Digital-induced angst and sensory overload

Work is displayed in five galleries for Texas Biennial '05: Top to bottom: Jonas Criscoe's "Plane and Graffiti," on view at Bolm Studios, is composed of acrylic and silkscreen on Plexiglass. Also at Bolm is Young-Min Kan's digital print installation "Interstate Junction." A not-so-sacred heart is one of myriad details from Matthew Guest's painting "Sick-Sixty-Sick," hanging at Camp Fig. Below: On view at Bolm, Juror's Choice "Forest Compression," oil painting on panel by Christine Gray.

Spread across five Austin galleries, 'Texas Biennial '05' rewards trekking with good art

"In other art centers there's a rigid hierarchy of prestige, wealth and tradition which confers the right to biennialize," writes Houston juror Bill Davenport in the pithy catalog intro to Texas Biennial '05, on view at five Austin locations through the end of the month. "Here in Texas we have a hierarchy of energy: whoever will make the effort, gets the goods." Amen, brother, and an extra huzzah! to the galleries who grabbed the ring, from the Eastside Artist Coop's wooden bungalow, still smelling of fresh white paint, to the venerable Dougherty Arts Center, and organized the decentralized event. Curators, artists, and writers from across the state joined gallery representatives on the jury panel, which sifted through more than 600 entries to select the 36 artists (four from San Antonio) on display.

Many of these faces are fresh to viewers from outside their home towns, and the materials employed run the gamut from abstract painting to mixed-media sculpture to a wall-size, 3-D, digital print installation by Austin-based Young-Min Kang. There's not enough room here to comment on every thought-provoking work (and every gallery is worth the drive from one side of town to the other), but a handful of trends should be noted.

Kang's work is constructed of small strips of digital images enlarged until they are a blur of colorful dots, hung like dioramas. As you move back from the piece, the pixels coalesce into highway overpasses, cars, and signs. The machine-precision bands of prefab color that crowd William Betts' paintings deal with similar ideas: how technology represents our visual world and whether this mathematical and scientific representation is more or less accurate than man-made representations. I think these works also confront the artists' role in the age of digital reproduction, much as pointilism and minimalism each reflected our struggle with discovery of the molecular world and mass production. The softly segmented bands of color that move across Annie Simpson's abstract night highway paintings provide an answer in part: Intellectually and visually absorbing, Kang's installation lacks the emotion conveyed by the hand-held brush.

Several of the artists are grappling with increasingly mechanized visual culture through the resurgence of graphic art, represented here by some uninspired gray-scale entries from Jonathan Marshall and Peat Duggins,that justify a debate about illustration versus art, and Jonas Criscoe's "Plane and Graffiti," which captures the visual malaise of tract-home neighborhoods with acrylic and silk screen on Plexiglass, an effect that appropriately echoes old sewing patterns.

Nature in our polluted, manufactured world also was the subject of many works, from Candice Briseño's felt and illustration wall piece to San Antonian Patricia Donahue's "The Reader #2," who sits on the floor of a forest. Another Juror's Choice, Christine Gray, turned in oil still lifes of felt and stick-pin foliage, smart explorations of the state of still-life and nature painting, and their subjects. Installed at Bolm Studios, they would have been even better paired with the crochet-covered deer heads by Elaine Bradford, mounted on the wall at Eastside Artist Coop.

My favorite loose affiliation includesthe artists who seem to be responding to the cognitive assault that defines post-modern first-world society. Juror's Choice recipient Nina Rizzo's colorful canvases are like geometrically liberated Rosenquists, drawing on our copious 21st-century visual lexicon to celebrate, mock, and question the fabulousness of this life. Matthew Guest's crazy, effusive, large acrylic painting is the two-dimensional version of San Antonian Richie Budd's obnoxious - and I mean that in the best sense - sculpture, which sits atop a walker spewing smoke and sound, and broadcasting viewers on its double-breasted TV screens. Both works are crammed to the margins with flotsam and symbolism - skeletons for Guest and spine-like glue-gun secretions for Budd, for instance - held together by what could be ectoplasm. Budd's contraption raises the specter that our consumer culture has developed a nucleus and is rolling over its creators like an amoeba.

By Elaine Wolff