future I would hope to find a way to facilitate more studio visits and subsidize travel for curators around the state. As it happened, several curators told me they contacted artists whose work they never would have known about had they not seen it in the database of entries submitted to the open call. Artists could include multiple images per entry, as well as a bio or C.V. and any statement or other documentation they elected to provide.
Curators were free to select any work from the entire database. The only constraints on selection were feasibility and the realities of the available space: Could the artist maintain a complicated technological setup that on-site venue staff could not? Could the ceiling support hanging elements of a certain tonnage? Etc. Major constraints, in other words. The group did admirably well in coming to terms with the inevitable limitation on the number of artists each could include. We aimed for an initial target of up to ten artists each, expecting there might be some shared picks—as there were. Ultimately, most curators opted for a single work each by a handful of artists, which surprised me a bit. For what it’s worth, I probably would have chosen to show more works by just one or two artists; but that’s easy to say since I didn’t have to make those tough calls.
The selection process was iterative. Curators made their individual reviews of the database, and then in order to make sure that every entry received attention, each curator was tasked with specially reviewing a randomly designated chunk of entries and flagging the works they found most interesting, even if they didn’t intend to select them. These assignments were overlapped, so many eyes ended up seeing each entry. We circulated this first round of selections and flagged entries, maintaining each curator’s anonymity. Then there was a second round in which each curator reviewed the selections so far and all the flagged entries.
The last phase of coming to a final decision took much longer for some curators than others, but we wanted everyone to feel they had time to fully consider the work submitted. Quite a number of curators changed their final selections, but a few stuck with their initial choices all the way. And some curators strategized by hanging back until seeing others’ final choices, which we made available anonymously throughout the process, and then making their own selections.
KM: Did the curators talk amongst themselves during this process?
VR: Probably more than I am aware, since this wasn’t done in a group chat room. We did facilitate anonymously passing along some information such as, “I’ve seen that work in person, and you might like to know that ———”. It was interesting that a number of curators took that option to communicate.
KM: In hindsight, would you have changed the selection process at all?
VR: Not much, given the parameters of the situation—the available resources and team setup. Most curators seemed to think the iterative process was a plus, even though it took longer and caused some time lags between stages. The curatorial team format itself has some distinct advantages, primarily that it avoids the possibility of getting a singular view that is skewed in an uninteresting way. Of course it also has disadvantages.
This experiment certainly makes it that much easier to imagine several other models worth investigating. One possibility would be to set up several smaller teams with different areas of focus. Chiefly, I would hope that future iterations of the Texas Biennial are able to involve curators more deeply overall, and specifically in the actual presentation of the work. For example, resources didn’t allow bringing the curatorial group to San Antonio to participate in installing the show. Of course that would have been a quite a process itself, and maybe even a bit odd given the condition of anonymity. So TX★13 was installed with the help of a terrific exhibition designer, Ren Waung, working primarily with me and Shea.
KM: The open call system is a ready target for thinking about the Biennial’s scope and impact. Some would defend the egalitarian intentions of the call, but others would question how open the call actually is; some would argue an invitation-only model like the Whitney Biennial is best. To me, a hybrid model that ostensibly allows anyone to be considered via an open call, while also not limiting participation to the self-electing, likely by incorporating a parallel invitation process, seems most productive. Where do you fall on this spectrum?
VR: I’m for hybridization in this case, and also for continuing to mix it up and remain flexible.
There are many ways the Biennial could be structured to retain the opportunity of the open call, which I think is compelling and important, but also involve invited artists. There have already been some moves in this direction: in 2009, the now late Kelly Fearing was given a tribute exhibition; in 2011 certain site-specific works around the state by Margarita Cabrera, Mary Ellen Carroll, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Annette Lawrence—one of the 2013 curators—and James Magee were designated as part of the exhibition; and this year the Biennial and Ballroom Marfa invited Michael Corris to produce a commissioned work, a project that ended up including the formation of a group called The Dallas Collective.
But even more than the open call, the “Texas” part of this project can strongly appeal or strongly turn off. The “why” of that is fascinating to me. Cats or dogs—Gary Sweeney’s work in this exhibition kept popping up on my mental screen as this conversation was taking place.
You know, most biennials identified by the name of their location aren’t about “place”, but some of the most powerful art in biennial or festival situations anywhere is the truly site-specific work—“site” in the most comprehensive sense. I think “Texas” should be a point of reference—ideally connected to many others.
Some biennials structure their exhibitions around a theme. There are so many possibilities… I would like to see more established artists alongside more emerging artists, and there are lots of ways that could happen. It could be interesting to set up a structure of deliberate, thoughtful change for the next several iterations.
KM: I agree there are a lot of directions and places the Biennial could go—the horizon seems particularly wide. I bet the other curators have some thoughts. Let’s open this up by asking some of the TX★13 curators what they feel were the successes and limitations of the curatorial model and method for this exhibition. David?
David Pagel: The drawbacks are pretty typical: having to review the work online and taking “forever” to get through the number of submissions, especially the video entries. These problems are the same for single- or multi-curator open call exhibitions.
But this is the first time I’ve been one among many in the multi-curator selection moshpit. It changes things radically. From the very beginning I gave up on the fantasy of trying to organize a coherent show. I also limited myself to fewer choices. Knowing that others were making selections, I tried to zero in on a smaller number of candidates I felt strongest about. I simply made selections based on what I thought were the best works, the ones that struck me as most nuttily ambitious, original, complex, demanding, and satisfying. In a sense, that’s exactly what I do when I am the sole curator.
The big difference, then, was when I saw some of the other works my colleagues selected. In many cases, I thought, “Wow, that’s terrific.” In others, I thought, “I wouldn’t be caught dead putting that in a show.” So, for me, the main difference was tolerating other views. I actually like shows when ideas and works collide, so I went along with everyone else’s selections. What I was surprised to find was that some curators argued against other curator’s selections—including my own! I detected a whiff of control-mongering, micro-managing, my-way-is-best egomania there.
Anyway, I felt much less attached to, or invested in the ultimate look of the final show than I would have felt if I had done it all myself. I am deeply interested in the look of the final show, however, given the model that was followed. I think it’s an exciting approach that produces results that are true to, and resonate against, the digital phase of the Information Age, which we all inhabit.
David Pagel is an art critic and Associate Professor at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California.KM: Do you feel there is a “TX★13 point of view”? Or that the number of curators shaped the selection process and exhibition significantly?
DP: Thirteen is a lot. The number borders on excusing responsibility altogether, although I think all of us are too earnest to allow that.
I do not think that thirteen unique viewpoints are represented by the show. Nor do I think that there is a shared perspective. Yes, there are probably lots of overlaps and shared sensibilities. But unless the wall labels indicate who chose what and how highly each curator ranked an artist’s work, such notions cannot really be understood or addressed by an audience. Giving each curator a section of the exhibition would be one way of highlighting that. But all in all, there’s something about the process that gives form to the world in which we now live. I think that makes it worthwhile, and worth exploring further.
Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler: One limitation we sensed in the process is that it emphasized selection rather than curation, simply by the way that the process was structured. One idea could be to allow curators to select artists, and then work with them directly all the way through the exhibition. We believe this would have created more of a face or curatorial shape for the Biennial.
The open call structure of the Biennial brings as many limitations as it does opportunities. There are a significant number of artists who would not consider applying to an open call exhibition, as they are much more interested in a curatorial direction or curatorial questions as a context for their work. On the other hand, the open call allows anyone’s work to have a chance to be viewed by the curatorial team.
This year’s Biennial, with thirteen curators, has allowed a more pluralistic view that, theoretically, should result in the exhibition representing a broader range of artistic practices. We chose a few artists whose work we are familiar with and excited by, and we consciously chose a few artists whose work we were not at all familiar with, but who we felt have great potential.
We share a very similar opinion with David regarding the artist selections by our fellow curators. A lot of the artists would have made our list, but some wouldn’t have. From the beginning we expected that there would be disparate choices and that’s OK. In the end, this disparity creates an opportunity for some artists who most likely would not have found consensus among a group of thirteen curators.
Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler are an artist team living in Austin, and faculty at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and the University of Texas at Austin.Christina Rees: Certainly there’s a difference between this open call system and a truly curated one. We acted as jurors, really, and not curators. If we had each been asked to go out and invite our ten favorite Texas artists, the final list might look pretty different. Though of course there is some overlap, as some of my favorite artists did happen to enter. But some didn’t.
Christina Rees is a writer and independent curator living in Dallas.René Paul Barilleaux: To use the word “curate” in connection with this particular selection process is not only misleading, but inaccurate. By the way, I never use that word myself in referring to what other curators and I do—but that’s another topic. This Biennial is an assemblage or collage of stuff, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
I selected examples by artists whose work I know firsthand. Some of these artists are almost unknown beyond a small, focused following. I took this opportunity to bring their work to a larger audience. My choices are highly personal, but isn’t that the nature of the occupation? I suspect some of my colleagues took a similarly subjective approach; perhaps not. But given the chance to give attention to work that I believe in, I’m going to take advantage of my role.
However, bottom line, I would much rather see this type of survey exhibition left in the hands of a single curator, someone who creates a statement about the state of things through a singular, nuanced selection.
René Paul Barilleaux is Chief Curator/Curator of Art after 1945 at the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio.DP: I too am loathe to say that curators curate. I prefer “organize” exhibitions or “install” shows. But that’s just because I’m more used to the noun form of “curate”—a clergyman in charge of a parish—than its secondary definition as a transitive verb. That aside, I completely agree that we have been acting as selectors or jurors or bricoleurs of stuff for the Biennial. René, I also like that you make no bones about making unapologetically personal choices.
My only disagreement may be with the notion that it’s more interesting to leave the selection to a single selector. Maybe I have had my fill of those sorts of shows. There must be some way to make this more multi-headed monster work. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think the process we’ve all been involved in is some kind of first step, something that is not too-many-cooks-spoil-the-soup curation-by-committee and also not a single-perspective survey.
Annette Lawrence: Thirteen voices are certainly enough for the purposes of having a broad range of sensibilities, representation across the state, and a mix of arts professionals including artists, writers, and curators.
In choosing work for the Biennial I was able to narrow my options down to thirteen artists that I would have selected if I were working alone. I was happy to see that other curators/jurors also selected nine of these. Knowing that makes getting to the five artists I finally “voted for” less daunting, though it was still difficult.
Annette Lawrence is an artist and Professor of Drawing and Painting at the College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas, Denton.TH / AB: Annette has a good observation about the selection process and how the effect of consensus plays a part within a large group. Her comment made us think about the importance of non-consensus, of finding something exciting in a work and supporting that work and that artist but having the possibility that no one else in the group agrees with you. This is something that we think René is talking about when he mentions making highly personal choices.
We think that gathering a group of professionals from the art community to be a curatorial team is a good first step for a biennial taking place in such a populous and geographically expansive region. We really like David’s description of a “multi-headed monster” as a possible curatorial model. It is perhaps the perfect embodiment of consensus and non-consensus.
KM: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on maintaining individual, curatorial anonymity throughout the selection process and the exhibition, i.e., the decision not to reveal which monster heads chose which works.
DP: I think art, criticism, and organizing exhibitions are almost always more charged when there’s no anonymity and full disclosure. Naked transparency might add a wallop to the jury process. But it would also take lots more time.
I believe the process would also benefit from getting the gang of jurors together and hashing it out over a long weekend, making cases for specific works. That kind of horse-trading might have been fun and productive. That’s probably even less viable, simply for financial reasons.
In lieu of that, and given the low-budget, virtual nature of the beast this time around, anonymity makes sense. It captures the anonymous nature of lots of Internet interaction. Yet it still demands somewhat more accountability than is often called upon online. The mixture, to me, is interesting, and timely. And it could be cultivated and developed in future iterations, although I don’t know how exactly, logistically speaking, that could be done.
KM: It is interesting here that the desire to hash things out with the other curators, ideally in person, seems to be less the desire to champion specific artworks for inclusion, which is already guaranteed in this model, than the desire to exclude specific works, or edit the selection to thematic or contextual ends.
AL: Although it is cost prohibitive to bring everyone together around a big table to discuss and argue for their choices, doing so would probably yield a different show than the one we have.
As Virginia suggested, there is also the layer of interpretation inherent in the choices that are made in the physical installation of the show to consider.
KM: David’s suggestion that the model followed is apt to our digital era is intriguing. Does this model specifically favor certain artworks being selected?
DP: I don’t think any model necessarily favors any media. Although there may be a new category of art favored which we’d all do well to be wary of: “LOOKS GREAT ONLINE”.
Comparing the 2011 Biennial, which I also saw but did not jury, and this year’s exhibition, I feel this time around there’s more complex, confused stuff cooking. However, that just may have to do with my only having seen the final selection two years ago and this year seeing lots of the candidates, most of whom did not make the cut. I think the art in both years is generally continuous in spirit. But I also think that there may be more standouts this time around—stronger, stranger stuff.
RPB: Selecting artists and their works through online review was for me no different than the former slide review process in that all works are viewed at a similar scale, some works photograph better than others, and much is left to the reviewer’s imagination.
But I love David’s suggestion of a new category of art. If future Biennials are selected through an online process, then perhaps the exhibition itself should be viewed only online. That way, the audience will experience the work just as the curators do, and similarly find themselves second-guessing what’s visible on the screen.
TH / AB: For future Biennial iterations, we suggest that if the budget doesn’t allow for the curators to spend a day or two together, table-thumping, arguing for and against work, developing thematic and conceptual twists for the exhibition, going out for a drink to talk about it some more, then the number of curators should be smaller in order to accommodate this important level of exchange.
Unless the whole process of the exhibition can be played out online, on-screen, which in our opinion would be less interesting.
KM: A significant part of the Biennial’s audience will only experience the work and exhibition through this catalog and texasbiennial.org, but as many of you suggest, there is nothing especially new about experiencing work via reproduction, except maybe regarding video and web-based artworks, which can often be fully experienced anywhere there is a screen.
TH / AB: We’d like to add that as a roving, multi-location exhibition with no permanent or centralized institutional space, the Biennial offers a range of interesting opportunities and challenges. Within these spaces and temporary circumstances, of course some works fare better than others.
The Biennial is faced with having to make some difficult choices, especially as they pertain to artists working in the fields of extended media, installation, and sculpture. It is unfortunate that more of these works ultimately could not be included, due to space and budget constraints. As long as there’s not a more developed infrastructure in place to support works that require specialized space conditions and equipment, these kinds of works have a particular disadvantage versus other works. We currently see a substantial number of exciting artists working within these fields, but their positions are somewhat underrepresented in this Biennial due to the circumstances mentioned.
KM: That is unfortunate, because when I think of Texas, I think of space, physical space but maybe also the freedom to venture and invent, a frontier mentality if you will, conditioned by undeveloped space.
VR: In some sense the Biennial actually is proof of concept.
But as a practical matter, it’s worth noting that the exhibition this year occupied almost 7,500 square feet, and required some clever temporary wall and separate video gallery solutions —and still had some problems dealing with sound. And that’s not counting the outdoor space used for several performances and installations, as well as Blue Star’s façade, which served as the screen for Skye Ashbrooke’s enormous abstract video projection. Many venues don’t have that kind of exhibition space, so it’s something to keep in mind if a centralized show is again seen as a desirable option.
Equipment and technological expertise are other challenges. Even very large organizations often don’t have the media equipment needed to present certain works, and don’t always have staff who can handle the tech if there’s some system fail.
KM: Getting back to the beginning of the selection process, another obvious limitation to the Biennial is that entry was only open to Texas artists, defined as those “living and working in Texas.” What does the label “Texas artist” mean to you? Dario, did being a “Texas artist” yourself affect your selections for TX★13?
Dario Robleto: I never find myself reflecting on what makes me “Texan” and especially not a “Texas artist.” And it certainly played no part in my selection process for the Biennial. If there is a Texas aesthetic, then I can’t say I know what it is. I have always been suspicious of the types of bubbles that form around any regional identifiers. I just instinctually push back from us/them thinking.
