Reading Between the Pixels 

Texas Biennial 2007
Noon-5pm Thu-Sun
Through Apr 15
Dougherty Arts Center
1110 Barton Springs Rd.
Okay Mountain
1312 E. Cesar Chavez St.
Site 1808
1808 E. Cesar Chavez St.
Bolm Studios
5305 Bolm Rd. #12
(512) 385-1670
I suppose a biennial by definition celebrates what has already been consecrated, but one of the things I loved about the inaugural 2005 Texas Biennial — created out of thin air by five Austin galleries and artist spaces — was that a lot of the work felt fresh and surprising. `Read about it: “Visual Angst and Sensory Overload,” March 10-16, 2005.`

Electronics designer Jerry Chamkis exhibited a Kosmophone, made with an18-bit digital-to-analog converter and a nuclear spectrometer, that thoroughly justified the conceptual-contraption-as-art by putting scientific wonder in the service of political commentary; and the painting was exciting, from Christine Gray’s plaintive landscape imagery to Matthew Guest’s Mardi-Gras-on-crack visual onslaught to Jonas Criscoe’s silkscreened suburban autopsy. While some ubiquitous curator favorites made an appearance — in how many shows did we see Serena Lin Bush’s video installation of hand gestures that year? I counted three — it
didn’t all feel ready for the Hudson (Show)Room, and that was a good thing.

In part, the relative predictability and polish of this year’s biennial is a testament to the strength of San Antonio and Austin artists, and the savvy networking of their respective curators and art spaces, who have forced Houston and DFW to turn their eyes to the heart of Texas. But it also reflects the whittling down of the jurist panel from a dozen artists, writers, and gallerists (many of avant-garde self-starter spaces) to five institutional professionals: Ursula Davila of Austin’s Blanton, Fairfax Dorn of Ballroom Marfa (a self-starter, but not of the grass-roots variety), Artpace’s Kate Green, Valerie Cassel Oliver of Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, and John Pomara, artist and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Perhaps as a result, many of the 39 selections tend to confirm official stamps of greatness already conferred. Austin favorites Candace Briseño, Heyd Fontenot, and Peat Duggins make repeat appearances this year — along with Houston’s William Betts the only 2005 holdovers. Of the six San Antonio artists selected, two have shown at Artpace (Michael Velliquette was a 2004 resident), and one is the founder (Linda Pace). Which isn’t to say they aren’t notable Texas artists — just not surprising choices.

Betts earns his double turn with a new variation on 2005’s “digital extractions,” large canvases filled with dense color lines recreating a one-pixel width of a photograph. The two canvases on view at Bolm Studios use a related technique — large paint drops simulating pixels — to recreate surveillance-camera images. Viewed in the gallery, they at first appear abstract, so when the picture pops into focus, it’s startling, as if you suddenly realize you’re complicit in a crime (as the artist intended, they get to the philosophical and sociological issues inherent in surveillance; I’d love to hang them in Alberto Gonzales’s Washington D.C. office). The paintings’ scenes are even sharper when viewed through a digital camera or photograph, furthering Betts’s exploration of the way technology assembles and represents the world.

San Antonian Gary Sweeney uses giant pixels, too, to create enlarged closeups of Jackie and John F. Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade. Made with plastic Put-in-Cups and chain-link fencing, the head-shots (Sweeney is known for his mischievous wordplay, so the double meaning must be part of the package) jump out from the open lot on Cesar Chavez street like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, whispering about rotten American dreams hidden by flimsy curtains. I think the source photo is one identified as an “amateur snapshot” taken with a Kodak Brownie camera about two minutes before the president was shot. Kennedy appears genuinely happy, the First Lady looks serene, and the Kodachrome palette ties the image to some of Sweeney’s earlier work that plays on mid-century nostalgia — an American mirage that arguably vanished that day in Dealey Plaza.

In the same lot, dubbed Site 1808 for the biennial, Tom Matthews has created a large spiral with stacked yellow institutional chairs. Standing ankle-deep in grass, feeling the spring breeze on your neck as you gaze down the center is a pleasant place to contemplate those recent New York Times Magazine stories about human behavior: do we create patterns (religion, crime) out of free will, or is our reasoning just post-hoc rationalization for deeply embedded genetic programming?

Programming is the subject of Corey Escoto’s paintings of enlarged self-help paraphernalia — on view at the Dougherty Arts Center (which seems to have been designated the home for conceptual objects). “You Can Change the World,” the title of more than one published philosophy, stamped on a red cover appears to be just another version of Chairman Mao’s infamous book. A “Leadership” tape looks depressing and crushingly unimaginative rather than inspirational.

These sales jobs are matched in the corner by San Antonio resident Charlie Morris’s installation, “Stack ’Em Deep, Sell ’Em Cheap,” a series of obsolete consumer electronics recreated from wood, string, and paint: transistor radios, turntables, an old laptop, and some ominous-looking canisters — echoing a sinister note that runs through many of the works that I was attracted to in this, the sixth year of the War on Terror.

Hidden down the hallway — the way undocumented workers are hidden in our economy — Michele Grinstead and Nancy O’Connor present two photo homages to immigrant culture. My favorite image plays, intentionally or not, on Ed Ruscha’s famous “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,” with trucks at night at a brightly lit Exxon station. Like much of the biennial’s most compelling art it uses the language of earlier movements and media to question the values that are embedded in the things we take for granted, whether it’s at the level of pixels or pickups. 


For more on the Texas Biennial, tune into the Current’s blog, Chisme Libre, at next week.

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