Identity Unknown

Austin's Anthony Sonnenberg shows Beauty Is Not Benign at Women & Their Work.
Troy Schulze

Let's be clear: No one goes to an art festival to hear a lecture. Or a panel discussion. When you read reports about the annual South By Southwest festival, for example, you don't get people raving about how rad the panels were. It's about the concerts and the parties. That said, I tried to make it to the opening events last Friday for the Texas Biennial in Austin, now in its fourth incarnation. Friday's events included a curators' meeting and a suggested itinerary for viewing the works on display, showing at seven Austin locations, but external factors (like procrastination and traffic) prevented my companion and me from leaving Houston in time. Whew, dodged that one. I wanted a fresh look anyway, unclouded by curators' comments and suggestions for how to view the artwork.

When we made the gallery rounds on Saturday, the Biennial seemed unfocused and poorly planned. Galleries opened late; artwork was unprepared to be shown. Maybe people were getting over their opening-night hangovers. One gallery, 816 Congress, was closed Saturday even though the Biennial schedule clearly stated it was open. That gallery was also showing the bulk of the artwork on display. So unfortunately, we didn't see nearly the amount of art we expected to see.

The Biennial, called "an independent survey of contemporary Texas art," includes shows in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and several other Texas cities. The five Austin galleries we visited showcased some impressive work by Texas artists, but as the festival's headquarters, judging from what I was able to view, Austin offered a lackluster survey.

The event's independent curator, New York-based art historian and attorney Virginia Rutledge, wrote in the Biennial catalog: "It happens that there is enough contemporary art being produced in Texas to make a biennial. I'm not sure why that is; it is perhaps not even remarkable except that I don't think it is necessarily true of every state." That's a troubling opening statement for such an event. It's neither here nor there.

Of course there's a ton of quality art produced in Texas. But Rutledge isn't interested in engaging Texas as an inspiring artistic region or getting into a cultural discussion of any kind. "The 'Texas' part of the Texas Biennial is less interesting to me than the fact that the exhibition was started by artists and has managed to make it to a fourth edition without an established institutional home or celebrity name attached," she writes. Clearly, the Texas tourism people won't be hiring Rutledge to tout our "Whole Other Country." I'm not saying a biennial survey of Texas artists should be emblazoned with bluebonnets and yellow roses, but to deny all regional significance feels wrong.

I'll agree with Rutledge on one of her points: "Most art is made to be seen." No shit. Here's what we saw — or tried to see.

We really wanted to see Accumulation, a four-minute high-def video by Houston-based Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen, which from still images looks terrific. Unfortunately, the gallery Big Medium couldn't get the projector to work, or the DVD had been removed...nobody knew. We were left looking at Carin Rodenborn's In Between Our Closeness, a couple of ridiculous two-by-fours attached to a wall with unimpressive painted canvases attached to them. If you saw a picture of them you'd be like, "What the hell?" Great start.

Austin's east-side Pump Project Art Complex presented one of the most impressive works of the day, Dallas-based Gabriel Dawe's Plexus No. 5. Made of colored Gutermann thread, wood and nails, it's a three-dimensional collapsed cube that looks like a huge rainbow prism. We stared quite awhile.

Downtown gallery Women & Their Work contained cool photography by Austin's Susi Brister. And Anthony Sonnenberg (also from Austin) contributed his humorous Beauty Is Not Benign, a bearskin rug that had sprouted a patch of brass flowers.

1319 Rosewood Avenue, which looks like an abandoned house from the outside, was showing Dion Laurent's clever photo series Earthman 2, in which a man dressed in what looks like an astronaut's spacesuit walks the earth barefoot, doing stuff like carrying flowers, catching fish and writing graffiti on rocks.

The recently renovated Arthouse in downtown Austin was a kind of Biennial headquarters, even though it's not presenting a Biennial exhibit (which is weird). It's showing the work of two British artists, Jack Strange and Graham Hudson. Downstairs, Strange's video mash-ups are witty takes on being stuck. He loops footage of Tom Cruise running through several films, like a Hollywood Sisyphus, never reaching a destination. Upstairs, Hudson has constructed an architectural skeleton of London's famous Astoria Theatre, a legendary rock venue that was demolished in 2009. The scaffolded structure, which includes a performance stage, audience area and PA system, has been offered to local musicians as a free rehearsal space during the project's run. It is essentially a living, breathing sculpture. Hands down, it was the best thing we saw, and it's not even part of the Biennial.

We skipped Saturday's public panel "Like a Whole Other Country? The State of Contemporary Art in Texas," which seems like a direct contradiction to Rutledge's case for organizing a Texas Biennial in the first place. This event might have a case of schizophrenia. I went and got a tattoo instead. Something somewhat wild needed to happen.

Having seen precious few gallery-goers all day, we were surprised at the big turnout for Saturday night's Biennial party, also at Arthouse. Liquor flowed, a string quartet played, the view from Arthouse's chic, modern-design roof was spectacular. But it all felt sort of nondescript, generic. The Biennial catalog, appropriately, is a plain white book. Perhaps over the next couple years, the organizers will regroup and re-examine the event's purpose and identity. Maybe give it one.

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