But that said, it in no way means I don’t feel an intense sense of pride and desire to support the community around me. In fact, over the years, I have considered myself a spokesperson for my hometown and I take the role quite seriously. Support is shown by constantly trying to have conversations outside your neighborhood or given field. The health and maturity of the “local”, for me, hinges on getting your community to constantly be engaged with others outside it. So I feel you can have a healthy suspicion of these types of labels while still being engaged and actively supporting your community.
Dario Robleto is an artist living in Houston.K8 Hardy: Initially, I was a bit disturbed that the Texas Biennial had the requirement that applicants “live and work” in Texas. There may now be a more welcoming atmosphere for artists in Texas, but that was certainly not the case in the past, and many Texan artists—myself included—had to leave to have a career, or a consistent audience. This kind of nationalistic rigidity forecloses the art community in Texas from connecting not only with other generations, but also with gay artists who leave because they have no legal rights in the state.
K8 Hardy is an artist living in New York City.AL: Although I didn’t grow up in Texas, my professional life has been based in Texas from the start, so I claim the state as home. The range of art and artists in Texas runs the gamut. And, yes, when traveling, it is quite common to run into artists from Texas far afield.
KH: Anecdotally, I can list off a number of amazing Texan artists living and working in New York and think it would be mutually beneficial for these people to link together. This show is a possible location for that to happen. However, these issues are obviously bigger than the Texas Biennial, and there do need to be restraints on an open call application.
CR: Texas is too big to get bogged down in any signifier of “Texas” art. It might as well be two or three or four states, because it’s a huge place cut into regions. If I had to characterize a successful Texas artist, I would use terms like resilient, resigned, cooperative, and self-driving, as well as frustrated, misunderstood—even by many in their own scenes—and resourceful.
To me the various art communities throughout Texas are marked by several shared distinctions. To begin, the cultural environment of Texas is fundamentally anti-intellectual and unsophisticated, i.e., hostile to art. Any artists deciding to settle here have to be ready to face that. Artists live here because it’s cheap, there’s plenty of room, quite a few people are nice and interesting at the same time—unusual in many parts of the world. And the economy is holding up.
The discrete art communities are often quite close-knit, or even cliquish, but that only makes sense when thinking about Texas at large. There’s often an “us against them” mentality while still trying, as Dario points out, to reach outside this insularity and communicate with the larger community. There is a desire to educate others, so to speak, though we all get very weary of repeating ourselves in the face of Rick Perry’s version of Texas. I still feel that if people are really interested in art, they’ll go looking for it—you can’t force them to “get” it.
Texas, while being fundamentally conservative, is also fundamentally polite. This has really dumbed down the press and criticism and the dialogue around art outside of the immediate art communities or artists and their friends sitting around a bar or dinner table. No one wants to say this or that art is really bad, even when it is. This retards the growth and quality of the work. Everyone is a winner in his or her own backyard. Many artists will love this. The mediocre ones will. The really good artists hate it, though. They know better.
KM: I’m curious, since you all seem resistant to the label “Texas artist”, whether you feel the Biennial reinforces that identity, by promoting it as a distinction? Or does it obliterate it, as the lack of a cohesive aesthetic reveals “Texas artist” to be merely an administrative convenience? Is the tag useful, harmful, or insignificant?
DR: I don’t think having a biennial exhibition framed by a state or region is a harmful thing. It’s a useful contrivance for organizing an effort to bring different voices together within such a large area. There is a drama to a “state of the nation” type focus that gives us a useful framing device for conversations to start: to be surprised at what our similarities are or to recognize what we are excluding.
So I am not opposed to them in principle. But what I think most of us are sensitive to is when the demarcation lines of these organizing guides become rigid and limiting rather than just a temporary framing device. And, perhaps, we are just a little more sensitive to the “Texas artist” label because of the unique associations our state conjures in the mind’s eye to the rest of the world. There is just no way around it: We have more baggage to deal with! I would even go as far as suggesting that in the past decade, where once the world’s cliched images of the behavior of the U.S. were filtered through a New York-centric lens, after 9/11 these cliche behaviors shifted to a Texas-centric lens, so dominate was George Bush’s demeanor on the world stage.
I can only speak for myself here, but these complicated world dynamics about the image of our state have routinely made me evaluate what the “Texas artist” title means and how it can be played with in interesting ways. I will never forget the first time I showed in Europe after the U.S. invaded Iraq and how shocked some viewers were that my work did not reflect what they assumed a “Texas artist” would be making as far as a political message was concerned. That was a real revelation about the unknown baggage I carry with me because of where I am from. It made me realize what an interesting opportunity we have to play against type elsewhere and generate provocative discussions.
All this is to say that there are complicated dynamics that I do think are unique to our state that make the question of how we label ourselves or our biennials something that needs to be scrutinized more carefully. But it is also because of our baggage that I find the idea of a Texas Biennial interesting. How it is perceived internally is one thing, how it is perceived outside the state is another equally interesting aspect.
CR: To return to K8’s comment, if you’re going to have a Texas Biennial, you might as well limit it to artists who actually live and work in the state, even if they’ve just moved here. Isn’t that what we’re all interested in, when exploring this kind of mass location-based exhibition—how does an artist survive and thrive in Texas?
As for whether it’s open to artists who are from Texas but living outside the state, good luck coming up with the conditions for a cutoff. Someone who was born in Odessa but left at age two and never came back? I don’t know.
KM: Even though the individual choices of the curators weren’t revealed, how do you think the fact that the curatorial team included not only “professional” curators and museum directors, but also critics, art historians, and artists affected the final selection? Are differences of occupational perspective visible in the TX★13 artist roster?
AL: Due to the large size of the state and the format of the open call, the Biennial may function as a summary, rather than a focused read of work being produced in Texas at the moment. I wouldn’t make a distinction between artists, curators, and writers on the curatorial team. We were all faced with the task of culling through thousands of entries, which serves as an equalizer of sorts.
Dario, Christina, and K8 have handily dealt with the “Texas artist” issue, so I will let it rest. K8’s point about artists who have left the state to live in New York linking together around their Texas identity is a testament to the strength of the ethos of coming from Texas. The cachet of having Texas identity in New York cannot be underestimated. Dario’s point of the difference between the perception of the Biennial from inside of the state and outside of the state resonates with me. It will be interesting to see both responses. I expect the response inside of the state will differ from city to city. Everything else does.
KM: If the Biennial cannot, and shouldn’t resolve a definition of the contemporary “Texas artist”, what are your thoughts on who is represented by TX★13, a self-professed “independent survey of contemporary art in Texas”? Does the open call and the selection process favor or exclude certain individuals and groups within the state?
DR: One thing I found of particular note was how the Biennial artists are almost exactly evenly split along gender lines, a diversity in our state one would perhaps not immediately assume. Interestingly, this seems to be a consistent result in all the Texas Biennials to date. There is still a troubling gender gap in the arts, whether we’re talking about the underrepresentation of women in major museum collections or gallery representation. I’m not sure how to account for this even split in our state, but it deserves more thought and reflection.
Christian Gerstheimer: Applying to participate in art exhibitions is a process that not all artists will endure. The fee, the technology, the deadline, and the required categorized data all rub artists the wrong way. Have that many new artists popped up to justify an open call exhibition? Or does the open call mainly identify those artists willing to jump through the hoops? To my eye, this Biennial represents artists working at a serious level, many of whom have been educated in university studio programs and others who are self-taught but have immersed themselves in recent contemporary art practice. I believe the Texas Biennial is open to all artists, but amateur or more “outsider” artists are most likely the ones to be excluded. To me that makes sense.
We also could have seen a different show if the space had allowed curators to choose even more artists. I definitely have a list of about 20 artists that are what I might reluctantly call runners-up.
Christian Gerstheimer is a curator at the El Paso Museum of Art.CR: I often found myself surprised by who did and did not enter. There was no real pattern, other than that many of the nationally successful artists—and there aren’t that many in Texas—did not enter. Some of these artists were jurors for this Biennial, of course.
