Double Bogey

Let the bloodsport begin: The Millennial Biennial's roster of artists has been announced, and everyone's worst fears or best hopes have been confirmed. Now is the time to second-guess the curators. The Whitney Biennial, by the way, is the Whitney Museum of American Art's regular attempt to exhibit "the most significant developments in American art over the past two years." Inclusion in a Biennial is a significant résumé booster for an artist, and the list is always keenly scrutinized and hotly contested. So expected are the howling protests that this year the curators launched a preemptive strike by pointing out the show's faults themselves -- the day the names were released, one lamented the fact that there were no "significant senior women," another that Los Angeles, with only seven artists to New York's 43 (not including one who claimed residence in both cities), had been snubbed.

This year Texas artists have made their best showing in recent memory, if not ever. But far be it from us to rejoice without carping. Why should we, after all, trust foreigners to bring a fresh, unbiased and broad perspective to our fishpond?

Eight of 63 artists in the show proper are from Texas, and Dallasite Nic Nicosia's films will be among the cinema screenings. The younger half of the Texas Nine includes shoo-in Leandro Erlich, responsible for the wonderful swimming pool piece during his tenure as a Core Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts. Erlich, the youngest artist in the Biennial aside from filmmaker Harmony Korine, is from Argentina, and early this month he moved to New York, but we'll claim him on a technicality. The others are Franco Mondini-Ruiz (whose primary artwork was his proprietorship of the now defunct Infinito Botanico, a traditional botanica-cum-avant-garde gallery in San Antonio), Brian Fridge (a former member of the Good/Bad Art Collective who now lives in Fort Worth) and Trenton Doyle Hancock (a painter and drawer in Paris, Texas).

For the senior half of the list, though, the Whitney curators had an eye for Texans whose work is closer to flat-footed than surefooted. Though they saw plenty of edgy artists, it's as if in the end they decided that art in the provinces, which this decentralized Biennial was designed to explore, should by definition reflect a certain conservatism. The heavy Texas hitters are James Drake (El Paso), Vernon Fisher (Fort Worth), Joe Havel (Houston) and Al Souza (Houston). Of these, Fisher, who has been in a Biennial before, is the least surprising. His elder statesmanship is undisputed, though his paintings overlaid with text are willfully cryptic and he has been wittier in the past than he is now (the Biennial includes only work made since the last Biennial, which was in the spring of 1997 -- they held off half an extra year in order to hold the show in 2000).

Drake's work, such as his oversize photographs of women using hand signals to communicate with men in jail, is the sort of art that's better when described than when seen on the wall, but like Mondini-Ruiz's, it appeals to the prurient multiculturalism of curators. In the Biennial, Drake will exhibit photos of transvestites on the El Paso-Juarez border.

It raised few eyebrows that Glassell School of Art director Joe Havel, long pegged by his peers as a shameless career climber, is on the list. His precious yet respectable work -- cast-bronze shirt collars and curtains (including the two that flank the entrance to the new Museum of Fine Arts building), fluttering arrangements of shirt labels, and assembled flurries of household furniture -- has been shown all over the place, including at the White House.

The most surprising nod of all went to Souza, who makes Rauschenbergian abstract "paintings" fashioned from puzzle pieces. Souza is a hardy perennial with an extensive résumé, but his work is far more respectable than radical. Others who have a more convincing claim, if there is such a thing, to representing "significant developments in American art" -- Bill Davenport, Aaron Parazette, Sharon Engelstein, Francesca Fuchs or Paul Kittelson, to name but a few in Houston -- were passed over. A few artists suffered from their work's deceptively modest appearance. Davenport, known for rinky-dink coffee-can or pencil-holder sculptures that call into question the very notion of what's aesthetic, is one (see "The Antihero," October 28). "You show that on slides," says Michael Auping, one of the Biennial curators, "[and] they think I'm kidding."

If the Whitney got Texas wrong, the hard part is there's no one in particular to blame. Because of a staff shakeup, the museum departed from its recent tradition of Biennials organized by a single person. Instead, director Maxwell Anderson assembled a group of six curators, three men and three women, from around the country. The curators weren't assigned to specific regions, but it's reasonable to assume that Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, went to bat for the home team. He visited dozens of artists' studios (in Houston, Joe Havel chauffeured him around). Early on, Lawrence Rinder, the curator from San Francisco, visited studios in Texas but didn't let on as to his purpose. Another of the six, Valerie Cassel, a former Houstonian who is now director of the Visiting Artists Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also made extensive studio visits in Texas.

But one artist on the list didn't receive a visit. That was Souza, who happens to play golf with Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and one of the Biennial curators. As a piece of floating gossip, that sounds pretty damning. But the fact is, Davies alone could not get Souza into the Biennial. Nor could Fridge, whose "in" was that he worked as a security guard at the Modern, be helped solely by Auping. The committee had to be convinced. When the curators met, they scored each artist with a one, two or three, and those with the most points got into the Biennial.

"Believe me, there are a lot of people I play golf with who aren't in the show," Davies says, after mounting a passionate defense of Souza's "drop-dead beautiful objects" and pointing out that he gave Souza exhibits long before the two were friends. (Fisher, by the way, also golfs with Souza).

One interesting aspect of the Whitney selection process was that the curators chose specific work rather than artists, with the exception of a few artists who will do specific installations for the show. Souza's contribution, The Peaceful Kingdom, will take up seven by 18 feet of gallery wall, which in terms of artistic real estate is just as precious as any other square footage in Manhattan. By contrast, Auping admits, artists who didn't take up any extra space were an easier sell to the committee. Mondini-Ruiz will push a portable botanica through the streets of New York, and Fridge's video of the inside of his freezer will be shown in the video screening room (which is separate from the cinema screenings).

A major complaint by Texas artists is the glaring lack of women among the ranks of Texas artists. "I've done some soul-searching about that," says Auping. "It's not from my not presenting a number [of Texas women]Š. They didn't make it in the voting, and I don't control the voting."

The omission sends the message that there are no women here who rate with the men. While the curators insist that's not what they intended to convey, they point out that the final configuration of the show depended solely on the voting.

The Biennial was not constructed with equity in mind. Each curator brought a list of 50 artists to the table, and when it was discovered that, contrary to expectations, there was virtually no overlap among them (a hint of the many Biennials that could have been), the winnowing process began.

The six gradually warmed to the idea of curating by committee -- early plans to give each person "passion votes," which would let them include three artists of their choice regardless of the voting, were scrapped. The voting process meant that curators could only hope for a reasonable gender, ethic and geographical balance in the end. "We collectively decided to really allow ourselves a certain freedom to investigate, determine and discuss without those specific issues as being overriding," says Cassel.

While the show did turn out to be generally balanced along gender lines, it would probably have been a logistical nightmare to apply standards of diversity to each geographical region. As Cassel points out, "There are no women from Iowa."

Of course, there's one last complaint about the Texas Nine, and it's another issue of balance. Non-Texans (like we care) are saying that nine is just too many.

"The thing I say, when people tell me there's too many artists from Texas, is how do you know?" Auping says. "Are you just assuming that there's more good art in Los Angeles? How do you know?"

E-mail Shaila Dewan at shaila.dewan@houstonpress.com.

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