OK. I haven’t seen the show yet. But Sebastian Smee‘s Boston Globe review of the newly-opened deCordova Biennial rang true of so many shows that I have seen lately:
I thought we had outgrown smarty-pants biennials, filled with arcane and self-obsessed art by artists hypnotized by the riddle of their status in the world, and audibly gnashing their teeth over what purposes they might legitimately serve…Actually, most good artists do outgrow this stuff and get on with making art. The trouble is, curators—for whom art-making often remains impenetrably mysterious—still love it. Or think they should love it. And so we have biennials and triennials that overflow with self-consciousness, with worn-out conceptual japes, and with lazy gestures of political consciousness that have all the committed warmth of a dictator waving his gloved hand behind tinted windows.
For my regulars I am repeating yet again. But reading this review brought to mind the quote from Roberta Smith‘s response to a similar show. Her words, like Smee’s, speak to a gap that exists between curators and art makers:
After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.
Her advice to curators is right in line with Smee’s response to the deCordova show:
They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.
These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.
Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.
Smee did find a few submissions that offered something to the viewer. His closing line is a keeper: “These promising, good, or interesting things were outnumbered by lightweight gestures of cling film conceptualism—cut off from fresh air, refrigerator-ready, coddled in cleverness.”
I just love this guy. The image is pitch perfect.
*Here is Smee’s specific response to this work by Joe Zane:
In the main gallery, on the third floor, Joe Zane, a Cambridge-based artist whose work is pretty much the last word in conceptual onanism, has another sign, this one in gold letters affixed to the wall. It reads: “This is not the Biennial I was hoping for.” Reading it, I felt momentarily outflanked, my ungenerous, rube-like thoughts revealed and writ large. But then I registered the bathos of the gesture, and its reliance on that old teenage trope of being forever smarter and more sarcastic than your audience. After which I merely felt tired.