It’s Houston only moment of the biennial, which is otherwise centered in San Antonio for the 2021 iteration. The result of a fruitful collaboration between biennial co-curators Ryan N. Dennis and Evan Garza along with FotoFest’s associate curator Max Fields, “In Place of an Index” underscores the biennial’s optimistic title: “A New Landscape/A Possible Horizon.” Above all, the exhibition projects hope, based on the belief that history is changeable and can be rewritten.
During their curatorial process Garza and Dennis compiled a select list of artists across Texas and beyond whose work best fit a theme — art that made critical interventions into archives, both institutional and personal. The two developed a strategy: “Follow an artist’s lead (to learn what) Texas artists are doing right now and responding to right now,” says Garza.
Yes, this exhibition is incredibly current.
Related: ‘In this Texas Biennial, Texas is the protagonist’
The 2021 iteration of the Texas Biennial shows diverse artists addressing a host of important 21st-century human rights issues
Several artists debut original works for the first time in Texas, including Dallas-based artist Ja’Tovia Gary’s three-channel film installation, “THE GIVERNY SUITE.” Also a series of black-and-white Polaroids derived from Houston native Autumn Knight’s performance film “Meesh,” both of which center the experiences and agency of Black women. “Receiving and Giving (Dining Room),” a photographic tapestry by Baseera Khan, originally used as backdrops for a television pilot produced during 2020, reflects upon the last year of life during lockdown. Khan, a Muslim-American, both exacerbates and spotlights their lifelong experience of social and societal isolation.
“The word that stuck with us was potentiality,” says Fields, of the curatorial process. And that meant looking for artists that had “a hopeful eye,” and who revisit, rewrite, and reimagine canonical narratives. Such transgressive tasks, which often interrogate imposing subjects such as intergenerational trauma, isolation, and violence, may imply that this exhibition has an impenetrably serious tone. But these artists reject that possibility. As Dennis notes, there are “discrete moments of joy” that appear throughout the show.
Humor and playfulness, along with resiliency and experimentation, fold into works by Regina Agu, Ryan Hawk, and Adam Marnie and Aura Rosenberg. Agu’s photographs bare the traces of her body’s interaction with a flatbed scanner, where her form darts in and out of surrounding darkness, stretched, interrupted, and highly distorted across the plate. She then introduces her collaborator, an alt-generator that digests the photos with its programming and gives each photo its title: “a picture containing light”; “person”; “tattoo”, etc. The generator cannot possibly accurately describe the photos or construct an archive from them due to Agu’s purposeful obfuscation.
Hawk synthesizes silicone rubber reproductions of human skin and emblazons them with densely packed tattoo ink resembling the form of a black square, the symbolic gesture of solidarity that filled Instagram feeds after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd in 2020. Hawk memorializes that moment but does not let it go unexamined. The opacity of the square that erases the skin underneath mirrors the function of the black square as a gloss for real depictions of police violence and possibly as a salve for white guilt.
The series, “A Photo a Day,” a collaboration between Marnie and Rosenberg, is an archive of impromptu snapshots taken by each artist and emailed to each other every day for a year and a half. Presented as diptychs and calendar spreads, the photos capture time and lives in motion, which in the context of the pandemic can feel achingly nostalgic. Their triviality can still be something to cherish.
Texan visitors will recognize some of the appropriated images and objects in work by Travis Boyer and Tay Butler. For Boyer, the enduring legacy of pop star Selena and her hold upon Tejanos and Texans alike has remained a complex subject of inquiry for over ten years. Here, he presents a personal collection of 90s ephemera — photos, phone cards, vending machine stickers, and makeover coupons from Selena’s boutique in Corpus Christi, as well as newly commissioned handwoven equestrian blankets picturing some of her most iconic outfits, posters, and concerts. Butler’s photo-based collages represent vestiges of Houston rap culture and Black celebrity upon the historical backdrop of the urban struggles of Black Houstonians.
Dennis and Garza encourage viewers to “spend time with the sweet spots and the uncomfortable spots,” acknowledging that the exhibition’s hopeful outlook is inevitably born from past traumas.
Stephanie Concepcion Ramírez’s film “Preludes” and mixed media installation “vibraciones de temblores” both reflect upon her family’s trauma after fleeing from war-torn El Salvador but reveal their perseverance and ability to heal. Work by Annette Lawrence and Kara Springer also celebrate family ties, Lawrence’s in the face of her nephew’s recent death and Springer’s through the experience of her daughter’s birth as a Black mother navigating her way in a discriminatory medical system.
“In Place of an Index” proves that from trauma and from epistemological violence there are multiple points of departure — joy, sensitivity, and knowledge being chief among them.
And the curators’ admiration for the artists in this Texas Biennial is clear.
“Rather than intentionally attempting to diversify the artists in the Biennial, we chose artists who we believe deserve the spotlight,” says Dennis.
With the hope that visitors will leave viewing things differently, Garza provides these emphatic parting words: “Texas, pull up!”
“In Place of an Index” continues through Nov. 13 at FotoFest in Houston, fotofest.org
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