The Venice Biennale, which goes back to 1895, is the granddaddy of all biennials. To that august artistic pantheon, others have been added, like the Whitney Biennial in 1932 --- which focuses on American art --- and in 1962 the Sao Paulo Biennial debuted in Brazil (although its roots go back another 40 years to the Semana de Arte Moderna). In Kassel, Germany, the Documenta exhibitions have been presenting the world with what's considered the forefront of art since 1955. True, the Documenta is not technically a biennial --- an exhibition that occurs every two years --- since it happens every five years. But it fits the format as an overview of "what's out there."
Enter the new Rochester Biennial at the Memorial Art Gallery. This Biennial is not to be confused with the biennially occurring Finger Lakes Exhibition, which is a juried show where jurors pour over thousands of slides to find work. A biennial, on the other hand, is an invitational put together by curators who actually visit artists' studios and see the work in person rather than rely on a few slides that might not be a true representation of an artistic career.
A major difference between the Rochester Biennial and most others is that rather than focusing on a large group of artists, this exhibition gives us just six. Biennials usually attempt to keep their fingers on the pulse of the art world.But someone or something is always left out. Biennials, and exhibitions like them, are therefore often controversial, and sometimes the politics surrounding them overshadows the exhausting amount of work that comprises the exhibition in the first place.
The Rochester Biennial curatorial team in its introductory statement describes the selection process and then acknowledges, "the thread that connects all six [artists] is commitment to excellence." But there's more than that: The use of metaphor is another sinew that weaves in, around, and throughout the exhibition. Biennial artist Judith Olson Gregory even refers to the four garments from her Season Series as "poetic vestments."
The six artists represented here constitute a variety of media --- the painterly and sculptural exerting a very strong presence. It is cleverly mixed with bookmaking in the fresh works made of willow sticks, goldenrod stalks, and wax string by John McQueen and the subtle glazes marking the surfaces of the nonfigurative and non-functional ceramics by Anne Currier. But there is no photography, video, or computer-generated work.
All the work is well made and, generally, aesthetically pleasing. There really isn't any work that questions what constitutes a beautiful object or attempts to defy the category of art in itself. It's safe --- which may not be such a bad idea for a first attempt.
But safe does not mean bad. It means the work is not going to push the viewer into asking any difficult questions. However, that is not meant to imply that the work included here is simple.
Larry Kagan's work, for example, is quite complex. A jumble of welded steel is attached to the wall. As discrete works of art they are interesting, abstract three-dimensional compositions. Until, that is, one considers the shadows. Or are they shadows?
The shadows from an otherwise unrecognizable and contorted metal sculpture turn into extremely recognizable representations once an appropriately placed spotlight is added: a beach chair, a box, a baby, the Statue of Liberty, a hand puppet. How is this possible? You keep looking to see if you're being deceived. But after all is said and done, it is exactly what it is --- a shadow of an abstract jumble of metal.
This is the first time Kagan's work is being represented in, shall we say, a different light. Instead of a single spot above to generate the shadow, there are now two alternating lights. One gives us a shadow that we expect --- a non-representational network of various lines --- while the other produces the disconcertingly "real" images. And in between, when the lights momentarily go completely dim, we are left with just the sculpture itself, jutting from the wall in full nonfigurative form.
Educationally, this is interesting, but it also seems to diminish that instantaneous moment of incredulity combined with the excitement of discovery. The magic is gone. And although the artist liked the lighting suggestion, the alteration is all the more poignant because, as the artist has observed, "we never focus on the shadows," noticing only when "they are missing --- or when they are unexpected."
Meanwhile, Karen Sardisco's works on paper are quietly beautiful meditations that create a gauze-like depth of biomorphic shapes that float in some kind of ethereal suspension. Although she claims artists such as Elizabeth Murray, Ana Mendieta, and Kiki Smith, among others, have influenced her work, there also seems to be an affinity in spirit and feeling with the drawing and painting of Terry Winters. Winters, who chose not to show his paintings for the first 10 years of his career, thought of his work as a private activity. Sardisco's work feels very much like a private activity as well --- we should be thankful that it has been made public.
Joy Adams' painting may be familiar to anyone who saw last year's Finger Lakes Exhibition. Her large paintings bring together the world of 17th-century Dutch genre painting with Turneresque landscapes, a touch of surrealism, and a little homespun quirkiness thrown in for good measure. These well-crafted works vacillate between the familiar and the downright eerie. G.I. Bride waits for whom? Does the older bride have never-ending hope for her man's return or does the skull at the hem of the bride's gown speak of the folly and absurdity of war or, perhaps, the folly of representation itself?
Certainly, it was good to see more than one painting by an artist whose work was previously represented by only one entry in the Finger Lakes Exhibition. And, curatorially, it's "proof" for viewers of a consistency of vision. However, it was disappointing to see Sally's Folly (2002) --- not because the painting isn't good or interesting --- but because we saw it already (and recently). If the point is to provide viewers with the chance to explore an artist's oeuvre in greater depth, then perhaps it should be exactly that --- more examples rather than the favored few. One of the Venice Biennale's first decisions back in 1895 was to show works that had never before been seen in Italy.
Organizing a biennial has to be a thankless job. Everybody else thinks they have a better idea. Eventually, though, about every 12 years or so, after years of complaints, it seems as if finally, there's some kind of agreement and you hear everyone saying, "this is the best damn biennial in years."
2004 Rochester Biennial is on display at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Avenue, through September 5. Hours: Wednesday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday 10 to 9 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. $7, $5 seniors and students. 585-473-7720, mag.rochester.edu.