It is an exercise in oversimplification to choose just one piece of art to represent an omnivore’s banquet from an art exhibit like the Texas Biennale 2021, a celebration of the best Texas art of these. last years, open until Jan. 31 at five locations in San Antonio and Houston. Texas is a big, diverse place with all kinds of geniuses and troublemakers inhabiting its borders. The various visitors to the biennial exhibitions will be touched by different trends among the 51 artists exhibited. But for me, the key to the whole show is an unassuming little work from an artist I’ve never seen before, Phillip Pyle II of Houston.
that of Pyle Broken Obelisk Elbows is a satirical proposal for public art intervention. It takes over one of Texas’ most iconic works of art, that of Barnett Newman Broken obelisk (c. 1967), who lived for decades just outside the Rothko Chapel in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. Newman’s three-ton steel sculpture is abstract yet loaded with meaning – it’s dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated after its completion. It sparked controversy in its day partly because it was believed to suggest a Washington Monument cut and overturned, and partly because the city of Houston refused to receive it as a gift in 1969 because it was at the provided that the city officially consecrates it. to the king.
Pyle’s hilarious proposition is to “trick” Newman’s masterpiece of abstract expressionism with low-rider flair. It added a pair of protruding gold spoke rims, emblems of Texas urban automotive culture. Newman was white and Pyle is black, which gives the focus a sense of historical correction – an ironic, satirical commentary on who can make public monuments, especially those dedicated to non-white rulers. Pyle plays with the distinguished audience’s worst nightmares about what a black artist would do with such a memorial, reversing Newman’s rusty and enigmatic testimony to cheekily speak about our present moment of upheaval and possibility.
Yes this edition of the biennial, entitled “A new landscape / a possible horizon”, tells us one thing is that Texas is ready for new landmarks. It should be noted that the exhibition does not purport to present an argument or a thesis – it would be curatorial excess for an investigative show that seeks to reflect the diverse interests of artists across the state – but a theme nonetheless emerges. through the concerns of the artists exposed. The problem of public memory, of how we use art and monuments to teach and learn our busy history, has been the subject of much discussion in the three and more years since the last installment of the Biennale. from Texas. Add to that the need for gestation and commemoration of the trauma of the pandemic, which has delayed this biennial by more than a year, and it can be said that Texan artists have a lot to do. Featuring concurrent exhibitions at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), McNay Art Museum, Artpace, and Ruby City in San Antonio (as well as a photography-focused exhibit at Houston’s FotoFest), the 2021 Biennale looks like a vision of the monuments that our present moment deserves.
Pyle’s work is almost intangible, just the tip of a clever idea on paper. Other biennial work is much more substantial. Also at the McNay, occupying part of the outdoor sculpture garden, is Piers, disturbed west, a play by Jarrod Beck, who lives part time in Terlingua. Beck’s sculpture is a collection of fire-marked “totems”, pillars made from iron ore poured into wooden molds, which he then burned. Beck says the sculpture is inspired by seeing groups of people lining up for COVID tests and vaccines. This rings true. The charred metal forms seem harassed, traumatized, but also raw with undischarged energy. They function both as abstract forms and as characters loaded with narratives.
Beck’s work is in conversation with Pyle’s, from one totemic vision to another. The 2021 Biennale is rich in such confluences of symbolic material through works of art lovingly arranged by curators Ryan N. Dennis and Evan Garza. Probably the most impressive room in the exhibit is upstairs at SAMA, where recent wall hangings by some of the biggest names in Texan art, including Rick Lowe, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Virginia Jaramillo, and Vincent Valdez, surround a central installation by newcomer Jose. Villalobos. I loved how Valdez’s work, a series of sketches featuring impressions, dreams, and messages from a trip to the militarized southern Texas border, plays out with Villalobos’ installation, one of the only border artists exhibited at the biennial. Valdez’s work is documentary, expertly portrayed even when fanciful. Villalobos, whose sculptures often employ the macho norteño cowboy gear to tell stories of his life growing up gay in El Paso, takes a more allegorical approach. He uses clichés from Texas – rope, saddle, a field of dirt – and adds glitter, pulleys, flowers, and five outstretched hands stretching them out. The result is, for me at least, a monument to the idea of groping through and beyond the symbolic world you were born into while becoming yourself.
Villalobos will conduct a live art performance at SAMA on October 12. Likewise, Austin-based Steve Parker will activate an outdoor sound art performance at McNay from November 7-10. Meanwhile, Parker also has a sculpture at the McNay. Title Sirens, it’s a bunch of brass, reminiscent of old-fashioned gramophones, playing sad vocal songs in several languages, evoking the global scale of the pandemic’s toll. The memories of those who disorientate the first few weeks hearing the sirens of ambulances in the distance are inevitable.
This edition of the Texas Biennale is unique in that it includes the so-called Texpats, or artists of Texan origin who no longer live here, as well as a few artists who have never lived in Texas but are doing art specifically about the state. It’s a controversial move, as it theoretically means less niche for Texas-based artists. But it’s hard to argue with trying it only once, especially during a pandemic year. It’s another step in the ongoing efforts of biennial organizer Big Medium, an Austin-based nonprofit, to move beyond its historic comfort zone on the gentrified East Side of its hometown to seek new partners and diverse voices further afield.
The decision to license Texpats resulted in a striking sculptural installation for the Ruby City space by Sondra Perry, a New Jersey-based artist who grew up in North Texas. Perry’s room features a massive iron crucible, American slavery-era chains, other archaic metallic materials, and video monitors showing a molten fire. Title you don’t seem to belong to anyone: heavy metal and reflective, it is a meditation on the historical relationship between matter and power in America. It also stands opposite the work of famed Houston-born artist Melvin Edwards, who during his long career out of state explored similar themes in a more compact fashion, soldering tools and objects together. metallic found in dense sculptural wall hangings. Several other works of art touching on race, violence and politics fill the Ruby City space, including three large tapered hanging canvases by Mich Stevenson of Houston that suggest heads of the Ku Klux Klan. The piece as a whole is a strange and haunted monument, evoking emotional truths from a story of violence that is not entirely over.
Not all of the Texas Biennale 2021 is so loaded with traumatic meaning. There is a lot of beauty, playfulness, feeling and sensuality here too. As with the state it seeks to represent, there is something for everyone, except, perhaps, for the globetrotting types of art fairs at international biennials like those in Basel, Venice and Miami. , who would rather skip the local and the local and instead go for the high-value works of art that are gaining ground. The Texan art world remains rambling and self-produced, a bit rough around the edges, with its defining moment on the world stage still somewhere in the future. Squint at this biennial and you might just see the outlines of this moment begin to take shape.