The Best of Contemporary Art: The deCordova Biennial

By Jared Bowen

Feb. 9, 2012

Art can scarcely get any more contemporary than what you’ll find at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum right now. It’s second biennial survey of all that’s hot in New England art is on view now. Add your comments to the discussion on "Greater Boston."

BOSTON — Chandeliers that fail and fall. Photography that winks…and winces. Vegas sparkle and old school charm. This, according to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, is the best of New England contemporary art—all selected for its 2012 Biennial.

“It’s a hunt. I mean I have to say it’s not shopping, it’s a hunt," says Dina Deitsch, Contemporary Art curator.

Abigail Ross Goodman, a guest curator for the show, adds, "“We’re sort of cracking open the region. We’re trying to show people a range of what’s out there. Think of pomegranate popping open and all the seeds.”

For a year and a half, Biennial curators Dina Deitsch and Abigail Ross Goodman scoured New England galleries and artist studios searching for the best of the new.

“There are artists really at all different stages of their career. All different, working in all different medium. But we were looking for that moment when an artist's voice comes through crystal clear," says Goodman. “There’s no theme that will lead you around. But it’s all for the viewer to decide and that’s sort of the fun of this exhibition.”

From film to sculpture to painting, the Biennial fills the DeCordova’s expansive spaces. While there are no themes per se, there are trends. This is recent work influenced by recent events like the economic downturn.

“At the entrance to the museum is probably our most overt, spectacular, in the classic sense of the word," Deitch says. "It’s a giant 9 by 20 foot sign in lights. And sort of retro stylized, as you would see in a carnival. It's by Steve Lambert and it really takes that questions and asks you 'Capitalism Works for Me, True or False?' As an interactive sign, you are asked to vote.”

In their survey of galleries, the curators also discovered a resurgence of Trompe l’oeil, or trick of the eye work, like the chandelier really made out of wax or the architectural refuse actually crafted from plaster. Goodman says, "Trompe l'oeil also speaks to the counterpoint of skepticism. I think at this particular moment, lots of artists in different ways are asking us those questions, to think about what we’re really seeing, asking us to look more closely with our eyes wide open.”

Eye-opening for completely different reasons is Lauren Kalman’s photography,  titled “Blooms, Efflorescence and Other Dermatological Embellishments”.  In a word, ouch.

“She’s been interested in the medical records of skin disease, for instance and also the ornament of the body," says Goodman, "so she looked at photographs of skin diseases that had been captured and then copied that in jewelry that she then put on acupuncture needles, performed and then applied to her own body, then re-staged the photographs.”

From the pierced to the stitched, there is work bound in precedent here as well as in Anna von Merten’s quilts. “It’s about tradition," says Deitch. "Traditions have been what happens when you take that technique and make an image of the night sky that tells a history of art and science. And so there’s a really sort of beautiful melding of what art can be and has been.”

Definitively though, the DeCordova Biennial shows comprehensively where it’s going.

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