LINCOLN — There’s some terrific, startling work in the 2013 deCordova Biennial, and it can be summed up in one word: color. Or maybe more: sumptuous, tart, intoxicating color.
Then, there are works that feel strained, coy, and late to the party. They never quite catch up.
This year’s biennial, organized by deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum assistant curator Lexi Lee Sullivan, has a pleasing balance of emerging and established artists. The sprawling, idiosyncratic show embraces everything from performance art to printmaking, and makes only a few tenuous connections along the way. Of those, color is the one that will grab you.
It simmers in the biennial’s showstopper: Hamra Abbas’s riveting “Kaaba Pictures” series. Archival pigment prints of photographs, they look like paintings — cartoony geometries with architectural and ornamental flourishes.
They depict the Kaaba, the black granite cube of a building, destination point of the pilgrimage to Mecca, said to be built by the Prophet Abraham. Abbas, a Pakistani artist who now lives in Cambridge, photographs souvenirs picturing the Kaaba, cards and prayer rugs that people have brought home. She then paints tiny miniatures of the photographs, and photographs those paintings. The enlarged prints are on view.
Their bloated dapple of blown-up brush strokes and the steamy yellows, reds, and blues feels hallucinatory. Each has the cube at its center, a sacred Islamic site and a reflexively modernist form in a Western art museum, accented by bold Islamic patterning, towers and hints of landscape. Here is faith on display, but also its commercialization. Abbas appropriates and mediates images of a religious icon, and inspires another kind of worship — that of the eye caressing something gorgeous and strange.
Much of the unfortunate striving in this year’s biennial, the third for the museum, falls under the umbrella of painting that grapples with three dimensions — a huge trend that the deCordova rode with relish last spring with its “PAINT THINGS: Beyond the Stretcher” exhibition. The bandwagon has become rickety and overcrowded. Works by Sonia Almeida, Laura Braciale, and Petrova Giberson struggle behind in the dust, tossing up now-tired ideas.
Giberson’s “Tree Flowers” installation features a cut-up quilt suspended from the ceiling, an echo of a painting canvas and of domesticity. The quilt and some handmade sandbags may make us think of the body — but why have the sandbags been squirreled away, almost hidden, from the rest of the installation? I’d rather have encountered one slumped, corpselike, against a gallery wall.
Other 3-D “paintings” hum and perk with such vitality you’ll forget they’re trendy — which is how it should work. Jacin Giordano wraps sticks in snaggles of bright yarn and layers on caked passages of paint in his “Harpoons for hunting rainbows.” Leaning against a wall, they read like a sorcerer’s shaggy staffs, and even, vaguely, like figures, monstrous and humble.
For “rhythm . . . distance” Lynne Harlow has stretched a giant, taut rectangle of ravishing tangerine fabric onto a tilting wedge of wall, floor to ceiling. It leans gracefully over us. Step up close, put an ear to it: It has a playful, percussive pulse. Speakers behind the fabric play an original jazz composition by Paul Corio. The flat plane feels spatial, as if you could walk into it, and thanks to the music and color, the piece, minimal as it is, throbs with life.
Harlow has another terrific piece, “So I Built a Raft,” on the roof deck, an enclosed curtain of Day-Glo green ribbons that riffle on the breeze and glow beneath magenta lights.
Video artist Suara Welitoff shows up with two of her evocative, pared-down pieces. In “The Actor,” she turns footage of a group of men in a sparse, wintry landscape watery red, and slows the action down. Way down. At first, I took it for a still image. The effect is lulling and mysterious. When the figures did move, incrementally, I felt displaced, as if my body had swayed, and not the image I was looking at.
Another colorist: J.R. Uretsky, a puppeteer-sculptor-performance and video artist whose endearing, funny, and a just a little bit scary series, “Aggressive Love Project,” follows the artist as she surreptitiously sneaks into people’s private spaces to leave gifts of fluffy, gaudy fabric sculptures. In the videos, she dons lumpy oddball costumes that make her look like a mutant Muppet in order to carry out her missions of love. Even though we can’t see her face much of the time, she wears her heart on her sleeve.
Other strong pieces don’t rely on color, such as “Behind the Eyes are the Ears,” a hybrid horror film-moody art video by Nancy Andrews, Peter Gallo’s perverse constructions in paint, toothpicks, and other bits, and Jilaine Jones’s surprisingly fleet and airy concrete and steel abstract sculpture “Wonder World.”
“A local artist is not as good as a local vegetable,” write Dushko Petrovich and Roger White in their sharp, hilarious brochure, “Regionalism,” which the deCordova commissioned for this show. It’s one of many half-truths and assumptions they catalog about place and its impact on contemporary art — an aptly dicey topic for this show. Exhibiting New England artists used to be the deCordova’s mission. Now its scope has grown, and the biennial is what’s left of that commitment.
Petrovich and White further explore the idea by making “New England” paintings. White’s are jokily obvious: still lifes of a cooked lobster. Petrovich is more obscure — he paints plaid patterns on Plexiglas, which shimmer like silk thanks to his lovely brushwork. Perhaps it’s a preppy reference.
The two of them took their paintings on the road and exhibited them in their hometowns of Quito, Ecuador (Petrovich), and Salinas, Calif. (White). The clunky project plays up the absurdity of regionalism. Art travels as mercurially as ideas — there is no such thing as New England art, not these days. Still, there are New England artists, and that’s why the biennial is important.
Petrovich and White’s brochure says more about regionalism and our ambivalence about it than their traveling painting show does. But then there’s the color in Petrovich’s plaid paintings: blues and pinks that kiss the eye.
Most of us viewers don’t care where the art is from. And if we can see the conceptual gorilla holding it up, that gets in the way. What we want is to see something that moves us — as a vision or as an idea. Not everything here has that power, but enough does.