Trying to cram all the contemporary artists in Texas into a single space seems foolhardy, but “TX 13,” the showcase exhibit of the sprawling, statewide Texas Biennial, tries to do just that for the first time at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum. Big, busy and brawling, the crowded, noisy show featuring 69 Texas artists and collectives has painting, photography and sculpture duking it out with video art and mini-installations.
In the 19th-century Paris salons, some of the still-biggest names in art made their reputations by not being selected. However, unlike most of the hundred or more institutionally driven biennials in the world, the Texas Biennial is a grassroots effort involving mostly younger, emerging artists. Starting in Austin in 2005, it’s spread to about 80 participating galleries, artist-run spaces and a few of the state’s museums. But big institutional backing—meaning money, publicity and prestige—is sadly lacking.
This year, the 13 curators of TX 13 chose from more than 1,000 entries by artists who live and work in Texas. Those who entered are eager to be recognized, but most of the state’s well-established artists didn’t bother, so the show doesn’t necessarily represent the best of Texas contemporary art. And the curators haven’t done much to put the art in perspective, so the collective effort comes off as a multimedia jumble.
San Antonio represents well, especially collagist Kelly O’Connor, whose large-scale shadowboxes have grown into complex, museum-like dioramas, conjuring a retro 1950s space age fantasy using images clipped from decades-old magazines of Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic domes, Shirley Temple, vintage TVs and labor-saving devices. The other San Antonio artists selected by curator Rene Barilleaux of the McNay Art Museum also tend to use retro-looking found objects and images to make humorous social commentary.
Gary Sweeney’s Are You a Psychopath? could have been made in a mid-20th century high school shop class, and makes you wonder about the totalitarian tendencies of dog owners. Claudio Dicochea elongates dogs and guns with an El Greco style. Chris Sauter’s Land Factory, a volcano sprinkled with construction cranes, looks like a vintage textbook illustration. Thin color clippings are used by Shannon Crider to form her John in Drag portrait collage.
Why not hang artists by city? Installing each curator’s choices together might have provided a better idea of what they were thinking in making their selections. Another possibility is to do away with the open call and ask only a few curators to pick the Texas artists they think are best, similar to the Whitney Biennial.
Houstonian Will Henry’s darkly mesmerizing Painting for Budd Hopkins, the pioneering UFOlogist, is among other representational work rising above the maelstrom. Austin painter Sara Vanderbeek’s expressionistic Trenton Doyle Hancock is the only true portrait in the show. Dallas artist Rebecca Carter drew mirror images of off-kilter pianos on the wall and connects them with a yarn string rainbow plugged into a couple of wall sockets in the Wrong Perspective with the Dirty Rainbow. Houston artist Ann Johnson used an apron burned by iron marks to frame a photo of a black woman tending a white child in the poignant Star Child.
Video art is the 600-pound gorilla in the room, or at least, it sounds like it. Blaring soundtracks spew across the galleries—unfair to art forms that have worked quite well without sound for millennia.
The Houston team of Hillerbrand + Magsamen produced the best video, Whole, which shows a family cutting holes in the walls of their home and crawling through as if trying to escape the cluttered confines of their suburban existence. Houston artist Madsen Minax’s slick (No) Show Girls, featuring gender-bending striptease artists, would have been daringly transgressive a decade ago, but now the question is whether it’s high art or merely low-brow titillation, as advertised by the Live Nude Genitals neon sign.
Houston artist Seth Mittag’s Hurricane Allen incorporates video of a claymation weatherman to highlight his miniature sculpture of a television with foil-wrapped rabbit ears. Fort Worth’s Gregory Ruppe never sees more than the trees in his humorous Bigfoot. San Antonio artist Julia Barbosa Landois slyly sings about religious oppression of women in her music video, Star-Crossed II.
Art critic Jerry Saltz bemoans the advent of “Neo-Mannerism” in his essay about postmodern clichés, especially ‘Modest Abstraction,’ which casts a disappointing shadow over “TX 13.” Abstract painters seem to have lost heart, though the small, unobjectionable abstract paintings would be better off in a quiet, white cube of their own. Denton painter Matthew Bourbon follows the path not usually taken with his figurative abstractions that substitute tile-like blocks of color for skin tones.
Conroe artist Adela Andea’s Primordial Garden, made with netting, plastic and LED lights in the corridor to Blue Star’s bathrooms, offers a safe haven from all the noise. Miriam Ellen Ewers of Denton promises better days with her large-scale horn of plenty, Ideal Shelter.
Uniting the state’s contemporary art community under a single banner is commendable, but building a working infrastructure of galleries, museums, curators, collectors and critics that the state’s artists can engage with to sustain a career is going to take a lot more than good intentions. Big Medium, the non-profit behind the Texas Biennial, has a useful website with links to artists’ sites and a comprehensive calendar of events, but mostly it’s promoting what’s already out there and not adding much new to the information pool.
TX 13: Texas Biennial Group Survey
$3-$5; free Thu and Sun (students free)
Noon-8pm Thu; noon-6pm Fri-Sun
Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum
116 Blue Star
Through Nov 9