Why is that? What about the Biennial turns them off or seems not worth their time? In this sense, the Texas Biennial, which is still very young, is not a complete survey of the best of Texas art at this moment. It is a snapshot of Texas art at a given time, but it’s a bit bottom-heavy.
There are fantastic artists in this Biennial, to be sure. Veterans, too. And the idea of the Biennial is still taking hold in Texas. But many of the most remarkable Texas-based artists aren’t included. Of course, if all of these artists did participate, or if we had really curated it by handpicking, then the whole might have been too top-heavy. It would have been just all the usual suspects. The youngest or newest artists who are included in this company would be given new light, though, and probably more of a national spotlight. And what a show that would be.
TH / AB: We are not entirely surprised that a greater number of established artists did not participate. For an established artist, it’s most often not such an interesting opportunity to be part of an open call exhibition. In our case, one of the most exciting components of participating in an exhibition is the conceptual inquiry and dialogue with the curator or organizer. A different structure, engagement, and relationship with the individual curators might have encouraged some of the more established artists to participate in this exhibition. We suggest that if the Biennial would like to see more established artists participating in future iterations of the Biennial, an approach in which curators work directly with a small number of artists be considered.
CG: The Texas Biennial is still developing its identity, and that’s another reason artists may be hesitant to enter. A useful comparison to the Whitney Biennial might be that the Whitney exhibition usually includes several very established artists. Every emerging artist invited to be in the Whitney Biennial knows in advance that he or she will be exhibiting in that context, deemed similarly worthy by the exhibition’s curator. Including more established artists, even some by invitation, could serve several purposes.
The Texas Biennial could also be more inclusive by requiring each curator to identify a specific number of artists according to discipline i.e., one painter, one sculptor, one video artist, one sound artist, one installation artist, one performance artist, one printmaker, one new-media artist, one craft-media artist, etc., or one artist each from San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, El Paso, etc. That would ensure that the artists selected span across disciplines and regions.
KM: I’m interested in pursuing this idea, raised by several of you, of the importance of differences within the state, of “regionalisms” within Texas, as distinct from any attempt to define the entire state though a regionalist view, as a singular locale. How do the composition and accessibility of TX★13 reflect geographic biases within the state? Were you inclined to represent your immediate community in the mix?
Clint Willour: I have been exhibiting and jurying work by Texas artists for 40 years, and curating with a near-exclusive focus on Texas artists for the past 23 years. As a curator of TX★13, the choices I made were certainly meant to reflect on my institution. They were all artists who have or will be exhibited at the Galveston Arts Center. As I looked over the list of entrants, I realized that I had exhibited or juried into various competitions over 150 of those artists, that I can remember. I have given one-person exhibitions, some travelling, with catalogs, to dozens of them. As a result, I had strong commitments to them and their work. One of the works in the Biennial went directly from my institution’s walls to the walls of Blue Star. One of the chosen artists had a one-person exhibition at my institution concurrently with TX★13. I will be having an exhibition for a team of chosen artists as my FotoFest exhibition next year. In my case it was exceedingly difficult to be objective.
Clint Willour is the Curator of the Galveston Arts Center.Jeremy Strick: Overall, the TX★13 roster gives primacy to artists in key urban centers—Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, which is hardly surprising. Partly, I imagine this reflects the composition of the selection committee, but it must also reflect the relative sizes of those cities and their respective artist communities and importantly, the institutions that attract and sustain artists in those centers, especially art schools, above all. The schools are often more national than local in their outlook, in terms of faculty and the students enrolled, but by concentrating artists in certain areas, local interests and concerns can emerge.
Whether there’s anything specific or distinct to Texas in any of this is unclear, even doubtful to me. But I do think a critical consideration of the work emerging from each of these four centers, perhaps using the Texas Biennial list as a springboard, might prove interesting.
Jeremy Strick is the Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.CW: Certainly the Core Program residency at the Glassell School at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has had a profound impact on art in the state, and especially in Houston.
VR: As has the Artpace residency program in San Antonio.
CR: To echo Jeremy, I think it only makes sense that the majority of Texas artists, once they’ve chosen to work in the state, gravitate to the cities or areas with the most developed art infrastructure, those places with more artists, art schools, museums, galleries, collectors, studio spaces, residencies like the Core Program, etc. I’m not surprised if a majority of the artists chosen for this Biennial are based in these larger centers, or at least concentrate their careers in these kinds of places, even if they choose to live farther out.
Also, I don’t know how I could have honestly leaned more toward the work of artists I don’t know or have never been exposed to. I’ve been very active in my own wider community in DFW off and on—mostly on—for 15 years. I have a much more profound understanding of the work by those artists working where I am. While I did select some artists from Houston and Austin and elsewhere, I felt more responsibility to make sure the deserving DFW artists were included. I should think that’s one of the reasons I was asked to participate.
AL: Art and artists in Texas find a way between cities with fluidity. This constant motion characterizes art in Texas for me to a great extent. I frequently find myself traveling long distances to see work and to support artists. I would venture a guess that it is the norm for those of us in the field to drive for hours to see an exhibition or participate in one. There is a very high level of commitment inherent in doing that. If geography plays a role it is more likely to be in this regard than any other.
Bill Arning: I would say that the isolation between cities is lessening and I am seeing more cross-city projects happening, although I must admit it rarely includes El Paso, probably for reasons of distance alone.
Bill Arning is the Director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.CG: The Texas Biennial is one of those rare instances where a statewide project includes El Paso. Maybe distance is to blame. Then again, Marfa is frequently included and it’s only three hours away. Still, here in El Paso, I do feel there is a bit of a disconnect from TX★13. This is probably due to the fact that no part of the exhibition will be presented in an El Paso venue.
However, I did not feel the need to represent this community by selecting artists from this region. As a matter of fact I tried not to take any artist’s address into consideration while making my selections.
VR: Marfa is just a unique situation in so many ways, but the main factor there so far as the Biennial goes is easy to identify. Ballroom Marfa co-founder Fairfax Dorn was a juror for the 2007 Biennial, and she and Virginia Lebermann, Ballroom’s other co-founder, both have been very supportive of the project.
Speaking of geography most pragmatically, the fact that the Biennial currently does not subsidize shipping and other related costs must also effect the choice of some artists to enter, or not. In this regard, spreading more venues around the state might encourage more artists to enter—but that would also produce another set of selection and installation questions.
CG: I like the idea of multiple but smaller exhibition sites. Some part of the show would at least then be seen by more people from a broader area, and this would also create more intimate viewing experiences.
RPB: Yes, the real question about geography in relation to the Biennial is not where the artists live and work, but the cities in which their work will be presented. Since no artist really works in isolation—except perhaps those very few who choose to—it’s the public access to original work that is significant. Not only are artists rarely isolated, their work is often available 24/7 in some secondary form, now primarily online. However, the ability for an audience to see the work in person is often limited.
Would the artists participating in the Biennial be better served if their work was split between multiple locations? Exhibited outside major Texas metropolitan areas? Circulated around the state?
KM: Or outside the state? Let’s zoom out again: How would you locate the art in TX★13 in relation to ideas, trends, and contexts beyond the borders of the state? Do the works in the exhibition offer some form of criticality, either as a barometer for the Texas scene, or by addressing national or global issues, whether social or aesthetic?
CW: I think since exhibitions like “Fresh Paint: The Houston School” (1985) and the attempt at Texas Triennials in the late 1980’s, not to mention metropolitan-area focused shows such as the annual “Big Show” at the Lawndale Art Center and the “Houston Area Exhibition” every four years at the Blaffer Art Museum, and now with the five Texas Biennials, we have come to the realization that it is impossible to say that the art being produced in Texas is markedly different than art being produced in California, Illinois, New York, Florida, or any other state or region. As Jeremy mentioned, the large art schools all have students from many states and foreign countries, some of whom stay in Texas to work, others who leave upon graduation.
