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You’ve been charged with the task of putting together an exhibit surveying artistic production happening around New England. Where do you start?
If you’re Sarah Montross, curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, you begin by making a whole lot of phone calls. Those get followed by a whole lot of studio visits, followed by a whole lot of discussions back at the office.
“We pored over our own secret list that we keep of interesting people, artists we’ve been keeping an eye on,” she says. “We had a lot of discussion around the selection process which was a very hard process, but also very exciting.”
Montross and former curatorial assistants Martina Tanga and Scout Hutchinson trekked to about 60 artist studios in all six New England states, braving winter storms and crazy weather, to unearth the 23 artists who now form part of deCordova’s New England Biennial 2019, opening Friday, April 5.
Encompassing every corner of the museum, as well as part of the sculpture garden and terrace, the exhibit, in truth, only scratches the surface of the vast range of art-making happening regionally. All the same, it manages to include a wide spectrum of subjects, artistic approaches and an array of mediums, including sculpture, photography, video, fiber and ceramics.
“It's not a show where we are only showing the newest up-and-coming artists,” says Montross. “There are artists across a lot of generations, although it's a lot of brand new work for all of them.”
And so, you have George C. Longfish of Maine, an artist of Seneca and Tuscarora heritage who, now in his late 70s, blends a pop art aesthetic with Native American imagery to create psychedelically trippy paintings, collages and drawings dealing with the weighty themes of settler colonialism and indigenous identity. Or, on the other end of the age spectrum, you have Chanel Thervil in Roxbury who, not yet 30, is creating multimedia portraits of family, friends and mentors painted on plywood and carved into bust shapes. At the root of Thervil’s work is a desire to overturn art history conventions which have seen most busts memorializing famous white men. Some artists, like abstract painter Eva Lundsager of Brookline, are engaged mostly with form, while others, like multidisciplinary artist Eli Brown of Boston, veer more toward the conceptual.
“You do see some really fascinating tendencies emerge,” says Montross. Although she says she began her talent search with no particular theme in mind, after she and her crew took stock of their final selections, she began to notice certain reoccurring motifs: a reimagining of origin stories and questioning of historical narratives; an interest in the figure; an engagement in social issues, including human rights, citizenship and visibility; a certain obsessiveness, sometimes bordering on paranoia; and finally a preoccupation with the environment, land and sustainability.
Jonathan Mess of Maine, is a ceramicist whose work explores sustainability. Mess (whose last name seems strangely appropriate for the type of work he does) is interested in the waste created when making clay artwork. His work involves gathering broken shards and discarded fragments and recycling them into new forms.
On view are his “Landfill” pieces, which look almost like striations of earth along a geological fault. Six sculptures made of reclaimed ceramic materials are displayed like specimens, each one cross-sectioned and opened up to view all its many layers.
“Sarah Montross visited my studio without mentioning that she was scouting for the Biennial, so she saw my space and work the way it is most days — a wall of ceramic slabs, some being photographed, tables of broken work being reconsidered and recomposed, and shelves of existing ceramic sculptures stored on display,” he says. “She chose to recreate one of those shelves full of sculptures as it was set up in my studio.”
The sculptures might look like masses of earth, a layer cake or pâté, but, he says, they are meant to spark a deeper discussion about our environment and what we’re doing to it. He decided to take up this subject one day after pondering all the wasted clay and ceramic materials shoved into the back corners of ceramic studios he visited.
“As I learned more about the impacts of mining for those materials, it felt important to find a way to reclaim a lot of that waste into new works that would elicit dialogue amongst viewers and the ceramic community,” he says. “If I’m going to be an artist making new objects to add to the world, I want it to be responsible to the future of the environment that I love and inspires and feeds me."
Stephen Tourlentes, who lives and works in Somerville, is similarly concerned with our environment, but in a different sort of way. He presents an ongoing series of photographs belonging to his “Of Lengths and Measures: Prison and the American Landscape” series. His large format photographs hold all the power and bleak beauty of an Edward Hopper painting, documenting a contemporary American social landscape dominated by locking people up. (According to a 2018 report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the U.S. there are 655 people incarcerated for every 100,000 people — one of the highest rates in the world.)
Tourlentes says his series began as an “aesthetic observation” when he discovered a new prison had been built in Galesburg, Illinois, where he grew up.
“The change in the horizon at dusk was visually quite remarkable,” he says. “While growing up I had seen the closure of the large state psychiatric research hospital that my father ran and where my family lived so it was ironic to see the town exchange one state institution for another.”
Prisons have become the economic engine for some rural communities, posits Tourlentes, but what are the societal repercussions of such an approach?
“My intention is to make visible places that many choose to keep unseen,” he says.
While Mess and Tourlentes are creating art out of a concern for specific social issues, artist Carl D’Alvia, is inspired by more formal issues. He devises fantastical forms that are sumptuous with pattern and texture. On display are sculptures that are a bit surreal, a little absurd, often resembling an animal you can’t quite place.
“I'm interested in encapsulating often contradictory themes such as baroque/minimal, comic/tragic, high/low, old/new,” he says. “I think much of the power of the work comes from the fact that it refuses to relinquish its statue-like quality but at the same time engages with contemporary issues.”
Anoka Faruqee and David Driscoll of Connecticut, also fall into a more formalist vein with their “Circle Paintings,” created by dragging a customized steel trowel around a panel. The result are paintings that look a little bit like Op Art since every sweep of the comb is slightly off register. When you see them up close, you can see the lines of color. From afar, they create iridescent hues and spectral tones that are reminiscent of a shimmering CD. But though these paintings may allude to our digitized screen age, there are just enough imperfections to retain a handmade quality.
“The edges of dripping paint and numerous glitches speak to human, material and mechanical breakdown,” says Faruqee, and “take inspiration from a range of aesthetic traditions, including digital errata, Islamic patterning, and Hudson valley landscape painting.”
Faruqee says she and Driscoll’s goal is to reflect “the wonder and anxiety that much of contemporary life provokes: a hint of animation and sentience inside the technology.”
Although some of the Biennial artists appear to play off a general anxiety that seems to characterize our times (artist Ken Grimes’ black and white graphic work about crop circles, extraterrestrial life and paranormal encounters comes to mind), there are other artists working with more ecumenical concerns tied to community, friendship and those things that bring us together.
Bhakti Ziek, a weaver living and working in Vermont, is showing a large, multi-part tapestry of silk, Tencel, silver gimp and indigo dye entitled “My Roof.” From a distance, the tapestry appears to be just a tranquil blue sky, open and free. But a closer look reveals lettering across the sky.
“I put the names of all the places I have lived in the United States on a map and then moved those place names onto a composite image of the sky that I created from photos taken in different places,” says Ziek. “The title of the piece is key to understanding my intentions. Just as weaving takes individual threads and turns them into a cohesive plane or community, so I want people to remember that we are all connected — and that all means all, not just homo sapiens.”
Certainly, the artists on view in this year’s Biennial are connected, even as they work individually in their studios. Every two years, thanks to the deCordova, the public gets a little glimpse of the passion that unites them.
The deCordova New England Biennial 2019 runs through Sept. 15 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.
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