Biting back

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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.

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."

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."

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Christina Rees