DP: To echo Clint, there’s no way to think of any art being made today—along with anything that gets said about it—other than as being a part of a discussion that extends beyond the borders of any state. To me, contemporary artists seem to be well aware of what’s going on all over the globe. The ones who make the work I am most interested in seem to pursue whatever it is that they are after—call it a vision, dream, fantasy, delusion, commitment, conviction, or compulsion—with a level of intensity so extreme, focused, and even fanatical that it doesn’t much matter where they are from.
Yes, I know that locality matters, but I think of it kind of like the materials artists use, as in paint, wood, aluminum, or whatever, as a medium, or mix of media, out of which meaning is made. That meaning is up for grabs. And it can’t be controlled. Or even foreseen. And it emerges out of discussion and debate, with oneself and others. And it goes far beyond the physical facts of a thing’s location on the space-time continuum.
My negative answer to part two of the question has to do with a phobia of mine: I just can’t take the word “criticality” seriously. No offense Kurt, the word just makes my skin crawl. To me, it was made up by Sunday philosophers, a.k.a. second-rate art faculty, who wanted to sound serious without really doing the work of thinking for themselves. And then it got reified, by the same folks who were ferreting out the evils of reification in everyone’s work but their own. Now it’s shorthand for a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, secret-handshake, yes-you’re-an-insider-too glomming togetherness that, to me, is antithetical to art—or at least to what I love in art—rebelliousness, independence, uncomfortableness, doubt, uncertainty, and self-reflection.
All art is critical. But it does not merely sit back and offer up critical commentary, like some know-it-all talk radio pundit. It actually does something about the shitty state—whatever that is, and I don’t mean only Texas—in which it finds itself. It makes that state better by presenting a vision of something different and then delivering an experience of whatever that may be. To me, every single artist looks at the world, finds it lacking, and then makes something to counteract that lack. Lots of times without knowing, exactly, what is lacking. As viewers, focusing overmuch on art’s analytical/critical moment is unambitious. It nerds things up and overlooks art’s intransigent physicality, its experiential heart and soul.
All exhibitions, like works of art, are implicit critiques of other exhibitions, scenes, stories, and schools. So in that sense, this one is no different.
Bárbara Perea: These last couple questions reflect some of my own as I entered the selection process. I was curious to see if there are obvious regional concerns to be detected. While some artists are more influenced by local or regional issues, in general I tend to view the selection of works and artists included to be more concerned with wider topics. The implicit critiques in some works can be ascribed more to national, global, or transhistorical influences and concerns.
As David pointed out, artists do not exist isolated from these conditions, and the works reflect them actively. For example, Jessica Pizaña-Roberts’ concern with female beauty as a cultural construct spans across many cultures, and Hillerbrand + Magsamen’s ironic use of film scores is also difficult to pinpoint to a regional or local source. Gary Sweeney’s extremely tongue-in-cheek work is far more influenced by West Coast Conceptualism than any regional concerns. But of course some artists speak more directly to their local conditions, like the play on the castas paintings by Claudio Dicochea. Rachel Crist and Daedalus Hoffman’s Spitting Image, in which a woman chews and spits tobacco to the point of physical pain, may be another work that is more specifically located in terms of social custom and gender expectations, at the same time that it participates in larger trends concerning performance art. Other artists are presenting very personal, coded views of the world, such as Vincent Falsetta’s installation of his studio notes in the form of an archive of index cards.
Whether a survey exhibition is more a critique or a diagnosis of the condition of art-as-institution—that is, a way to more easily visualize and therefore examine how artistic process, curatorial process, and institutions interact—is debatable.
Bárbara Perea is an independent curator living in Mexico City.KM: David, I also dislike the word “criticality”—and it makes my spell check crawl too. But I also love what you love in art. Maybe a better word is “friction”, which is more of a physical sensation. Who are the TX★13 artists you are thinking of here?
DP: Friction is a good word.
The number one artist I was thinking of is Dion Laurent. His stuff strikes me as totally absurd, a crazy mix of renegade Tinkertoys, do-it-yourself NASA, rainy day kitchen table crafts, MacGyver inventiveness, and desert island survivalism. Angela Kallus’s circles have an insanely focused intensity to them; they’re both attractive and deadly, kind of like absinthe. Adela Andea’s light installations feel like curdled versions of 1960’s light-art optimism; they capture something dark about the present. Trey Egan’s gooey, weird paintings are sufficiently dense to keep my eyes glued to them, and my mind troubled by all the creepy stuff that lurks beneath their surfaces, at least in my imagination. Ysabel LeMay’s photographs look too crisply realistic to be anything but devilishly deceptive traps.
And regarding trends, ideas and all that, I feel stupid to say it but I can’t come up with any that aren’t horrible oversimplifications. I know it’s a cliche, but the whole messy stew feels like a messy stew to me—a little of this and some of that. Maybe there is some kind of reflection going on in lots of the works that has something to do with the relationship between individuals and the anonymous mass of humanity that each of us is a part of though we cannot comprehend or picture our relationship to it, a kind of belonging together but not fitting in dissonance, or something.
CG: Thinking about borders, and the facts that Texas is the U.S. state with the longest border adjoining a foreign country, Mexico, and that issues of immigration and profiling are so present in the media, I expected there to be more artwork dealing with the topic of identity. I do not have an explanation for that missing element in the stew. Does anyone? Is identity no longer a pressing topic for artists?
BA: The question of identity was central to at least one of the included artists, but yes, not as dominant as it could have been.
RBP: For what it is worth, there was virtually no portraiture either. The outstanding example is Sara Vanderbeek’s painting of artist Trenton Doyle Hancock.
KM: I’d agree that while “identity” as we saw it investigated and, sometimes paraded, throughout much of the ‘80s and ‘90s was not a focus in this exhibition, there were a number of individual works that took up the theme in personal, that is to say, not overtly politicized, ways. And not surprisingly, I suppose, several of them involved performance.
VR: I agree. I’ll guess Bill is thinking of Madsen Minax’s video, or rather series of videos, in which we see and hear the artist directing and recording someone else in a private striptease, with the only audible soundtrack being their verbal exchanges. The work can be viewed as an open meditation on performing one’s self in relation to another. Barbara mentioned Jessica Pizaña-Roberts’ work, which is a video documenting a pole dance the artist performed in “hooker heels” and a kind of Venus of Willendorf suit stuffed with cheese puffs. In a completely different vein, Carrie Schneider’s Dress is a video of the artist attempting to mimic the poses in life-size images of her mother projected on the wall behind her. We could even say that Tatiana Istomina’s installation of abstract painting attributed to a fictional historical female artist is really more about identity as an artist, than painting per se. There’s a different feel to this work, but it is still caught up in questions of “identity”.
Noah Simblist: I don’t want to throw out “criticality” as a term so quickly. The term implies a political or social criticism of and through visual and spatial culture—something that has been brought to the forefront in recent years through movements connected to the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, Taksim Square in Istanbul, and other social protests. Although it must be noted that Texas has not been a space where protests like these are common. In any case, I see this criticism at the root of criticality—going back to the Frankfurt School’s notion of critical theory, just like the term “reification”—both of which evolved out of a Marxist critique of society through the culture industry.
Sorry, David, I’m sure this last sentence triggered your phobia and probably also some allergies to a political philosophy of culture. Ironically though, it seems like your definition of what criticality should be rhymes somewhat with Adorno’s dictum of autonomy, using art to produce a distinct alternative to the culture industry. Maybe it’s the LA connection?
I’m interested in a related trend I noticed, both within and outside the selected artists of TX★13: collectivism. Organized artists like Lakes Were Rivers, The Bridge Club, or HOMECOMING! Committee—and there are many other Texas-based collectives whose work is not represented in the exhibition—are making work that can engage with the dominant art culture of commodity-based objects, but are also challenging the singular genius as the only model of art authorship. This relates to an international trend, but since the 2008 crash more artists have been making their own way in Texas, together, unperturbed by a tepid local art market.
I’d say one of the unique instances of criticality that I saw exists somewhere at the intersection between ethnicity, nationalism, and gender with artists like, again, Jessica Pizaña-Roberts, and Julia Barbosa Landois, both of whose videos in this exhibition feature Spanish language songs.
