The state of Texas is lot of things lately. Governing from a place of inclusion, however, is not one of them. In step the artists, who continue to respond to society’s ills and question our systems of power. However pandemic-weary, many Texas artists still see their role as that of the activist.
In its seventh edition and with the hopeful title, “A New Landscape, A Possible Horizon,” the Texas Biennial is organized by the Austin non-profit Big Medium and co-curated by Evan Garza, and Ryan N. Dennis.
Both are Houston natives. Garza, currently a Fulbright scholar at Irish Museum of Modern Art, was formerly director of Rice Public Art. Dennis, after a long professional tenure in Houston, is now chief curator and artistic director of the Center for Art & Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
Together Dennis and Garza made some changes. (Remarkably, the Texas Biennial remains the longest-running state arts biennial in the U.S.)
What began as an all-media survey of artists working or living in Texas, is now open to artists with deep connections to Texas working in any part of the world as long as they’ve produced or exhibited significant work in Texas over the last three years, (aka Texpats). Also included are international artists that employ Texas as subject matter.
One could say, Texas is the protagonist.
That strategy isn’t always successful. The new curatorial boundaries mean that Irish born and based John Gerard and his “Dust Storm (Dalhart Texas) (2007),” were selected. Gerard’s work is an animated video derived from archival photographs and satellite information focusing on the 1930s Dust Bowl landscape of the Texas Panhandle (not much visually happens on the monitor). The artist is said to be interested in agriculture, the petroleum industry and climate change and his similar video aimed at Spindletop appeared at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2017. But while the (virtual or not) site is Texas, Gerard’s work is 14 years old and doesn’t really reflect what’s going on in the state now, nor its of range of artistic talent.
Putting the problematic Texas-as-subject-issue aside, there is a commendable effort to reflect diversity, spread things around more equitably and avoid a locus for all-things-Biennial. The curatorial team and organizers partnered with four institutions in San Antonio and one in Houston. Of course, with any group exhibition of this geographical scope, there are a lot of logistics to juggle. Add COVID-19 into the mix and there were a few hurdles.
The San Antonio portion of the press event scheduled on opening day was canceled due to public health concerns. (Houston’s opening at FotoFest went on the next evening.) Thankfully the McNay Museum and the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) were ready to launch, as scheduled, and actually held the bulk of the work, the McNay having the most.
While SAMA features several artworks with overtly Texas motifs, overall, the content of San Antonio’s portion of the Biennial proved that artists in Texas are concerned with the same things many of us are at this particular moment. Climate, social inequity, gender identity, racism, the pandemic, and the impact of immigration weighed most heavily. Perhaps it was the toll of morning doomscrolling or the fact that on the same day the exhibition opened, the Texas law banning abortion went into effect, but it was, you could say, a lot.
Of the work that deals with social activism, not that much of it is outrageously confrontational. Artists from distinct backgrounds take on societal systems and injustices gracefully. (Although I noticed neither women’s rights nor reproductive health appeared to be popular topics.)
The McNay provided three substantial gallery spaces to explore. Ari Brielle’s work confirmed my faith in the impulse to create, no matter the circumstances. The artist had COVID-19 not once, but twice in 2020. Forced to quarantine, she couldn’t use her studio at the University of Texas-Arlington.
What did she do? Like many of us, she turned to her laptop.
Drawing from screenshots, she collaged ostensibly random images (family, travel pics, downloaded images of interests — one iconic one of Carrie Mae Weems — and personal journal notes) leaving multiple tabs and browsers open. She elevated her digitally produced images by printing them on silk and presenting them hung (gently swinging at times) from two vertical strings. In the tradition of Dada, Brielle’s works operate like found-object assemblage. Yet hers are uber-specific, intimate and resourceful — particularly resonate during a time when a lack of resources is felt by so many.
