LINCOLN — You can’t tell the biennials without a program, and for a decade or so now that’s just been the truth. Every state, city, province, duchy, emirate, and fiefdom seems to have one — Sharjah, Andorra, Honolulu, Bamako, Chengdu, Casablanca, and Kathmandu are among the literally hundreds listed on (of course) the international Biennial Foundation website — for the easy-breezy cultural-tourism marketing button they seem to push. More meaty fare tied to theme, medium, or artist got you down? Try a biennial — the bite-size sampler-plate of the broader art world.
And then there are those that came before. The “deCordova New England Biennial 2019,” hosted by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, marks its 30th anniversary this year, and reminds us of the important role even a modest biennial (I wish there were another word for it) can fulfill, as this one does. It closes Sept. 15.
All 23 artists here come from one of the six states of the region. With big institutions all over, here included, vying for big-name national and international artists to top their marquees, most regions — beyond the five boroughs of New York City, that is — get hardly any attention at all.
Looking inward, as the deCordova does here, is also a way of turning outward — building a platform for underserved local talent while standing up to the monolithic contemporary art-world machine of big museums, big dealers, and even bigger speculative collectors, with their checklist of name-brand artists. Someone has to tell them that art is not simply where and what they say it is, elected by their checkbooks. Art, in fact, happens everywhere; at its best, it takes the tenor of a moment and, spirits willing, engenders a community, which is what the deCordova strives to do.
That said, 23 artists across every imaginable media — paint and sculpture, video and sound, installation, drawing, cartooning, weaving, photography and Bradley Borthwick’s particularly memorable oeuvre of cast and carved beeswax — can stretch connections thin. The curators, in a readable and clear-eyed essay, explain that they eschewed any kind of prescriptive theme in favor of finding “new modes of art making, and to find pulses of different artistic communities and centers.”
Slippery? Sure. A tad indeterminate? Well, yes. But better, I think, than carving out round holes and hammering in an array of multi-shaped pegs. As a result, the biennial has a loose, everyone-in-the-pool vibe, and hangs together less as an exhibition than a set of discrete experiences. It helps that some have particular verve. The show lives in adept pairings: Two painters, Eva Lundsager (Massachusetts) and Jenny Brillhart (Maine) share a room, but little else. Lundsager’s bright, inky abstractions are on another plane from Brillhart’s heady precision and sharp formal play.
I loved how Brillhart’s work lets the tacks show. Despite its hyper-realism, it’s loose and process-oriented, teasingly unfinished: A shelf of studio maquettes displays cut-cardboard chunks, dark tissue paper smudged with white, a block of drywall, some whitewashed plywood. It reads as part half-solved problem, part tease (bricolage is as much her medium as paint; the whole thing is actually an installation called “Contrapposto”). When Brillhart does paint, it’s stirring; a lovely little scene of a chair pulled up to a table, bathed in cool light — with a shelf much like “Contrapposto,” standing nearby — is tremendous, evocative and understated, a window into bleak longing. I could have looked at it all day.
So. That’s three. One of the troubles with omnibus exhibitions, and surely biennials of almost any scale, is I’ll never get to say much about any of their many works, let alone all. But that’s the risk of inclusion, and one worth taking.
Even when curators cast broadly, things slip through the net. They write, in the accompanying book, that the biennial is but “one version of our diverse panorama of contemporary art across the Northeast,” though one in which points of communion emerge.
Absent a theme, the curators suggest kinship along a few lines of practice and thought: crafty and hand-wrought works like Vermont’s Bhakti Ziek, with her dreamy, woven pieces, embedded with text, or Jonathon Mess (Maine) and his archeological-looking compressed striations of reclaimed ceramics. Another loose category, “obsession, fixation and suspicion,” points directly at the wonderfully weird, alien-conspiracy cartooning of Ken Grimes (Connecticut), and the rich, seductive marginal worlds of trailer parks and suburbs being swallowed by the wild in the work of William Binnie (Massachusetts).
There are other loose parameters, but they’re less intentional than happenstance convergence. And that’s fine. One of the biennial’s strengths is in making space for works, and artists, that defy category. I’m not sure where, or how, I might have come across Maine-based Borthwick’s sweet-smelling beeswax panels, carved with iconography to suggest a lost civilization, any other way. The same goes for the fine, feathery abstract bronze forms of Carl D’Alvia (Connecticut), or the big collage paintings of Jordan Seaberry (Rhode Island), pinned, unframed, to the wall on grommets, feeling folksy and urgent all at the same time.
There’s more — lots more. But having a checklist seems counter to the spirit of such things, where coherence is neither the goal nor particularly warranted. The show’s job, as much as anything, is to represent a diversity of practice, of which there is as much as there is diversity of opinion. It is, fundamentally, a show of one-offs with occasional oblique resonance. You’ll take some and leave others.
Even so, you don’t have to strain much to catch the visual curatorial essay on view along one wall in the upper galleries. Reading left to right, three of Binnie’s larger paintings — swatches of images on bare canvases, as though dirty windows rubbed clean to view the broken-down world beyond — lead to a loose grid of his watercolor and ink drawings, arrayed high on a gentle curve of wall: trash-foraging animals, Budweiser cans abandoned on a bar in low light, Native Americans on horseback, a hyena perched on the apron of a golf green.
Nearby, the work of George C. Longfish, who is Seneca and Tuscarora, portrays a different landscape: beadwork mapping the artist’s path from California, where he’s taught at the University of California at Davis for years, to his home in Maine — a complicated journey for one whose connection to the land runs millennia instead of centuries.
Past Longfish, we arrive at the single most compelling work here, a video piece by Erin Johnson (Maine) that, for me, bundles up a set of concerns about land, its ownership, its stewardship, and its uncertain future. The piece is not about here — it’s set on the Savannah River Site, in North Carolina, a “nuclear reserve” owned by the US government — but its portrait of despoilment is really uncontained by geography.
At its core, the piece takes a biologist convinced that the feral Carolina dogs, with their dingo-like attributes, are proof of the existence of the Bering Land bridge that connected Eurasia to North America, a dozen millennia ago. With riveting conviction, he posits his theory as Johnson splits her screen to juxtapose images of the dogs with troupes of men in hazmat suits, and of cranes moving enormous industrial components — the extraordinary persistence of life versus a lifeless dead end. Wherever you are, this moment is precarious. At its best, the biennial leaves you thinking not so much about what is, but what’s next.
DECORDOVA NEW ENGLAND BIENNIAL 2019
At deCordova Scupture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. Through Sept. 15. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte