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.

After the Houston Press (a sister paper of the Dallas Observer's) dangled this slice of admittedly rank gossip in front of Davies in December, he replied, "Believe me, there are a lot of people I play golf with who aren't in the show." He then went on to remind critics that he alone couldn't ordain Souza or Souza's "drop-dead beautiful objects." He says he exhibited Souza's works long before they were friends, which makes sense: We gravitate to those who impress and fascinate us in the first place. The committee's built-in system of checks and balances ensured that no one curator could build his or her list on something as unaesthetic as friendship. If Souza's work weren't Biennial-worthy, it certainly follows that the other five curators would have recognized that fact and blown the whistle.

And veterans such as Fisher and Souza make up only a sliver of the finalists.

"We wanted more of an emerging-artist focus," Auping says of the ratio of rookies to veterans. "The Biennial always shows more emergent artists than established artists, but we really went for it. There's just so much impressive work being done by relative 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.

Which is where Argentina-born Leandro Erlich comes in. Houston's Erlich, at age 24 the youngest artist in the Biennial after New York filmmaker Harmony Korine, won raves for a piece he created while he was a Core Fellow at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston -- a "swimming pool" piece everyone still refers to with swooning tones. No one is surprised at his selection; the greener art sector of Texas has no more suitable rep than Erlich, who receives the blessing of just about everyone. But many folks thought Denton artist and Good/Bad member Erick Swenson deserved the same fate, since they refer to his work the same reverent way, and Swenson didn't make the cut.

Swenson's idyllic, creepy-sad sculptures of fantastical animals in diorama installations have won the favor and attention of nearly all who lay eyes on them. A one-man show of his works at Dallas' Angstrom Gallery in late '98 still has people talking. So when Texas art lovers peruse the Biennial list to find nine Texans and no Swenson, eyebrows shoot up. How did this happen?

"I didn't really get to know Erick's work until too late," Auping says, the merest hint of regret in his voice. Oddly, Auping missed the Angstrom show. By the time he had secured the necessary slides of Swenson's work, he says, "the selection process was too far along. But I love his work; I'm putting it in an upcoming show at the Modern."

But was Auping too late or just not interested? Word among local art insiders is that Auping had slides of Swenson's art in plenty of time; he just didn't push it on the other curators. Speculation abounds on the local grapevine, which is about three inches tall, but those are the breaks. The hard truth about art is its subjective nature: masterpiece to one, problem to another, near-perfect for some, confounding for the rest.

Auping, for instance, adores Trenton Hancock's unraveled, stream-of-consciousness drawings, which first appeared on the walls of Gerald Peters Gallery in 1998. The young Hancock, a graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce, deals with questions of race and socialization, and his decidedly comic-book style charms some and alienates others.

"Trenton will be great when he figures out what he wants to do," says one Dallas art dealer. "There's enough in his work to suggest that one day he'll arrive. But if the Biennial was going to include one wild-card young Texan, you have to wonder if Trenton deserved that spot." Certainly, Hancock's representation by Talley Dunn carries weight, as does his easy appropriation of pop-culture iconography, which invades just about every niche of current art trends.

Again, it's subjective, and that's what people seem to forget, this year and every Biennial past. There's simply no formal way to rank the quality of art. The closest any rating process has of being fair might be had in this year's Biennial system -- checks and balances by committee. The end result is that far more deserving yet unexpected artists make it in, rather than deserving yet expected artists getting left out. We can argue Swenson's denial or Fisher's inclusion all day long, but we could also point out that Auping and company overlooked, say, Ted Kincaid, Robert Jessup, or Kirk Hayes -- acclaimed Texas artists in their prime. Considering the number of studios visited and the vast interest of the six curators, this year's Biennial has a far more profound and diversified reach than ever before.

But any show that has Brian Fridge making the rounds at the Whitney on opening night, balancing a glass of Cristal while rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mary Boone and Matthew Barney, must be doing something right. It's democracy in action.

For now, Fridge heaves his lanky frame from the outdoor park bench at the Modern in Fort Worth, smooths his navy blazer, and lopes back toward the museum -- the museum that may one day employ a security guard to watch over a Brian Fridge original masterpiece.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help