I think that this points to the question of the borders of Texas and rather than addressing this question through the lens of what is inside or outside borders, their work addresses Texas as a borderland where hybrid identities rise to the surface, producing work that is provocative, beautiful, and strange.
Noah Simblist is an Associate Professor of Art, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.VR: It’s an interesting and expansive point. As it happens, the songs in question are in Landois’ video a classic Mexican ranchera, and in Pizaña-Roberts’, a track by a popular group from Puerto Rico whose work has been identified with questioning gender stereotyping, and also with expressing nationalist sentiment.
DP: Noah, I think that you and I probably are interested in the same sort of art, works that are smart about their social contexts and aesthetic machinations and keen on having consequential relationships to various spheres of life outside the art bubble. With the C-word, my main objection is to academics who treat it as a formal feature or end in itself, something to be sniffed out in works, which, when found, absolves them of all responsibility for having any actual consequences. It’s a peculiar form of formalism. I have seen it used to describe works that haven’t even left the studio, that haven’t even had a chance to do anything other than be labeled. To me, consequences are unpredictable and uncontrollable and never known in advance. They are integral to art’s unruliness, art’s capacity to rearrange perceptions, beliefs, and identities, not to mention power relationships.
I’m fine with Adorno; I just have trouble with his half-baked acolytes. And I’m less worried about the so-called culture industry than the administrative industry—the professionalized managerial elite that seems to be spilling from overspecialized graduate programs.
And I love what you say about the Texas borderland. But to me, using the term “criticality” blandifies the accomplishments of those artists.
BP: I too very much like your concept of Texas as a borderland where hybrid aesthetics emerge, particularly because those works also resonated with me as strange and provocative.
I’ve also noticed the capability of artists to self-organize, especially in the San Antonio community that is most familiar to me. Indeed, the lack of an art market in San Antonio has made a community of artists that take matters into their own hands. The artist-run space scene is incredibly vibrant and healthy. And it’s been thriving since well before the 2008 crash. But to be sure, as a global trend, artist-run initiatives following the financial debacle have become increasingly important. I, for one, am glad that the era of grand narratives is at an end and that these smaller, more mobile initiatives are proving to have enormous impact not only in the art communities around the world, but also in so many movements such as the ones Noah mentioned.
VR: Thinking about the show overall, it was interesting to see that the only artist selected who is working with a specifically “Texan” subject was Nancy Newberry, whose photographs document the tradition of homecoming “mums”—elaborate, often homemade corsages worn by both female and male high schoolers. But we could easily say this peculiarly riveting work is more generally about “identity”, as we were discussing earlier.
Also, while a number of viewers commented on the different approaches to landscape, if we can call it that, in works such as Cassandra Emswiler’s ceramic tiles with abstract patterns representing different lakes, Kent Dorn’s hallucinatory drawing, and Will Henry’s kooky and I think hilarious painting of a desert night sky complete with UFO, maybe what’s most striking here is the absence of traditional Western landscape tropes.
KM: Are there other recurring subjects or shared formal concerns that we can point to in the selected TX★13 works?
NS: One thing I did notice was a preponderance of videos that were about cars or motorcycles and the open road. Matt Cusick’s Cyclops, Liz Rodda’s Death Drive, and Gregory Ruppe’s Stubborn Practice all revolve around the mythology of the West and the unique way that the vehicle as mechanical appendage mediates our freedom, or the lack thereof.
Another trend that I saw was very global and could be called an “unmonumental” aesthetic, “provisional painting”, or “slacker minimalism”. This stuff is everywhere. Some artists are better at it than others but this content/process has nothing particular to do with Texas.
VR: True. We might define this aesthetic somewhat differently, but Brad Tucker is someone working a related vein with rigor, and whimsy. There is also a lot of abstract painting as well, practiced quite variously—just look at David Aylsworth, Michael Blair, Benardo Cantu, Geoffrey Hippenstiel, Jonathan Leach, Marcelyn McNeil, and Arthur Peña, to name a few. But this also has nothing particular to do with Texas.
RBP: Joseph Cohen could be added to that list.
KM: Among the painters, Geoffrey Hippenstiel and Daniel McFarlane are actively pushing up against the abstraction/figuration question, though working in completely different directions.
VR: Compared to what I reviewed in 2011, this year’s submissions featured more work involving figuration and/or some form of narrative. Some utterly different but gripping examples are Michael Bise’s eerily meticulous drawing, Seth Mittag’s confidently geeky, hybrid sculptural installation/video, and Matthew Bourbon’s paintings, which to me sometimes seem like stills from an animation a Kubrick on another planet might have made.
AL: Letitia Huckaby’s Elijah and LaDonte (Jubilee) is another example of strong figurative work.
VR: Indeed, and the title strongly suggests a narrative. Several of the video works also either depend upon or play off against expectations of conventional narrative. For example, the road-related works Noah mentions could all be characterized as anti-narrative. So could Robert Melton and Robert Boland’s Three Way Call, a video in which nothing much finally happens, in a hyper-dramatic way. Abinadi Meza’s video installation exploring a crescendo of crowd reaction that never arrives, or resolves, could be another example.
KM: Relatedly, but distinct from the question of identity that Christian raised, were there works other than Margarita Cabrera’s FLOREZCA project, which focuses on the economies of immigrant and migrant communities, that announced themselves as addressing current political issues or events?
VR: Not so directly. But there were a number of works that evoke ecological and related sociological and cultural concerns, or which could be interpreted in that way: Teresa Cervantes’ re-valued accumulation of discarded plastic shopping bags; Miriam Ewers’ gigantic, strangely “machined” shell; Hiroko Kubo’s poetic installation of water-filled containers of excruciatingly precise capacity; and Chris Sauter’s quietly sci-fi landscape. Natali LeDuc’s live shrimp puppet show—yikes, that one is so intense I’m still processing—and Dion Laurent’s performance as a barefooted, space-suited “Earthman” directly address ecology as a subject.
HOMECOMING! Committee’s project enacted some of the social concerns around questions of certain economies of production, distribution, and redistribution… and there are probably others.
KM: We have only glancingly addressed media, and the traditional categories of painting, sculpture, figuration, abstraction, etc. that art typically is grouped into—especially in juried exhibitions.
CG: One of the observations I made during the selection process is that painting still reigns as the primary medium of artists, although many, maybe most artists do not define their practice any longer according to medium. That is the case nationally and internationally, so it was expected.
BA: I don’t remember painting reigning supreme at all, but there are some really strong painters on the final list.
RBP: Collage also made a strong appearance in various forms, in the extremely labor-intensive process of Shannon Crider, Ann Johnson’s use of found objects, Kelly O’Connor’s large diptych of cut paper, and Giovanni Valderas’ use of mixed paper and wood.
KM: I was a bit surprised to see very little “traditional”/draftsman-style/representational drawing on the checklist, just Kent Dorn’s expansive, multi-sheet work and Mark Ponder’s much smaller pencil sketches, which despite their subject matter are presented as highly formal, almost academic compositions.
As Teresa and Alexander suggested at the beginning of this conversation, two-dimensional work, smaller sculpture, and easy-to-install single-channel video predominate over more complex installations in both the Biennial’s submissions and selections. I would speculate this is because the former works are more .jpg friendly, i.e., David’s “LOOKS GREAT ONLINE” category, and they are logistically friendlier to the budgets, timeframes, and floorspace of exhibition venues.
VR: And to artists. It was particularly exciting to see a lot of performance work entered and selected, because it demands so much more of the artist, logistically speaking, than shipping a domestically-scaled, wall-hung work. Some of the accomplished performance artists included have already been mentioned. Two whose work can be especially complex to present because it involves multiple performers and other elements such as video projection and live audio are Danielle Georgiou and Michael Morris. Performance and multimedia, time-based works are so prevalent in contemporary art that not to present them in an exhibition that offers any survey of the terrain would be a terrible omission. But it can be tough to pull off, for logistical reasons and also because, as we are all aware, this programming doesn’t always work in the static white cube environment with regular gallery hours.
