In the contemporary art world, big biennial shows are popular destinations for fans and consumers to discover new work. They happen every two years (hence the name) and right now the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln is hosting its 2012 Biennial.
With 23 artists and collaboratives involved, it's the largest exhibition dedicated to art being made throughout New England. From now through late April a colorful, diverse sampling will fill the bulk of the museum — even the bathrooms!
DeCordova curator Dina Deitsch and guest curator Abigail Ross Goodman (formerly of the Judi Rotenberg Gallery on Newbury Street) have been working long hours, installing photography, multimedia pieces and sculptures in the galleries, with help from exhibiting artists.
They want the biennial to be a story about New England artists and how they’re working today. To tell that story the two energetic curators poured over portfolios, road-tripped across six states, and visited about 100 studios. Deitsch said they found a lot of creative people making all kinds of innovative art, but they also discovered something else.
"There’s a lot of anxiety!' she told me, then added, "I think all of us have it."
Cambridge artist Joe Zane agreed.
"Yes, it’s been rough," he said, standing in the gallery.
He remembers when Deitsch and Ross Goodman showed up at his studio. He had been working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for five years but got laid off after the economy tanked. When the curators arrived, Zane admits they were the first creatures he’d talked to at length — besides his dog — in months.
"I had just finished a sculpture of an organ grinder monkey holding out a cup asking for money, I had been making a lot of work based on the fact that I was out of work — and I needed money. So there was a lot of conversation about the monkey," Zane said.
For good reason, Deitsch said.
"You know it’s funny, and weird, and sad, and kind of encapsulated a lot of these things we’ve been seeing about discomfort and anxiety. I think Joe, you encapsulate anxiety pretty nicely! I would say, you’re our poster boy," she exclaimed with a laugh.
And Zane gladly accepts the job title. Before the downturn, he said his work tended to focus on the anxiety that comes with being an artist. Then, "It went from the work is about this, to, 'Oh my God I’m actually living it!'"
For this show, Zane decided to make a self-deprecating piece of art –- actually simple Plexiglass letters on the gallery wall spelling out the statement: "This isn't the biennial I was hoping for." It pokes fun at the number of biennials around the world these days, most notably the big one at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.
"I think last count there’s over 60 biennials, so they’ve become such a huge part of the art-viewing experience that getting into a biennial is a big deal for an artist," he said.
Zane hopes his place in the deCordova biennial is a good indicator of an economic turnaround in his own life. And he’s not alone. This is also the first biennial for a pair of artists who go by their last names, Antoniadis and Stone.
"You know, having a nice clean space in a museum it’s sort of 'the dream,'" Stone said. Antoniadis added, with a chuckle, "Yeah, it also means that the art world is somewhat behind what you’re doing, which is always a good sign."
Alexi Antoniadis and Nico Stone are childhood friends and craft sculptures that look like dilapidated building parts. Busted up blue doors, like ones you might find in an office building, appear to be metal — but they're made of painted plastic. Nothing is what it seems. Everything is crumbling. Their pieces of fake, failing architecture are metaphors for failing institutions, and human failure.
Like artist Joe Zane, Antoniadis and Stone said their work represents how they’re feeling.
"I don’t know if it’s venting or if there’s no other real valid subject matter for us. And it’s sort of unavoidable that we gravitate towards that."
The two artists also share a design and fabrication company, and admit they’re experiencing some financial discomfort in their own lives, too.
"Aren’t we all, to some degree?" they asked, and laughed again.
Then there's Steve Lambert, downstairs in the museum's lobby. One of his pieces is a huge sign –- 9 feet high, 20 feet wide –- lit up, like something you’d see at an old-fashioned carnival. It says “Capitalism Works For Me, True/False.”
It’s the first thing visitors will confront when they enter the museum. Lambert said he made it long before the Occupy movement spread across the country.
"To me one of the jobs of being an artist is understanding what’s going on in the culture, and being able to sort of reflect back or comment or add things or provoke sometimes," Lambert said.
And there's more provoking to come. As part of the deCordova’s 2012 Biennial, Lambert plans to drive his “Capitalism” sign around Massachusetts during tax season.
Talk about anxiety...
Note: The curators of the deCordova's 2012 Biennial curators will be on Radio Boston Thursday, Jan. 26 at 3 p.m.
This program aired on January 26, 2012.