Horrible news to have to share (brace yourselves), but the second deCordova Biennial - the preeminent survey of contemporary art made by artists living and working in New England - is a major letdown. Where the inaugural 2010 edition was lively, theatrical, smart, and playful, this latest edition feels inexplicably tired and amateurish.
There is good work in this show, and I’m eager to tell you about it. But there’s no getting around the preponderance of silly stuff.
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. (Important issues, of course, but - like outbreaks of acne on one’s rear end - not ones we’re all dying to address.)
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.
The tone is set even before you enter the building by Steve Lambert’s large, old-fashioned sign combining aluminum and electric lights. “Capitalism works for me!’’ it says, and at either end “True’’ and “False.’’ As you walk past you’re invited to press a button to register your vote, and the sign keeps a tally.
It’s quite fun, I suppose, and very au courant - the 99 percent and all. DeCordova curator Dina Deitsch (who organized the show with guest curator Abigail Ross Goodman) told me she personally pressed both “True’’ and, a few moments later, “False,’’ because “it’s a complex question.’’
That sums up the matter nicely, and rather makes a mockery of a work that is already a mockery of issues it doesn’t even try to get a handle on. So let’s move swiftly along.
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.
Brattleboro-based artist Jonathan Gitelson thinks along the same clown-like lines: He has a series of blown-up photographs of a sweater, pair of socks, and denim shirt called “Items of Clothing Secretly Hidden By My Girlfriend (So I Wouldn’t Wear Them Anymore).’’ The title, as the wall text admits, “more or less tells you everything you need to know.’’ I concur.
Some artists want to reveal everything. Others want to conceal the mystery and pain of creativity behind random acts of kindness. Boston’s Jessica Gath, for instance, plans to be at the museum herself “most Saturdays of the exhibition’’ performing “domestic ‘acts of kindness’ on a stage: gift wrapping presents for visitors to give to others, embroidering phrases into T-shirts, and supplying postcards for mailing to loved ones.’’
I missed this particular spectacle, having other things to do most Saturdays, and had to make do with an empty stage, a single wrapped present, and a few rolls of wrapping paper. But I did wonder: Is this what art museums, in their increasingly desperate attempts to court interest, have come to? Wrapping presents for people?
No doubt, as with Zane, and as with Lambert, we are supposed to think “No,’’ and “Yes,’’ and probably “No’’ again. Someone, take my hand and lead me away.
Time to turn to the good stuff. I liked Mary Lum, who lives and works in North Adams and shows in Boston at Carroll and Sons. Lum has a series of collages combining paint and photography, displayed here along the two walls of a narrow corridor. They are modestly scaled, but sprightly, and charged with a fruity sensitivity to color and a dynamic sense of space.
On one wall, the works are simpler, with fragments of color photography overlaying abstract shapes painted directly onto the wall. The other wall holds a series of busier collages that are framed and squeezed together in a horizontal row. It reads, as you move along it, like a love letter to Ellsworth Kelly, sent via Paris. For, as Kelly did in his early work, Lum uses oddly angled, close-in observations of the French capital - shop signs, the corners of buildings - as the basis of abstract compositions. Lum’s are more complex than Kelly’s, but they suggest similar whims, similar freedoms.
Boston’s Taylor Davis, who has a small gallery all to herself, may also have been inspired to some degree by Kelly. Certainly, there’s a strong correlation between Kelly’s minimalist wood sculptures, now on show at the Museum of Fine Arts, and Davis’s own wooden sculptures.
Both artists make the most of the sensuous grain and shifting colors of different woods (including, in Davis’s case, plywood). But the aura of sensuous purity that surrounds Kelly’s sculpture is entirely missing from Davis’s works, which always have a slight dissonance built into their dream of abstract precision.
Here, in a work called “Slider,’’ a raw log is attached to smooth black walnut. The suggestion, of a crude amputation clinging to so much glossy smoothness, carries a mysterious psychological charge. Davis, who shows at Samson in Boston, is an uneven artist, but seems to be getting steadily better. She certainly stands out in this crowd.
In a neighboring gallery, Corin Hewitt, who was born in Burlington, Vt., and lives both in Vermont and Virginia, has an intriguing display that I found more and more persuasive the longer I spent with it. Hewitt’s work is heavily mediated by reproductive processes, such as casting and photography. And yet it has a startling degree of visceral immediacy.
It divides into two categories. The first is a series of three sculptures, which are casts of used and roughly splintered plywood. They have been painted a psychotropic yellow-green, and they stand, carefully balanced, on the ground, occupying the space with real charisma.
On the wall, meanwhile, Hewitt has a series of works he calls “Recomposed Monochromes.’’ He makes them by digitally scanning handfuls of rocks or soil from his family’s Vermont property, then reducing the resulting image to a single pixel in order to distill the object’s mean color: a cerulean blue in the case of a pinch of dirt; yellow in the case of a rock. These monochromes are then printed and buried in soil, before being unearthed months later. The prints, now showing the ravages of nature, are then scanned again and presented as abstract photographs.
The results, despite the elaborateness of the process, are compelling. Their colors, in particular, are intoxicating.
The duo Alexi Antoniadis and Nico Stone, who live in Boston, also go to confoundingly great lengths to make sculptures that seem initially very simple. The resulting works have tremendous, almost threatening physical presence and at the same time a hidden life that’s difficult to guess at.
Though they uncannily resemble large-scale sculptures or heavy, aging industrial objects, the works are in fact made from lightweight materials such as particle board, plastic, and fastidiously applied paint.
Antoniadis and Stone’s trompe l’oeil aesthetic is enjoying considerable currency in art today, not just because there is a nostalgic thirst for evidence of great labor and skilled craftsmanship, but because trompe l’oeil can endow mundane, obsolescent objects with secret value - the value, one might say, of labor - in this sense rescuing them from disarray and decay. Antoniadis and Stone do beguiling things with this dynamic.
My favorite painting in the show was by Cullen Bryant Washington Jr., who was born in Los Angeles, lives in both Roxbury and Brooklyn, N.Y., and like Mark Bradford, uses paint and photography to articulate tensions and questions in African-American masculinity.
The work is called “The Final Frontier,’’ and it is a big abstract-looking painting, largely in black, but with broken white lines cutting horizontally across it. The lines suggest a road, and we might think we are looking down at the dead, unforgiving opacity of a bitumen highway.
But, as with most such roads, there are hints of glitter and shine in this particular surface, and Washington has played these up to create the possibility that what we are really looking at is the vastness of space, with its smattering of twinkling, far-off stars, its clouds of speckled matter.
All this is done with paint. A small spacecraft in the bottom left corner suggests that the subject of the painting - the person who is entering this expansive dream - might be a young boy. And the ambiguity of the image - its self-sufficient vastness and this small, dissonant detail, a spacecraft, inserted in a corner - keeps it beautifully alive.
There are other works in the show worth mentioning: the paintings of Ann Pibal, the videos and photographs of Matt Saunders, the lovely embroidered textiles of Anna von Mertens, and the black-and-white photographs of Matthew Gamber. But 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.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLARIFICATION: The review of the 2012 DeCordova Biennial in Friday’s “g” section incorrectly described one of the exhibits. Visitors are invited to bring a gift to be wrapped by artist Jessica Gath; the gift can then be given to the intended recipient. The museum is not the source of the presents.