Some audiences are more familiar with performance art in the visual art context than others. The Biennial tried this year to at least represent the one-time performances that were scheduled throughout the show with documentation in Blue Star’s galleries. The partnership with CentralTrak, which allowed HOMECOMING! Committee to occupy a significant amount of gallery space and develop their project over time, with public participation, was also intended as some acknowledgement that a lot of art is made and presented outside the box—meaning, outside traditional gallery confines, and outside traditional media categories.
NS: The question of medium is something that I think about a lot in relation to my teaching. I’m interested in the tendency for many artists selected for TX★13, as is true of much of contemporary art practice today, to move around and between media categories. For instance, Kristen Cochran, Sally Glass, Cassandra Emswiler, Kasey Short, Kevin Todora, and Brad Tucker all work between sculpture, painting, drawing, and photography. There are more formal and material connections that they are interested in making than media specificity. This has been going on for a long time but many MFA programs, including many in Texas, are still siloed into media categories.
Perhaps this is why so many shows have to be categorized in terms of medium but in an expanded field; I’m thinking of the recent LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) show, “Painting in Place”. On the one hand, I think that this can better reflect the way that many artists are working today. But on the other hand, this might exclude the really interesting work that a group like Lakes Were Rivers is doing by probing the history and possibilities of photography as a medium.
David, I think that you made a great point about the senseless navel-gazing that academics can fall into. And I totally agree that we need to make room for and support a kind of artwork that is unruly, that evades categories and rearranges our perceptions of ourselves and of the world. But as an academic myself, I’m so often stuck in an institutional role where good intentions can often result in the institutionalizing of rebellion. I have been accused of this on more than one occasion.
This connects with the question of media categories as well as criticality as a problematic because when departments are divided by medium, they also get divided in terms of power and money. This might seem like a weirdly academic hole that I am falling into, but I think that young artists have to deal with these dynamics in MFA programs and carry the divisions with them when they leave. And they are only reinforced by museums that are also divided by medium. Thankfully most contemporary art spaces are not limited by such distinctions.
And Bárbara, I’m glad that you brought up the vibrant artist run spaces in San Antonio. I have always been envious of the amazing energy that this scene has and bring it up constantly in Dallas. I think that we are just recently catching up.
KM: Let’s talk about audience and reception a bit. What does the Texas Biennial project offer to the artists, curators, dealers, gallerists, writers, art workers, and art consumers living and working in Texas? And to similar individuals outside the state? Is this role best performed by a nonprofit institution? Do Texas art fairs offer a comparable engagement?
BA: Biennials in any form are a pulse-taking, allowing a perspective that our normal habits of concentrating on individual artists and projects do not.
However, assessing the import of that perspective is only possible in retrospect. The same question two months after the show should provoke a different answer than the one we might develop now.
NS: I agree with Bill and while art fairs allow for a kind of pulse-taking as well, they focus on a very particular kind of artist and artwork. Biennials like TX★13 more often present artists that don’t have gallery representation.
They also feature art that might be ephemeral, political, installation-based, or performative—works that art fairs can sometimes include but more often don’t since commerce is the main concern. For instance, Margarita Cabrera’s projects that deal with undocumented workers and the politics of labor are artworks more suited to a biennial than an art fair. We could say the same of Rebecca Carter’s installation of on-site, time-intensive drawing; Danielle Georgiou’s abject, visceral, and sometimes funny performances; Julia Barbosa Landois’ deeply earnest karaoke breakup song with Jesus; and Melissa Tran’s documentation of a Vietnamese American immigrant revealing his post-colonial past through dementia.
BA: The artists I pushed forward in the selection process are all working at the corner of drawing and performance—neither work well in the context of art fairs and both function very well here.
NS: We live and work in a geographical context here in Texas that has an art market, but not one that has figured out how to commodify works that elide the autonomous object. I think that the highest levels of collectors in Texas are indeed willing to buy and support works that are not object-based, but such support is closely tied to a desire for the social capital of the globalized art world.
CG: Noah makes a good point. The fact that commerce is not the raison d’etre of the Texas Biennial is one of the strongest reasons for it.
Although contemporary art is part of what we present at my museum, it is not our central focus. The Texas Biennial provides an opportunity to feature projects that hopefully will expose the general public to aspects and works of contemporary art that are not as readily understood as art as a painting on canvas hanging in a gallery. Dion Laurent’s Earth Rover 1, for example, crosses over into the fields of automotive design, space and earth exploration, farm equipment, and environmental issues. Jeff Gibbons’ It Makes Me Cry Sometimes looks like a portable stereo cassette tape deck sitting on a shelf with audiotape spooling on the floor—something you might find in a variety of non-art settings such as a home, garage, workplace, office, etc. When one experiences this artwork and learns that it has been set up this way to play an obviously distorted version of a well-known song, it provokes thought on numerous levels. Raul Mitra’s participatory installation Box City presented a different notion of authorship to some visitors to the exhibition. There are many other examples.
VR: Actually, we should note that the Biennial has always offered to facilitate sales of work in the exhibition, and takes a small commission on those occasions. This could be a nice thing for an artist with no gallery representation, but it’s hardly a revenue center, for anyone.
CR: Sales rushes aside, I suppose two of the real services of the Biennial, and they’re good ones, are, one, it helps raise awareness cross-regionally. Texas-based artists, curators, dealers, collectors, enthusiasts, or really anyone following the Biennial will be exposed to a lot of artists they might not have known otherwise. We don’t all get around as much as we might. It makes the state seem both bigger and smaller all at once, which is interesting.
Two, having a biennial this large with some decent national PR should raise awareness of the Texas art scene(s) for the rest of the country and beyond. This would likely grow as the Biennial itself grows and expands and develops its profile. Texas has for decades been an interesting case of a state that contains many art communities and scenes, often each self-contained, but it’s one hell of a sticky magnet for artists.
TH / AB: Given the open call process, the Biennial is an exciting event. There are always discoveries and surprises, and some disappointments. We are always curious to see works by artists we are unfamiliar with and we think the experience of walking through a dense collage of artistic positions is absolutely worth a visit to the Biennial. It is an interesting exhibition for that reason alone: to see the complexity, contradictions, and sheer range of work being made by the participating artists.
CG: I’d say TX★13 is a source of excitement and discussion because of the juxtaposition of the works included. This is one of the most positive benefits of this exhibition. How else would works as varied as Danielle Georgiou’s provocative video and performance piece Pizzicato Porno, Katie Rose Pipkin’s poignant website eternalreturn.org, Prince Thomas’ quirky QR coding of celebrity, and Debra Barrera’s sculpture using an actual Porsche door and balloons all be brought together? It’s also interesting to see so many small-scale works with large-scale content, like Anne Regan’s Mourning Sleeves, designed as private memorials to the deceased artists in your personal record album collection, and Gabriel Dawe’s hanging sculptures made of scraps of cloth pierced by hundreds of straight pins.
I did not know of many of the artists that entered the open call and that is one of the reasons that I agreed to participate. I was very impressed by the level and diversity of the art submitted and selected. The Biennial shows just how strong Texas is in terms of the variety of art being produced here.
NS: Returning to the kind of pulse-taking that biennials allow, I wonder about the metaphor. Are we doctors applying a scientific method to evaluate the relative health of the art being produced today in Texas? My first thought is, “No,” mostly because the methodology of this process is anything but scientific. As has been discussed, the pool of artists that choose to apply to an open call exhibition and pay a fee to enter is a highly specific class of artists. It leaves out the most successful who don’t want to pay or apply to be in a show as well as the most disenfranchised who either didn’t know about it or couldn’t afford it. I know many great artists in Texas that didn’t apply.
Claims of comprehensiveness are always the fallacy of any kind of survey show. We can’t expect to have this Biennial be an exhaustive analysis of the situation of art in Texas. But we can see some patterns that emerge that are at once local and global and I think the visualization of these patterns has been interesting. While curators can’t really function as doctors of any kind, one method of analysis that critics and curators often use that approaches a kind of scientific method is classification, whether along morphological, historical, geographic, or other lines.
