DeCordova New England Biennial 2016
DeCordova New England Biennial 2016
The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is one of our local gems. Located in Lincoln, it is known to many in the area for it extraordinary large-scale outdoor sculptures, set in a pleasantly landscaped 30-acre park. It’s a perfect place to take the family for an outing on a nice sunny day. A contemporary art museum is also on the grounds. While the museum has a permanent collection, most of the gallery space is dedicated to special exhibitions. One such exhibition, the New England Biennial, is on view now through March 26, 2017. The work of sixteen artists from all six New England states is represented here.
Whether by design or happenstance the curators have assembled a show that not only puts forth what they think are the best examples of contemporary art in the New England region, but also the full range of flavors contemporary art has to offer. There are large scale abstract sculptures (on display in the Sculpture Park), video works, both digitally manipulated and not, works that make a political statement, works that comment on social media, works whose only commentary is on art itself, groups of abstract paintings that share common design elements, which are then exploded out as stand-alone works, large collages, small representational paintings, works that involve a great deal of painstaking labor, where the effort involved is somehow part of the work itself, and “aha” works of art, where the viewer’s expectations are upended and the main effect is to generate a flash of understanding of how the artist has cleverly put one over on us.
Back in the days when most works of art were representational, there was an underlying subject matter, a story, person, object, or scene that was apparent to the viewer, on which a work of art was a commentary. A bowl of fruit, a field of poppies, a wealthy couple, the charge of the Light Brigade. Each could be depicted, portrayed, in effect commented on, by the work itself, sometimes originally and brilliantly, and sometimes tediously and poorly. Post-Impressionist art subverted the traditional relationship between viewers and the work of art by reducing or eliminating the connection to subject matter in the real world and instead focused the viewer on an imagined world, one of abstraction, form, or color, where the work of art could be taken as a commentary on the world of art, or could be taken as speaking for itself and itself alone. Some viewers of art were up to the challenge posed by non-representational modern art, but most were not. Yet many artists felt there was no going back to the representational days and in order to create a connection with viewers and give the kind of grounding and context that viewers in the representational days found essential, they began to provide more and more explanation of their works. So in these contemporary art days we have reached the point where the work of art is rarely expected to speak for itself, but comes along with a trunk-full of explanatory baggage. Even when the work appears be representational, explanations and context are provided to make clear that the representations are there only to support a deeper message.
Many museum-goers appreciate the background notes that are so essential to much contemporary art, as they feel that these explanations help them make sense of works of art with which they have trouble connecting otherwise. They feel they finally get what these works are about. But I often lose patience with these kinds of explanations, just as I lose patience with writers who tend to summarize what is going on in a story rather than showing the reader what the characters in a scene said, heard, tasted, saw, felt, or acted. I want to feel the vitality of the work in my bones. But just because a work of art carries with it an explanation that doesn’t capture my fancy, that alone isn’t a sufficient basis to dismiss the work itself. I’m not quite in the camp of the museum-goer I overheard ask her long-suffering companion, “she takes pictures of people who are her friends on Facebook, why would I want to look at that?” This was in reference to a set of family portraits photographed by Tanja Hollander, who for my money, is the star of the Biennial show.
Hollander’s project was to visit her over 600 Facebook “friends” (many of whom she had never met) and to photograph them in their homes, seeking to find an answer to the question of whether she was really “friends” with these people. Hollander’s images are strong, artistic group portraits that easily stand on their own, without need of the provided context. It doesn’t matter that the first time the artist saw these Facebook friends of hers was when she met them to take their portrait. Sure, a perceived dissonance between the impression one has of someone who friends you on Facebook without having met you and the impression one gets when one gets to meet that person, even for a short time, can be revealing. But the context can take away from the direct experience of the viewer with the work of art, much like it turned off that museum-goer, so much so that she never gave herself the opportunity to directly experience the art. If one knows the story behind the work, one sometimes feels it’s not necessary to see the work itself. And that would be a shame, because the commentary on alienation in today’s society fostered by social media provided by these images is very much beside the point. One look at the images tells us that they already speak powerfully about alienation, family dysfunction, and loss of social connection, without our having to be informed about the role of social media in the genesis of this project.
The family groupings show individuals physically and emotionally apart from each other. In all but one of the photographs, the subjects do not touch one another, do not interact with one another. They face the camera, making eye contact with only the camera lens (and thereby, with us, the viewers). One image shows a mixed-race couple and their two young children sitting at their dining room table, parents looking serious, disconnected, children looking somewhat unhappy. The key to this image is that we also see some wedding pictures of the couple on the wall just behind them, and in those pictures they are beaming with joy. Another image captures a couple and their teenage daughter. The father and daughter sit close to one another on one side of a table, the father looking out at us triumphantly, the daughter stares at the camera, pleading. On the other side of the table the mother sits by herself, defiant. There is tension in the air and the sense of a strained family dynamic. Is one of the parents a step-parent to the daughter, and, if so, which one is it? Are father and daughter shutting out the step-mother, or has the daughter aligned with step-father against the mother? And in the strongest portrait of the collection, the only one in which some of the family members are touching each other, a weary, beaten down wife wraps her arms around her young daughter, protectively, while her cocky looking husband rests his hand on their daughter’s knee, possessively. A very unhappy young boy, perhaps a year or two older than his sister, sits off to the side next to a mirror revealing the back side of his face, also unhappy. Two perspectives, same plight.
Also moving are a group of six puppets by Ashley Bryan. Made of found objects, bits of bone, seashells, beads, buttons, and rags, they evoke the same kind of spirituality embodied in pre-colonial African masks and figures by which they are inspired. Created for a practical purpose of being featured in live performances and readings, they demonstrate that the demarcation between craft and art is more in the vital force with which the work is infused and in the impact on the viewer than anything having to do with the nature of the process by which the work is made.
Jason Noushin’s paintings of a Cambodian woman come with plenty of political context supplied on the wall label, none of which is needed to understand that something terrible has befallen the subject of these mixed-media works. In one painting, the outline of the woman’s figure is filled in with plaster and cement, and scratched into that stucco-like material are dozens of tally marks, as if to count days of confinement. In another piece, the woman’s image is shown in mirror image profile, one side drawn in ink on the backs of pages ripped out antique books, her body made of yellowed old newspaper printed in German, her hair made of strips of the same newspaper, woven together like baskets, the other side has her hair and body inked in Iranian calligraphy. The overall effect is of pain, suffering and decay. Very powerful.
There is more worth seeing here as well. If you would like to experience the breadth and spirit of contemporary art in a compact, easy to access package, this is the place to come. Reading the wall labels is optional.
DeCordova New England Biennial 2016 (through March 26, 2017)
DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
51 Sandy Point Road, Lincoln