A year ago, the artist collective Otabenga Jones and Associates (Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert A. Pruitt) and photographer Amy Blakemore were preparing their work for the "2006 Whitney Biennial: Day for Night," curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne. Getting into the Whitney Biennial is like making it to the Super Bowl. It's a career milestone, and it gives an artist entre, exposure and opportunities. So, one year later, how has the Biennial impacted these artists and their careers?
Imagine being in the Whitney Biennial with the guys from your freshman art class. Anderson, Cyrus, Evans and Pruitt have been friends since 1994, when they met in Harvey Johnson's drawing and composition class at Texas Southern University. The four worked separately as artists but formed the collective in 2002, making witty and socially, culturally and politically pointed work out of and about the African-American experience and, as their mission statement reads, "to mess wit' whitey."
The collective was selected for the Biennial, but the artists were also selected to show individually. Pruitt recalls the exhilaration of finding out they were in the Biennial. As the curators were calling them, the four were calling each other to spread the news, leaving messages back and forth.
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But they couldn't tell anybody else. They had to sign confidentiality agreements to keep mum until all the artists were chosen and the official announcements were made. Imagine winning the lottery and not being able to tell anyone. They were told the announcements would come in late October (they were made at the end of November). As October drew to a close, the artists were constantly checking their e-mail for news from the Whitney.
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Anderson, identified by Evans as the comedian of the group, says he saw "an opportunity was ripe for playing a good wholesome prank on some chumps." He set up a fake Whitney e-mail address and sent his friends an official-looking announcement with a list of artists that, according to Anderson, included everybody from "Afrika Bambaataa to Captain Kangaroo." Anderson says Pruitt is still vowing revenge.
The Whitney Biennial had a private and a public opening, both of them jam-packed and fairly surreal for the Houston artists. Kenya Evans, a tall, low-key, circumspect guy, laughs remembering it. "I had a headache the whole time," he says. "I mean I was excited to be there; you hear stories that it's going to be packed and people will be waiting in line around the museum to get in, but that stuff doesn't set in until you see it."
The high point of the evening for the Otabenga Jones guys was when a man who said he was a fan of their work turned out to be Charlie Ahearn, director of the classic hip-hop film Wild Style.
The artists of Otabenga Jones and Associates, and the collective itself, could be considered emerging, and the Biennial seems to have pushed their careers along. The exhibition of Robert Pruitt's work on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum was in the works before the Biennial. It contains drawings that meld African with African-American pop culture with poetic objects like a wall-mounted rotary phone that plays Alan Lomax's WPA oral histories from the 1930s. Hold the receiver to your ear, and you hear the voices and stories of people born in slavery.
Pruitt, whose work mines African culture and African-American pop culture, is currently doing the prestigious Artpace residency in San Antonio. Was the Biennial a factor in being selected? According to Pruitt, "You can't say for sure, but it didn't hurt." As for other Biennial after-effects, he's got an upcoming exhibition in Belgium. "I'm getting a few more people coming up to me cold, and I don't have to search out exhibitions and galleries," he says. "It's giving me the opportunity to pick and choose -- not on any grand level, but I'm not filling out as many entry forms."
Jabari Anderson, whose satiric paintings mimic vintage comic book covers, is currently doing a six-month studio residency at Lawndale Arts Center and was accepted to the highly selective Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture last summer. With upcoming shows in Miami and Siena, Italy, Anderson, who just had his first solo show at the Art League last year, is sending work out far and wide.
Kenya Evans has been working at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston for almost ten years, and with a wife and two young sons ages one and three, he's keeping his day job. But his paintings, with their pointed juxtapositions of appropriated imagery and text, were recently highlighted on cnn.com, and he's at work on a project with photographer Jeremy Kost, who saw Evans's work at the Biennial.
Jamal Cyrus is in the middle of his first year of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, and his work, which often employs vintage books and records to reference the civil rights and Black Power movements of the '60s and '70s, was just included in the exhibition "When the Revolution Comes" at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts in New York. But Cyrus says nothing's happening overnight like a lot of people said it would, "which is actually very good, because I don't know if I would have been able to survive the learning curve."
When the Whitney called Amy Blakemore to set up a time for the curators to meet with her and see her photographs, she told them she couldn't do it because she had class. (Blakemore entered the Core Program in 1985 and has been teaching at Glassell for 21 years.) The assistant on the phone was slightly dumbfounded. Biennial curators pretty much get stalked by artists. Having a job conflict would turn a lot of artists into Johnny Paycheck, belting out "Take This Job and Shove It." The only reason Blakemore ultimately made it into the Biennial is that she had her dates wrong -- her classes didn't start for a couple more days.
She met with curators Iles and Vergne, and they all had a lovely visit. Blakemore served them limeade. A couple months later, Blakemore's phone rang while she was in a ceramics class. It was Iles, who asked Blakemore, "Will you grant us the favor of being in the Whitney Biennial?" (Iles is British.) Blakemore says she could tell Iles "got great joy in calling up and telling people." But Blakemore, who's pretty self-effacing, also remembers wondering, "Why is she asking me to be in this?" She adds, "I really didn't know why."
Blakemore, who could be considered a mid-career photographer and who has been represented by Inman Gallery for 15 years, is keeping her day job too, even though she says, "People are telling me to quit teaching all these classes" and spend her time printing photographs. She is down to nine instead of her usual ten or 12 classes. But Blakemore says, "I sold a lot more work last year, like a lot more." She takes quiet, fuzzy photographs with a plastic "Diana" camera. Once, a FotoFest portfolio reviewer told her to come back when she could take those photographs "with a real camera." She says the Biennial has given her "credibility," and sees her Biennial selection as a kind of vindication for gallery owner Kerry Inman. "There were years where she (Inman) didn't sell any photographs," Blakemore explains, "but she has encouraged and supported me through all this."
There are many factors behind the inclusion of so many Houstonians in the Whitney Biennial, but Blakemore has a theory. "It's the Artadia thing that did it," she says, crediting the arts organization that gives out big grants in cities that aren't New York with her inclusion in the Whitney Biennial. Artadia seeks to "create a national network of support" and has put Houston artists on the radar of national and international arts professionals. Iles was juror in 2004 when Blakemore and Pruitt received Artadia grants. Cyrus received one in 2006.
As for Otabenga Jones and Associates, their pre-biennial New York show at Clementine Gallery was hugely successful, which, according to Pruitt, "is a milestone for Otabenga Jones -- most of the time it's not easy." Because of the Whitney, he says, "People are more willing to take a chance on our stuff because it's not that traditional." They currently have a show in the works at the Menil Collection, and the Biennial buzz got them a mention in Vanity Fair's art issue.
Nobody is on easy street yet, but the Biennial gave four young Houston artists a greater sense of legitimacy and provided validation for a local mid-career artist. Blakemore dryly sums up the experience: "It's been nice being in the Biennial. It was a lot better than not being in it."
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