The relationship between local and global trends and the role of scientific analysis, especially within curatorial practice, has me thinking of Walid Raad’s Scratching on Things I Could Disavow. A History of Art in the Arab World, a recent project about the Artist Pension Trust. APT works with local artists and curators and uses complex algorithms to analyze the value of an artist’s work both in a local and global context. This would be a much longer conversation, but I wonder what it would be like to use APT’s methodology of ascribing value to artworks in relation to an exhibition like the Texas Biennial.
CG: I have to say in jurying the Biennial I did not consider myself a metaphorical “doctor” taking the pulse of art in Texas. For the past ten years I have been learning of and meeting artists from all parts of the state as well as studying artists from earlier periods here. For that reason I knew that going into the selection process that what I would see could in no way be comprehensive.
KM: Thinking about specific versus broad engagements, to what audience do you feel TX★13 is directed? A local, as in Texas, crowd? Or can we say TX★13 has national, or even global, aspirations in terms of audience? Can an exhibition do both well?
BP: Any exhibition has to balance institutional, artistic, and curatorial interests in terms of its audience. Sometimes this balance is achieved through direct dialogue between institutional agents and community members to discover specific needs. Often budgetary and other constraints have a direct impact on content, and determine how best to achieve significant contributions to the community within the resources available. Exhibition making is highly collaborative work. With such a diverse team curating TX★13, I think there is a medley of insider and outsider voices, and some in between. I am one of those outsider voices, so I consciously made an effort to both speak from my perspective and try to address the Biennial’s audience.
A partial answer can be found in how the team itself was selected to achieve a balance between global and local, a diversity of voices connected both to the Texas scene and to the rest of the world. The selection of a curatorial team from within Texas, from within the U.S., and from outside the U.S. does seem to indicate the Biennial wants to have a wider impact and exchange. Guest curating is rarely one-sided; I can imagine most of the team publicized the Biennial to some extent, and each curator has been exposed to a great number of artists that may shape or be included in his or her future projects.
There are many ways of engaging distant audiences and of course Web-based and social media are two ways. The Biennial is actively using social media, and this can be a really good and inexpensive strategy. If you see, for example, how much the FILE festival from Brazil uses social media to share their program, there is great potential for growth. But there is a limit to what virtual media can achieve, and it cannot substitute for experiencing art or the exhibition directly. Ultimately it is the decision of the organization, how it wishes to expand its reach. As others have suggested, selections from the Biennial could travel. Another idea is some kind of prize, as other biennials award.
JS: To give the example of my own institution’s relation to the question of audience, the Nasher Sculpture Center has a very precise mission and focus. This creates the responsibility, paradoxically, to seek a kind of universal relevance. We hope to serve the field of sculpture broadly, through historical research and a kind of laboratory approach to contemporary exhibitions, encouraging risk and experimentation, and using opportunities afforded by reference to our collection and the unique characteristics of our building and garden. We seek always to find ways to engage members of the local artist community, considering them a primary audience, a source of ideas, information, and inspiration.
BA: At the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the local audience that does not have the opportunity to travel to see art is a top priority institutionally. Given the number of museums in Houston, we are always asking ourselves, “What have they not seen that they should have seen?” Learning of the generative impact of our efforts on our primary local audience—those that see all of our shows, that make art themselves, or that support art makers—is one of the job’s great satisfactions.
The Biennial’s first audience is not the art crowd per se. The show’s summarizing function is for people who don’t see everything and want to catch up and plug in. For those of us who, when we move among Texas cities for other reasons, always call upon our most in-the-know friends and find the new spaces and learn what’s going on, the possibility that we might get an alternative picture of the Texas art Zeitgeist is a side effect, not a prime motivator of making the exhibition happen.
KM: The Biennial’s current tagline—“an independent survey of contemporary art in Texas”—operates almost as a mission statement. Is this organizational independence important to whatever the Biennial is able to achieve, or would the project benefit from having more formal relationships with institutions?
Also, to give another medical metaphor, besides pulse-taking and side effects, is the two-year period of a biennial exhibition an adequate amount of time for a “check-up” perspective on Texas art? Bill, what do you feel consumers of the Biennial—those who see the exhibition, view the catalog, visit the website, or simply look at the artist list—expect to gain from that perspective, that catching up and plugging in?
BA: Letting casual viewers with non-professional curiosity about what is happening in Texas see a broad range of art at once is a worthy goal in itself that is neither trivial nor easy and needs no justification from those of us that watch the scene constantly.
I started imagining another viewer, a young artist exiting a grad program in Texas and using the show to judge if basing a studio practice here is viable, in terms of external stimulation, networked productions, and visibility. I have juried many state or city framed shows and have left with the conclusion that ambitious artists needed to get themselves to an international art center as soon as possible. This exhibition, based on the talent and ambition of the chosen artists, shows that a studio practice here is a viable option.
NS: I like the idea of a key audience for the Biennial being young artists who can see the rich and diverse ecology that makes up the scene in Texas as a whole. While there is some crossover between cities, most artists in each scene stay to themselves. The Biennial gives a space for exchange, revealing an even greater range of work than might have been apparent only to some. Two years seems like a perfect amount of time. I shifted my base from Dallas to Austin for two years and as a result didn’t get to as many shows as I used to in Dallas. When I came back, everything had changed and I spent the last year catching up.
CG: Two years is enough time between exhibitions, although the triennial format is a worthwhile change to consider just in terms of the time required for organizing and fundraising. I agree with Bill: the Texas Biennial is an event that can help demonstrate the viability of having an artistic practice here.
Thinking of El Paso again, and your question about institutional affiliations, Kurt, it would be good if something collaborative could be organized by or with the University of Texas, which has campuses statewide. Or maybe it does not have to be a UT collaboration but rather a statewide university art department initiative. As we’ve touched on, it is largely the universities— University of Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Rice, University of Houston, Southern Methodist University, University of North Texas, etc.—that are responsible for the development of young artists in Texas.
Others have mentioned this but I think it’s a question worth repeating: Would an institution in another part of the U.S. ever be interested in hosting the Texas Biennial? I am thinking about how the Bronx Museum of Arts is hosting the exhibition, “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970”. California has been a viable option as a location for young artists to establish a studio practice. Texas is nearly twice as big as California, but California has a population of over ten million more than Texas.
BA: There has been a lot of party discussion about the possibility of a “Texas Standard Time” trying to write the unique art history of a state bigger than many countries and encompassing a half-dozen cultural ecosystems. We just have to find the scholar with the experience and perspective to lead the charge and a funder like the Getty to support the six years of research.
KM: I think that’s an admirable goal, but yes, it is a project that faces leadership and logistical hurdles in terms of statewide collaboration, especially among the major institutions. “Pacific Standard Time” was contained within less space—essentially Los Angeles—and defined by a single institution with deep pockets.
Virginia, you’ve been integrally involved in the Biennial’s development from an Austin-based event to a more statewide platform, with growing recognition beyond Texas. What insights can you share about the Biennial’s structure and trajectory? How do you view the project in relation to all of the other biennial, triennial, and five-year exhibitions on the international art calendar, and what excites you most about the future of this one?
VR: I’m amazed by the results of the effort so far. But projects like the Biennial need more than start-up energy and goodwill to keep going. Personally, I believe the collaborative model that has grown the Biennial to date is worth developing for its own sake, especially among arts organizations, which surely have some common cause in our culture. It’s also a welcome counter to the scarcity model underlying the common but utterly wrongheaded pie metaphor—if we proceed as if there is one pie, only so big, there’s always going to be scrabbling over pieces. Make more pie! But collaboration is also hard work. In the short term, sometimes it can simply be easier to “do it yourself”.
There are many possible future directions for the Biennial. I’m most interested to see whether and how different audiences can be engaged. “Texas” is a potentially powerful brand in this regard—but branding what, exactly? I like Jeremy’s comment about relevance. Fundamental to the Texas Biennial project is the idea that being located matters. Focusing on this could be a way of addressing the big questions about the cultural role of art, while keeping those questions framed by a local reality.
The Texas Biennial is at the same time a modest effort, and a wildly ambitious idea. It could and should look very different two years from now, and then two years from then, hopefully. The crucial factors for success are the usual ones: vision, infrastructure, adaptability. Time and resources will tell.