In the same room is attention-grabber, Steve Parker’s “Sirens” (2018). Parker’s sculpture made of brass horn parts, plastic, conduit, and speakers brings to mind Luigi Russolo’s Futurist noise makers called Intonaumori. Instead of emanating discordant sounds, Parker’s gleaming multi-belled musical contraption, projects singing voices, particularly, recordings of “songs of distress.” Voices are many but include Kate Bass, Laura Esparza, Michael Anthony García, Heloise Gold and Katalena Hernandez. The broadcasted component is likened to a civil defense siren. But it doesn’t just warn its listeners of impending danger, rather the artist intends it as a call-to-action.
One can only imagine the music played in Irene Antonia Diane Reece’s tableaux relating to the Black Southern church. Unlike the private nature of Brielle’s work done on laptop, Reece’s work establishes its breadth by taking up half an octagonal gallery and celebrating the fruits of communal worship and mourning traditions in the Black church. From an installation series that appeared at the Galveston Arts Center in 2021, “Home-goings” (2021), refers to the services and Christian funerary rites held by in African Americans, in which the deceased goes home to heaven.
Focal points are two large digital prints of vintage photographs mounted on neighboring walls. One is a group portrait of church matriarchs, in front of which lies a huge plastic pile flowers or coffin spray and a kneeler (the label invites viewer to kneel). The other photo depicts the exterior of the artist’s father’s church in Conroe, north of Houston. In front of it appears to be orange and white polka dotted panels, although looking closer one notices the dots are communion wafers – plain ones with the cross inscribed interspersed with ones depicting tiny faces. The faces are the victims of police brutality.
Reece also mounts church fans with pictures and text on them like “Black is the Gospel. Black is Jesus, Black is God. Dont [sic] you ever forget that my Dear Black Souls.” Using material culture Reece weaves a sympathetic and engaging environment, recognizing black elders and traditions, as well as the sacred nature of Black Lives.
Xavier Schipani’s sprawling mural was made especially for the Texas Biennial. Like flat paper cut-outs, monumental nude figures in a range of skin colors are grouped and posed along a horizontal axis. Schipani’s interest in definitions of masculinity and transmasculinity lacks attention to details such as facial traits or modeled anatomy (although there are a few black triangles painted over pubic areas). The focus becomes the interplay of the figures, their groupings, postures and combined actions of touching, standing, kneeling, leaning, sometimes appearing to support one another.
Next to the mural is Rachel Gonzales’ “Portal of Healing” (2021) an acrylic, graphite and wax pencil work on raw canvas, hung like curtains in curving yin and yang forms that the museum-goer enters. Gonzales is just one of several members of the Filipinx Artists of Houston group, FXAH, included in the Biennial.
The simplicity and earnestness of this work was quite powerful, or maybe just spoke to the introvert in me. The artist said she wanted “to hold space for collective grief, despair, avoidance and the reclamation of joy, resilience and healing in the present moment.” The raw canvas reveals a brushy East Asian looking landscape marked with hand scribbled messages (like “I should have spoken up and I didn’t”) in wax. The writing felt raw, but the installation created a protective envelope taking viewers at least partially, away from the rest of the artwork in the galleries, and the world.
Born in Texas but living in New York for the last 40-plus years, Donald Moffet is yet another artist that created work especially for the Texas Biennial. In “Lot 052021 (the air we breathe),” Moffet conveys the idea of COVID-19 through an abstract painting. He paints a blue monochrome field on a three-paneled wooden support and precisely cuts oval shaped holes in an expansive design. Not only do the deep and angled perforations make the flat painting more sculptural, bringing it to life, they are associated with the respiratory droplets that spread the coronavirus. Once part of the ACT UP movement and a founder of Gran Fury, an artist-activist group working to end AIDS in the late 1980s, Moffet’s commitment to the social activism and the intersections of art and politics endure.
Moving on, the San Antonio Art Museum welcomes visitors to take in two massive works in their high-ceilinged lobby as well a second floor gallery.
