The 2012 DeCordova Biennial

There is always someone who is offended by every biennial. They are inherently two-headed beasts, with the introspective head judging the strengths and weaknesses of a portion of the art world, while the extroverted head optimistically presents a narrative, declaring why the included artists are notable. For this year’s DeCordova Biennial, curators Dina Deitsch and Abigail Ross Goodman followed tradition by programming a regional Biennial of New England artists. A few years ago, the DeCordova refocused their annual show by turning it into a biennial. The annual was described to me once as the place where the curators put the oddball artists that didn’t fit into the DeCordova’s group shows but still deserved a wider public. The change to the biennial structure granted guest curator teams more time to schedule a tighter exhibition. They hoped that the change would create an active rather than a reactive exhibition. The 2012 exhibition (up through April 22) lives up to this promise not by presenting a relentless concentrated central theme, but instead by assembling a flexible show relatively centered on “anxiety, discomfort, and overall change.”

Steve Lambert, Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, 2011. Aluminum and electronics. 9 x 20 x 7 feet. (Electronics by Alexander Reben) courtesy of the artist and SPACES, Cleveland, OH

In terms of quality, the show runs the range: from phoned-in works that are indistinguishable from the artist’s earlier works to delightfully new works that show expanded range.

The show opens with Steve Lambert‘s Capitalism Works for Me! True/False a giant sign that tallies the audience’s answers to the title. I thought I knew what this politically loaded word meant, but Lambert made me reconsider that. Which capitalism? Am I being asked about the late stages of capitalism (making lots of money without any hindrance from regulations, too big to fail, global motion of capital, etc) or the older, more basic form where private ownership of the means of production is distinguished from state ownership? I have a love/hate relationship with the globalism version. Every artist (or writer for that matter) bases their self-employment on the latter definition. If I say False, I deny my and Lambert’s self-employment, but if I say True, do I align myself with the 1%? The more I considered Lambert’s question, the more I wanted to answer him both ways. I feel like a weasel that can’t commit to one of today’s central wedge issues.

Close reading of Ann Pibal‘s paintings will be rewarded. They are broken linear depictions of space that include balanced formal relationships that mask what feel like unbalanced emotional events. These lines replace what feel like haptic, concrete locations with painted incomplete drawings. This lack of closure forces you to see the relationships in the paintings for what they are. The viewer is asked to reassemble the discontinuities as they see them. What makes these powerful, are not the techniques used (like all abstract art, someone will dismiss it as “my kid can do that” art) but the logic behind why she does what she does. Space turns, curves, and slips along sequential fault lines. What at first appears to be linear regularity is denied the more you consider the relationships hidden in these paintings.

Chris Taylor, Untitled, 2004-2010. Glass, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Chris Taylor‘s glass works are smart, formal proxies that deny their own optics. He explores many angles of craft in his work. His stand-outs are concealed blown glass, simulating something you can get for free at a gas station: styrofoam cups. Taylor does not just reproduce commodity objects though, there are also replicas of famous luxury crafted objects that Taylor used to fool the original makers into refunding his purchase price, claiming his errors were their own. Their substitute status, like Allen MCollum’s surrogates or Jasper John’s sculptures from 1960, are more than just formal tricks and are not just sculptural trompe l’oeil. They are also a witty mocking of tradition that rouses the work into a living relationship with our surrounding culture. Can factory made luxury goods be deluxe if the factory that made them can’t verify that the objects are their own work? You should also not miss his video, Small Craft Advisory, which is hanging in the staircase behind his work.

Installation shot of Mary Lum's work. Photography by Clements Photography & Design, Boston, MA

Mary Lum‘s hybrid photograph-wall-paintings of odd spaces compelled me to spend a lot of time with them. The gestural perspectives of her work are altered, reality becomes unbound, when these works are shown so close to each other. Her close observations of both empty space and objects are absorbing. The masterful flattening and distortions found in her work makes an effortless documentary photo of a street into an inventive composition. A photo of something real is affected by the impossible drawing next to it, while the drawing seems more real with the fake-looking real-thing in tight progression. Each work infects the others and the presentation makes them come alive as an interrelated subject that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Matthew Gamber, Munsell Color Tree (from the series Any Color You Like), 2010. Digital gelatin silver print. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Gallery Kayafas, Boston, MA.

Matthew Gamber‘s photographs are nerdy, historically and formally. They rely on such a simple conceit: removing color from objects that are defined by their colors. The things in his images need color, relying on it for their function. Making a color wheel monochrome still leaves it looking interesting enough, but a monochrome color blindness test is effectively useless as the data that makes this arrangement of dots into a test is undone, leaving the answer available to the color blind. This project summons a thread of early humanism described in great detail by Simon Schaffer in the BBC documentary Light Fantastic. Light and color are bigger than their physical truths, they affect and define the world we think we know. When photography expands upon the limits of our perceptive abilities, we get in touch with a foundational fear for humanity: that our mastery of knowledge is limited and that what we think is expertise is really just juvenile hubris.