Every two years, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., stages an ambitious exhibition known as the Biennial. The group show shines a spotlight on emerging and mid-career contemporary artists working throughout New England.
The exhibit begins before you even enter the museum. Wandering around the grassy sculpture park you spot deadpan, hand-drawn placards by Boston text artist Pat Falco. They’re white with black lettering and look like picket signs. One designates a tree-lined alcove as a “Premier Make-Out Opportunity.” Another, stuck in a hill, reads “High Art," behind it, "Higher Art." There are eight in all.
Outside the museum’s entrance, curator Lexi Lee Sullivan met me at a little cabin.
“He built this house with materials that were donated and some that were purchased from Home Depot,” she explained.
The “he” she referred to is Providence artist John C. Gonzalez. He made his “Home Depot House” while working in the store’s paint department.
“And it was built with Home Depot associates. So the aesthetics of the piece as well as how it is joined — everything about it — is very specific to who was helping him to build the piece,” Sullivan added.
Gonzalez’s cabin will double as a work space for artists-in-residence during the biennial. “So the artists will be here every Saturday and Sunday and as many days as they can take off during the week," she said with a laugh.
It’s been a daunting task for Sullivan to scour New England for emerging artists such as Gonzalez. She road-tripped to more than 150 studios where she met with makers using all kinds of mediums — from video to film to audio to Plexiglas and beyond. To pare down the possibilities, Sullivan turned to regional art critics and curators for their opinions and insight.
“I think there’s still really a place for locale in art,” deCordova museum director Dennis Kois explained. “Just like there’s a local food movement and there’s a local music scene, there’s a local art movement — and it’s the culture that’s made here.”
There was a time when the deCordova’s mission was regional, but Kois shifted to a more global approach after he was hired five years ago (along with changing the name to reflect a greater emphasis on the museum’s unique sculpture park). Plenty of New Englander artists and art lovers have been critical, and the biennial is the director’s response.
“Like all institutions, you have to grow and change,” he explained. “And I think, you know, to show only regional art in a way sort of ghettoizes it, and the goal for deCordova now is to the show the best regional art and contextualize it. So I think it helps our audiences understand what’s happening here and that it matters in a global sense, that’s it’s not in a vacuum.”
That said, some very regional themes have emerged. Apparently plaid is popular this year. In one piece, the pattern is paired with paintings of lobsters. And labor intensive works including one called, “Flotilla.”
It’s a sprawling series of more than 100 tiny, painstakingly detailed ballpoint pen drawings by Boston artist Ethan Murrow. It covers a three-story wall in a sun-lit stairwell and takes on the history of the U.S. through something that’s very New England: maritime culture.
On the sunny afternoon of my visit, Sullivan ran into the artist’s mother, Liza Ketchum of Watertown. Ketchum says her 37-year-old son started drawing when he was 5 years old.
“I remember the art teacher saying, ‘Well, you have to wait until your 6.’ And he just wore him down, so he’s been at it since kindergarten,” she recalled.
Ketchum is thrilled to see her son’s work in a local museum the size of the deCordova.
“I haven’t shown in Boston,” Ethan Murrow told me as we rode a crotchety elevator up to his fourth floor studio in Boston's South End. It’s where he researched his epic wall piece for the deCordova.
“I wanted it to be a glut, a mass, almost too much," he mused.
Murrow grew up in Vermont and is the grandson of journalist Edward R. Murrow. Being in the biennial is a big deal for a mid-career working artist, and he’s grateful for the exposure. But Murrow says he doesn’t envy the curator’s position.
Standing in the main gallery at the deCordova, Sullivan surveyed the exhibition she’s been pulling together for about two years.
“It’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, it’s terrifying,” the curator admitted. “But more than anything I hope that it becomes a platform for these artists, for other people to see them, and get excited about the work and work with them in the future.”
And that, the curator said, should be the goal of any biennial.
The 2013 deCordova Biennial run through April 13, 2014.
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This program aired on October 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.