In the lobby hall Jasmine Zelaya‘s three paintings of female faces and floral designs, “Sad Girls” (2021) greet you. Then Abhidnya Ghuge’s huge dragon-like sculpture “When He Believed She Could Never,” (2021) towers above visitors. In this new site-specific work, the artist assembled 8,807 hand-dyed paper plates, plugging them into and armature and attaching 11 saris obtained from family and friends. This was Ghuge’s first time to use saris in her work. Each one is tied to the story of a different woman.
On the second floor is a large square space with columns and art. No extended labels were provided. Fortunately, many artists were established and familiar.
Seventeen etchings from Vincent Valdez’s “Somewhere in South Texas Series” (2015-2020) are both fantastically detailed and exquisitely sparse (the man is not afraid to leave empty space in his compositions). Images vary, but all document immigration with the currency and immediacy of photo-documentation and but with the expressiveness of a singular artist. Just enough information is given. A lone Texas highway sign reads “2191 North” with an arrow pointing left; it stands in front of a faint road lined brush two delicate telephone poles in the distance. Three border agents on bikes ride in ambiguous space above a river. A faceless rancher looks away towards a water station in front of a barbed wire fence.
Another Texas fave, Trenton Doyle Hancock is also represented with two new works. One is called “Step and Screw: Meanwhile Somewhere in Texas (Five Foot Furry Flash)”(2021) and is made of synthetic fur and canvas. Text from the title (looking scratched or gouged out) swirls around the state’s distinctive outline. The stark white of the writing versus the dense blackness of the surface connect this work to other one’s dealing with racism and Hancock’s complicated and personal narratives developed over years, wherein good versus evil battle.
And in the center ring, is José Villalobos’ “Los Pies Que Te Cargaron” (“The Feet That Carried You),” from 2020 but adapted for SAMA. (Another version was exhibited at Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum in 2020.)
In the tradition of Robert Rauschenberg, Villalobos combines items and stages them for full three-dimensional effect. He deals with Latinx and queer identity as the objects re-imagine machismo and norteño culture. Here a rhinestone-encrusted saddle is dramatically suspended in the middle of the gallery over a mound of dirt. Ropes from the saddle hang downward (attached to two cast feet) and out (attached to four cast hands). From tiny mounds of dirt positioned around the central square emerge plastic flowers.
Elsewhere in San Antonio, in the Artpace storefront window you can see (to varying degrees, depending on the glare) Kaneem Smith’s massive burlap work “Migrant Barrier Tapestry Revised” (2021), also site-specific. Alisha B. Wormsley’s clearly presented and unambiguously titled billboard “There are Black People in Our Future” (2017) is also on view at Artpace on the West Martin Street side of the building.
Another portion of the Texas Biennial in San Antonio is on exhibit at Ruby City. It features Jamal Cyrus, Melvin Edwards, Ariel René Jackson, Ann Johnson, Sondra Perry and Mich Stevenson. (It will be addressed in a future review.)
Although this iteration of the Texas Biennial is not as physically unified and neatly accessible as in years past, it does address a host of important 21st-century human rights issues. And while it certainly can’t claim the power to move our state’s widespread reputation needle, the treacherous landscape the artists navigate is impressive. Let’s hope their quests for inclusion and appeals for action are really possible horizons and not so dire in the future.
The “2021 Texas Biennial: A New Landscape, A Possible Horizon” continues through Jan. 31, 2022 at various institutions in San Antonio and Houston. See texasbiennial.org
Texas Biennial events in San Antonio
Steve Parker will present the Texas premiere of “Sanctus,” a new sound work developed during his Rome Prize residency. On the McNay grounds, an interactive copper sculpture plays four liturgical psalms written by Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century abbess and polymath whose work explored the healing potential of sound. 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7, 8, 9, and 10 Lawn chairs, blankets and all ages are welcome.
San Antonio Museum
Artist performance with José Villalobos will be presented 6 to 6:30 p.m. Oct 12. San Antonio Museum of Art’s West Courtyard and is free.