I’ve just come from jurying the First Southern Open Biennial at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana. The experience reminded me of jurying annual or biennial exhibitions at the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke and the art museum in Alexandria, Louisiana. (I can never remember the name of the museum because then-director Mark Tullos, who is now at the art museum in Lafayette, succeeded in getting his institution the URL “the museum”: www.themuseum.org.)
These shows always turn up a few neglected treasures, and they’re often destined to stay neglected for one reason or another; usually idiosyncracy combined with unfashionability.
I always end up putting in about a dozen works without which it would have been a stronger but less diverse exhibition, plus as many as a dozen works that make it admirably and unequivocally on one level and barely squeak by on another. The artists of the five Gulf Coast states who submitted work to this inaugural biennial were, on the whole, less marginal in the technical department; a few visions were inadequately realized, but the pleasure there was discovering just how many obstacles the artists in questions had had to encounter en route to producing a body of work that, knowing the whole story, one would expect not to exist at all.
I ended up having to exclude a fair amount of well-rendered, not at all stale landscape for reasons of space as much as anything. It occurs to me, and this is not at all an unkind comment, that it often would be possible to curate an exhibition of upwards of a dozen artists that would look superficially like a solo show. One can say the same for seventeenth century Dutch flower painting. Many artists learned a language and learned it flawlessly.
So one ends up looking for the interesting mavericks, and the meticulous traditionalists pushing a little beyond their expected boundaries, and the practitioners whose vision is their own but whose technique is borrowed from other experimentalists. Plus variations on the foregoing.
Such shows are juried from digital images, these days, and from slides in the preceding century. The necessity of maintaining anonymity works against certain bodies of conceptually oriented art, which is the dominant form in contemporary international circles but not in the regions where it is not merely unmarketable, but uncomprehended. Sometimes the full body of documentation arrives on the juror’s desk along with the images, but in this case I had to ask for elucidation in the case of images that clearly had a story that the photographs of the work weren’t telling.
My favorite in this regard, because I was so baffled by the uncommunicative photo I almost overlooked it, is a collaborative artist’s book by Jackie Klempay and her brother that consists of 3-D photos of Texas and Michigan, their respective states of residence. Intended to represent the polarities of American experience (Texas and Michigan are as opposite as you can get in an enormous number of geographic, political, and cultural respects), the photographs only become viewable through the old-fashioned 3-D viewing glasses that contain one red and one blue lens.
This plays with the metaphor of the red states and blue states brilliantly. Taken singly, each piece of information is unintelligible; the only way to get at a fully dimensional picture is to combine the red and blue perspectives into something that is neither one but corrects for the relentlessly monocular vision of both.
This isn’t great art (a good piece, but not a great one) but as I say, the visual metaphor is superb. All the punditry about the American states being various shades of purple is true; Austin and Ann Arbor could co-exist in an imaginary third state once a few regional peculiarities were straightened out, and there are many Upper Peninsula hale-and-hearty types who could adjust to the ways of the ranchers of the Sagebrush Revolution whose basic opinions they share. (I know the Sagebrush Revolution moniker is decades old and no longer applicable, but bear with me, I’m looking for quick rhetorical shorthand.) But the only way to reduce the distortions of the individual perspective is to find a perspective from which red and blue do not merge uncomfortably into an unpleasant shade of purple, but provide their own take on what each side rightly regards as inconvenient truths. The resultant vision will not be a bland perspective somewhere in the middle, but genuinely binocular. (It’s worth noting that my eyes seldom focus together, so the challenges of attaining three-dimensionality are literally apparent to me.)
Anyway, this is also a brilliant metaphor for the kind of juried show I like to assemble, which was rightly described as “wildly eclectic.” It is also a metaphor for the kind of online publication I would like to see someone assemble (I’m frankly not sure I have the capacity to do it), one that would create a multiocular perspective (yes, I know, that’s the worldview of a fly, but even so). The global biennials and art fairs show us the diversity of an international art world that is, for all of that, not all that diverse; Tom McEvilley was right when he pointed out the error of, I think, a Pacific Islands artist who said in response to a question, “Contemporary art is whatever art is being produced this very moment.” It isn’t, and it isn’t even all art that consists of more complex stuff than the decorously decorative work that copies popular styles. (This latter remark itself lumps together famous popular painters with makers of conventional hotel art, and to do this is to oversimplify the methods of churning stuff out for the mass market. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears, except of course when it is.)
Given that it is now possible to cram a lot of images even on a CD, much less on a two-gig thumb drive such as has dropped in price precipitously, the near-infinitude of storage space on networked servers mean that it would be possible to produce a searchable database of world art of the moment that would be so definitive that it would resemble Borges’ library too vast to find anything, or his map that so replicates the territory that it also is useless for purposes of orientation.
So we need more things like the First Southern Open Biennial; ultimately still dependent on the strange personalities of the gatekeepers, but reflective of enough different personalities so as to reveal aspects of global art that will never show up in the spheres delimited by curatorial respectability. The magazine that employs me, Art Papers, is doing an unparalleled job of showing us what is distinctive and unexpected in the world's contemporary art, but daggum it, it’s still “contemporary.” And there is a lot of non-contemporary art that is also non-traditional, and it’s spread across the planet.
I still want to see a map of the world’s counterforces that is comprehensive but searchable; something more like Google Earth or its competitors, a database that lets you focus in on specific areas of interest, though which areas is a matter still limited by the economics of making the detailed overhead shots. (On the literal level, East Timor got its closeup only after it entered into regional headlines; suddenly it became possible to put names on the hotels, restaurants, and transient marketplaces of Dili.)
For now, the First Southern Open Biennial is a pretty good start; it’s up through July 28, and there’s a catalogue, spiffily and quickly produced via lulu.com on my recommendation.