Successful art biennials — Venice, São Paulo — limit themselves to one metropolis for exhibiting a competitive survey of contemporary art. But to curate an overview of current art in a state as big as Texas, it was only a matter of time before the Texas Biennial would take on three cities.
Originated in Austin by arts non-profit Big Medium and previously limited to venues in the capital, the biennial, curated this year by New York-based art historian and art lawyer Virginia Rutledge, is being ushered into Houston via the East End's intrepid artist-run space, Box 13. Now in its fourth edition, the biennial is slated for April 9 to May 14, 2011.
We had an opening in the schedule at Box 13, so we said, 'Yes, please, use this space!' Accommodating that on such short notice is part of the joy of operating a small venue. We knew the quality of work shown would be similar to what we show normally. And it's a great chance to have part of the biennial take place in Houston."
Rutledge selected the 50 artists to be exhibited in the biennial from a pool of almost 800 who replied to the open call. Among the Houston artists who made the cut are Hillerbrand + Magsamen, Hana Hillerova, Marcelyn McNeil, Rahul Mitra, Kia Neill, Shane Tolbert and H. David Waddell. Biennial vets from 2009 Catherine Colangelo and Kathryn Kelly will also be making a reappearance.
Still, Nance believes the selection emphasizes emerging talent, stating, "It's not so much a trophy biennial."
The exhibited artists work in all varieties of media, from painting to video and drawing to performance art, allowing an entirely independent survey of what's happening now in Texas contemporary art.
"Texas is one of the few states that can truly support a Biennial, based on the work and energy not only of artists but of all the others — curators, critics, gallerists, collectors — who contribute to this vibrant arts culture," Rutledge said in a statement. The biennial's expansion to Box 13 (as well as San Antonio's Blue Star Contemporary Art Center) speaks to the "vitality of arts infrastructure in Texas," she added.
Will next year's biennial shed light on whether Texas has a specific voice in contemporary art?
"I think what we'll see is the various sub-communities that Texas has," says Nance. In a state so large, it's no surprise that pluralism reigns king. "There are a few specific programs artists are coming through," he adds. "For example, there's a group of photographers that's based in Austin and led by Texas State University professors Ben Ruggiero and Barry Stone, who all work in a similar aesthetic."
A slew of 11 other Houston institutions, including the Art Car Museum, the Glassell's CORE Program, Museum of Printing History and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, will be exhibiting independently-curated exhibitions and programs related to the biennial.
Houston-based art heavyweights figure largely on the biennial's advisory committee, which includes Rice University Art Gallery director Kimberly Davenport, artist and Glassell School director Joseph Havel, Toby Kamps, curator of contemporary art at Menil Collection, Claudia Schmuckli, director and chief curator of Blaffer Art Museum and Wendy Watriss, artistic director and co-founder of FotoFest Houston.
It's yet to be revealed exactly what Rutledge has planned for the experimental exhibition space at Box 13. "I think she's going to break the 50 artists down into multiple group shows," says Nance. "It could be as few as five artists shown here. Either way, I think it's exciting for Box 13 to get a little bit of state recognition."