Putting together the deCordova biennial
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LINCOLN — As cities across the globe have increasingly come to host commercial art fairs, so too have cities and the institutions they house embraced the art biennial — mammoth group exhibitions of contemporary art that take place every two years.
The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is no exception, where members of the curatorial staff have been sprinting since July of last year — logging hundreds of miles and scores of studio visits — in advance of the museum's New England Biennial 2016, which opens Oct. 7 and will present the work of 16 contemporary artists from New England.
Organized by the deCordova's chief curator, Jennifer Gross, and associate curator, Sarah Montross,this year's biennial presents artists of wildly varying ages working in a variety of media — the oldest, Ashley Bryan, 93, creates children's books, while the youngest, video artist Youjin Moon, 31, received her MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design just last year.
"We wanted to represent the range of practice that's happening in terms of media," said Gross, who also serves as the museum's deputy director of curatorial affairs. "We also became intrigued that the participants ranged from mature artists to young artists."
Still, the exhibition's central organizing principle is geography, and during the course of their research, curators Gross and Montross consulted their colleagues across New England, seeking out the names of artists working in all six New England states.
They received some 120 recommendations, and after divvying up the region (three states each) Gross and Montross visited the studios of roughly 60 working artists, many of whom they'd never met or even heard of.
Gross recalled her surprise last summer when, after getting lost in the dark one night in Vermont, she knocked at the door of an artist on her list, only to find she'd arrived at the home of another she'd planned to visit later.
"Oh, you're someone else!" Gross recounted exclaiming. "I don't even know what town I'm in."
Whereas some biennials ask artists to submit portfolios of their work, and others rely on a curatorial advisory group, Gross and Montross kept their own counsel for this installment of the biennial. The curators not only found and interviewed each of the artists, they also vetted each other's selections before ultimately inviting this year's crop of 16 artists to participate.
"We're looking for the best art being made in the region today," said Montross, who noted that artists from all six New England states are participating. "There were a few artists I felt had been working very well in the past few years, and this represented an important platform at this stage in their careers."
Now in its fourth installment, the 2016 Biennial will present works by fewer artists than in years past, when the show has exhibited the work of roughly 25 participants. Gross said the more concentrated show, which will fill two floors of the museum and includes a site-specific installation as well as commissioned outdoor sculptures, will present more works by each featured artist than in years past.
"It allows people to better understand their work," said Gross. "It enables [the artists] to connect with an audience they haven't before, and it gives them a platform for their work."
Gross added that unlike a traditional exhibit, which is often driven by an overarching curatorial idea, the biennial's reliance on geography lends the show a certain aesthetic immediacy.
"We didn't have an idea beyond the fact that they're New England artists — it's not a curatorial conceit," she said. "As a contemporary curator, aiding and abetting unfettered an artist's opportunity to deliver their work? It doesn't get better for us than that."
While the biennial will present a mixture of new and already-made artworks, most of the pieces have never been exhibited before. Montross added that it was important that they commission site-specific works, explaining that some of the featured artists work on such a large scale that they must often rely on models, only rarely realizing their work at full scale.
One such artist is Connecticut-based sculptor Fritz Horstman, who late last month was pouring concrete foundations for an architecturally-inspired outdoor sculpture he was creating for the show — only the fourth such sculpture he's realized at full scale.
"This is the largest one yet built," said Horstman, who will also be displaying models of his work in the indoor galleries. "In the small version, I was attempting to create a structure that would mimic what was happening in the eddy of a river. Jennifer [Gross] saw that in my studio and said, 'Well, how about we build that one big?' I said, 'That's a great idea!' "
For Gross, the benefit of commissioning works such as Horstman's is twofold.
"It's very difficult for him to realize his works, so inviting him to the biennial enables him to do a project," she said. "It's also a great way to understand how a sculptor like Fritz works."
Horstman will be joined outdoors by Massachusetts-based sculptor Tobias Putrih, who will also be exhibiting works indoors. Other artists include Maine's Lois Dodd, whose paintings focus on domestic encounters with the natural world; Connecticut-based visual artist Jason Noushin, whose work often incorporates textual elements; and Massachusetts-based installation artist Stephen Lacy, who works under the pseudonym Academy Records and is creating a work that draws on the state's whaling history.
"There's a real range," said Montross. "It gives you an opportunity to see really disparate types of art making."