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From the deCordova Biennial, a work by Cambridge-based Joe Zane (Photo: Carroll and Sons Gallery)*

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.

Wicked yeah.

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.


Today is the last day of the show Drawn to Detail, at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln Massachusetts. From their description of the show:

Drawn to Detail features a variety of contemporary drawings with a very particular focus. This exhibition displays the work of 26 American artists who explore extreme attention to detail, obsessive mark-making, repetition, patterning, laborious process, all-over intricate design, and horror vacui (fear of empty space). These artists draw with extreme attention to detail as a reaction to today’s hectic lifestyle and technological advancements, and also because of their desire to make sense of the changing world around them. In addition to traditional mediums of graphite, charcoal, and pen and ink, these artists also work with materials such as string, tape and smoke, and practices adopted from the world of craft.

In today’s fast-paced, digital world, we rarely have time for detail. Attention deficit disorders prevail, while advertisers feed on our need to multitask and to find timesaving shortcuts wherever we can. The artists in this exhibition add detail, work with a detailed visual vocabulary, or even detail the passage of time by listing and recording the particulars of events. They can render an abstraction or a recognizable image, sometimes so small that the viewer needs a magnifying glass to decipher it.

Like most group shows (IMHO), the experience felt uneven. Some of the work is stunning. Some is mundane and so optically challenging that I had to step out of the exhibit hall a few times to clear my head. Because the work has by definition a decided tediousness associated with its process, I am constantly juggling with what I have referred to previously as the “termite art” factor: Is it the infinite mark making that amazes us, or the overall result? Is the kind of tedious mark making that a 9th century monk living in isolation might spend his life doing as relevant in our streamlined modern age with its numerous options for technical facility? My response to some of the work was yes. Others, not so much.

(Courtesy of Cynthia Lin)

It was certainly a high point to see the work of Slow Painter Cynthia Lin in the flesh (you can see more images by her on my art blog, Slow Painters). These macroscopically-rendered drawings of flesh and hair are so well done, almost unnervingly so. I found myself falling into the depth of texture she creates in this flea’s view of the human body. She delivers up a size warp, but does so with so much craft.

Spillway (Courtesy of Andrea Sulzer)

I was also enchanted by Andrea Sulzer’s enormous and extremely painterly ink drawings. They are referential and yet not, familiar and yet strange, interior and yet expansive. Once again the scale of the works—they fill a wall—make viewing feel adventuresome.

Marco Maggi (his work is almost too subtle to experience in any form except in the flesh)

Already a fan of Marco Maggi’s delicate tracings of mythical cities and landscapes, I was moved when I read the following quote by him on the wall. It is so in line with my vision for Slow Muse, and it represents an aesthetic sensibility that continues to be missing from mainstream art reportage:

When I understand, I write; when I don’t understand, I draw. When we don’t understand, we doubt and reduce the speed of our decision-making. We become subtle and cautious. Every time you make a mark, all your faculties must operate. We all feel a bit offside at the start of the twenty-first century. The only hope available is unambitious and slow: hypo-hope. Therefore, I practice slow art to exchange ideology for delicacy, to swap spectacle for intimacy.

That is the best artist statement I’ve ever read.