Biting back

The Whitney Biennial has brought out the worst in the art world -- fussing, feuding, and in-fighting. But Fort Worth's Michael Auping stands by his decision to bring a few Texans to New York.

"Do you really think galleries will take interest in me?" he asks incredulously when reminded of the Biennial's impact on its artists. "I mean, I've heard about that kind of thing, but..." His voice trails off.

The 30-year-old University of North Texas graduate has shown his video work in various regional group shows. He also had a sold-out one-man show of his other trademark work -- large, graphite-coated spheres that look as dense and elegant as hardened mercury -- in the Conduit Gallery's tiny Annex. Still, Fridge isn't officially represented by any gallery. And he wonders if or when he ever will be. "Boy, that would be great," he says with a sigh. "But I'll believe it when I see it."

Oddly enough, Fridge's employment at the museum and the potential nepotism that could be read into his situation haven't been an issue. No one in the local art scene has a real problem with Fridge's inclusion -- he's the ultimate talented underdog who deserves a shot as much as the rest of Texas' young unknowns.

Courtesy Dunn and Brown Contemporary
Vernon Fisher's "Kasanga" (1998) is from his newer series of works, some of which will debut at the Biennial.
Dunn and Brown Contemporary
Vernon Fisher's "Kasanga" (1998) is from his newer series of works, some of which will debut at the Biennial.

When Auping descended the office stairs at the museum to shake Fridge's hand and announce his slot in the Biennial, some of Fridge's co-workers wept with joy. For them, it was the Biennial finally delivering on its promise to show the best of the newcomers.

"Oh, I'll definitely go to the opening," Fridge says, "and I'm excited, but I'm also pretty nervous about it. I mean, are people going to ask me questions about my work?"

Fort Worth's Vernon Fisher, on the other hand, is a juicy subject of in-state controversy. Not because the culture contingent doesn't appreciate this veteran's work; Fisher's paintings have long held the attention of curators and dealers in Texas and beyond. It's just that he's already done the Biennial, and people fear his imagery hasn't changed enough over the years to be a reflection of a revitalized career -- one of the Biennial's favorite motifs.

"Yeah, I was in it in 1981," Fisher says of his last Whitney experience. "But a lot of artists have been in the Biennial many times: Jasper Johns, de Kooning. There is an emphasis on younger art, but established artists always make a showing."

Fisher, an art professor at the University of North Texas, is represented by power-player Talley Dunn of Dunn and Brown Contemporary in Dallas, as well as Charles Cowles Gallery in New York. The Modern in Fort Worth owns several of his works.

Having watched the Biennial closely for 20-plus years, he says that the controversy comes with the territory, that it happens every time. If detractors aren't arguing about geography, they're arguing about favoritism of certain galleries, or even blackmail.

"A New York dealer might say, 'I won't let you show my artist unless you also show my other artist,' and so on," Fisher says. "And as far as Texas being heavily represented, well, turnabout's fair play. Texas has usually only had one, maybe two artists in the show, which makes you wonder when you think about the amount of work being done here. And half of this show is still New Yorkers anyway."

Non-Texans don't have a problem with Fisher as a finalist. He's one of the few established Texas artists they've even heard of, one of the very few with a track record that stretches up to shows in the Big Apple. Even Artforum writes: "Texas should also feel the glow: with Fort Worth...favorite Vernon Fisher leading the charge."

On the one hand, it's true that Auping and Fisher are buddies. On the other, it's also true that Fisher's detractors haven't seen his newest work; their moaning seems to be the stuff of knee-jerk reactions. But Auping has seen the new paintings, as have the five other curators who had a vote on Fisher's fate.

So Auping wonders "how anyone can criticize Fisher as a choice when they haven't even seen the paintings that'll be in the show. These are new paintings, amazing paintings unlike anything he's done. They're fresh, and they say something about the decadence of painting and art today."

Fisher admits he has "been frustrated in years when I wasn't chosen." It's a confession from a critically acclaimed artist who has worked as steadily and thoughtfully as any New York painter, and his tone betrays a wisdom, if not cynicism, of the ages. It's quite a departure from Fridge's humbleness. Then again, the Whitney is supposed to recognize the nation's artistic diversity.

And, after all, who are we to dictate Auping's social network? Do we really expect a local curator to ignore the affinity he might have for one of the region's most noted painters? The art world, including Texas', is too small and precious to turn your back on the people you actually like. Auping doubtless has countless art friends who didn't make the Biennial cut -- friends he didn't even bother bringing to the table, knowing the other curators would nix his nomination. Again, Fisher's place in the survey isn't merely Auping's doing. It's a whole committee's.

But the most pointed accusation of nepotism, although about a veteran, is not about Fisher. It's Houston's Al Souza, chosen by Biennial curator Hugh Davies. It's the golfing, see. Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, often tees off with Souza, and people noticed that Souza didn't receive a single Biennial curator in his Houston studio before making the cut.

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