"No one expects miracles from a biennial," I wrote in 2004 about the Tacoma Art Museum's 7th Northwest Biennial. "But surely a better failure is within reach." I should be careful what I ask for.
TAM is the only leader in this region with the chutzpah to take on the biennial beast. Seattle Art Museum does nothing comprehensive with regional contemporary art. The Center on Contemporary Art has a refreshing but very limited annual survey. The Portland Art Museum puts on an Oregon biennial.
I believe in biennials. They're adrenaline rushes to the system of whatever community they profess to portray or provoke, because by their nature they make grandiose claims and they balance officialness with convictions and prejudices. If the curators are smart, the results are electric.
For years, TAM has presented an eccentric, not an authoritative, biennial, starting with an open call and juried by far-flung artists: installation artist Fred Wilson in 1999, Chicago painter Gladys Nilsson in 2001, and installation artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in 2004 (so the schedule has been a little off). That approach has its charms, but it fails to provide anything like a proposed consensus. Giving a native curator, or team of curators, the authority to craft such a statement would take full advantage of the minds inside local museums. Curators in other parts of the world may be growing overweeningly powerful, but they sure aren't in the Northwest.
This year, TAM decided to stop bringing in artist-jurors and to present its curatorial viewpoint instead. Great.
Except that then the museum punted.
TAM curator Rock Hushka organized the show with Whitney Museum of American Art prints curator David Kiehl (Hushka said he wanted the "stink" of the Whitney on the show, since that museum is known for its controversial biennials, but I'm not sure Kiehl added anything more than the sweet fragrance of East Coast validation).
Hushka and TAM preserved the county-fair-like tradition of using a call for artists, which brought in almost 900 entrants, about 860 of whom were discarded summarily as Hushka and Kiehl whittled the list of artists down to 41 based on what they already knew about the artists' prior achievements and reputations. Hushka says this is supposed to be a chance to re-view the already-circulated art of the last two years. In other words, there was no reason for the open call. Note to TAM: Next time, get rid of the call. It's not only your right but also your job to be aggressive, to be a leader, so go right ahead. Curate.
When I say the resulting show is a better failure than the Kabakov kitchen-sink extravaganza, I mean that the average quality of the art is higher. If you have not watched Seattle art much in the last two years, this biennial is a decent basic primer. (Its attempt to capture much outside Seattle is marginal, which is disappointing since Portland has plenty to give.) The embarrassments are few (what are Jay Backstrand's David Salle rip-off and Natalie Niblack's heavy-handed graphite drawing doing here?). But the preapproved evenness—yes, yes, that already-lauded piece again, yes, it looks good here, too—makes the biennial drably institutional for all but tourists to Northwest art. The question arises: Who is the audience for this? A non-art audience? A non-native one? Are we representing ourselves to the outside world or are we reconsidering what's here?
I won't list the hit parade but I'll describe the surprises, the virgin works.
Jeffry Mitchell is a hero for silencing the vitriol that surrounds gay marriage with his tableau in white ceramics of woodland creatures attending the wedding of two turtles—slow to make it to the altar. The ability to transform hatred and pain into love and vulnerability is an achievement not only as an artist but also as a human being. Turtle Wedding had its debut at Aqua Art Miami; this is its first hometown showing.
Victoria Haven's geometric wall drawing is an inspired bit of shape-shifting that looks like a Sol LeWitt and behaves like a Robert Irwin. It's part of a new series for the artist called Rabbit Hole.
Buddy Bunting is working larger and larger, and the scale, combined with his husky imagery of cars and prisons, poignantly offsets the delicacy of his style. California State Prison, an ink wash on paper painting measuring 13 feet across, is the sultry product—even though it is painted only in shades of gray—of a post-photography, Left Coast impressionist.
Daniel Attoe's oddball landscapes with text and tiny scenes embedded in them like pop-up web ads are like Daniel Johnston meeting the Hudson River School and heading off to a sci-fi conference. Attoe is a virtual unknown in the Northwest, though he is a Bremerton native and lives near Vancouver, Washington. He is represented by Peres Projects in L.A. and Berlin, and I hope he'll be snatched up here soon, so we can see more of him.
SuttonBeresCuller had a 26-foot antique sailboat lifted by crane onto Richard Rhodes's stone wave in the center of the museum for a piece called Ship in a Bottle. The wave is surrounded by glass, but not enclosed by it, so the tension implied by the title isn't in the work. This is a rudderless spectacle—SBC-lite. The performance-art trio have been so overbooked lately, it's no wonder they seem depleted.
When in Rome, Alex Schweder, who won the Rome Prize, cast his bathroom in packing peanuts held together by his spit. He shipped the casting back home to Seattle and re-created a version of the uncanny testament to bodies, homes, and the discomfiting side of intimacy in TAM's entryway. It's messy, unexpected, and deeply personal, like a great biennial might be.