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Sandrine Schaefer at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston for the Foster Prize (photo by Nisa Ojalvo, all images courtesy ICA)

BOSTON — There is no actual historical evidence to support the idea that Jesús Malverde ever existed, and stories of Mexico’s “Robin Hood-like bandit” seem likely to have been fabricated over time, embellished, and then mainlined directly into the central nervous system of narco-culture thug life. The mythology surrounding Malverde, the patron saint of many Mexican drug traffickers, is a muddy and made-up account that deifies pugnacity, violence, and lawlessness as counterweights to the extreme poverty, government corruption, and oppression the Mexican people have dealt with for centuries. The high campiness of this obsessional devotion stands in stark contrast to the extreme acts of violence committed by the cartels and their wired-up henchmen.

Vela Phelan, one of the four artists (or collectives) selected for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston’s (ICA) biennial Foster Prize — dedicated to recognizing the work of local Boston artists and which, in this iteration, focuses on performance art and local collectives — has constructed a shrine titled “Obscurus Fidem” to Malverde. The kitschy work that captures the perverse attraction between the drug traffickers and their patron saint. The dark installation, which has the feel of a surreal waterless aquarium, right down to fish tank gravel covering the floor, is a video altar/performance space that Phelan will use (and tend to) in the coming months. This is in addition to public performances scheduled around Boston and at the ICA itself.

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Vela Phelan, “Obscurus Fidem” (2015) (photo by Natasha Moustache)

The gallery where Phelan’s work is situated, one of three used for this exhibition, is filled with artifacts, a soundscape, video projection, and a chair where you can sit and take it all in. The problem that crops up is that spirituality removed from its natural environment, and indeed, its primary practitioners, feels tinny and bereft of any real emotional power. What animates any religious practice is the thorniness of daily life and the spiritual constructs that allow people to act as they do. Phelan, a highly gifted artist, has captured something here, but not in its entirety. Buttressed by a series of ongoing performances, perhaps the work will more fully unwind over time.

kijidome, a collective founded by the artists Lucy Kim, Sean Downey, Susan Metrican, and Carlos Jiménez Cahua places an emphasis more, it seems, on networking than actually making work, which, one supposes, is the whole point of the collective, which is designed to present other artists’ work, along with their own. What they have done for the Foster Prize is curate two successive exhibitions (the first on view now) along with a series of performances and a residency at their own Boston project space in the South End.

kijidome’s offering is loosely themed around the concept of “limbo,” and not that distinct space between heaven and hell but rather the less fraught condition afflicting artists who are commuting in and out of Boston to teach or work. These artists (commuters) exist in “intermediate states” and “between conditions,” at least according to the press release which helps us define the term more clearly. What’s in limbo here is the concept, which feels more like a strategic move to include a more globalized selection of artists and give the feel of how an actual museum exhibition might be put together rather than a more organic (and local) approach that clearly seemed too mundane.

The work that kijidome has chosen is right out of central casting. The work’s apparent strengths wear in the viewer’s presence quickly. Tomáš Moravec’s “Pallet” (2008) is a Jack-Assy video (and amusing) stunt where the artist uses a “European pallet” to ride the tram tracks in Bratislava, Slovakia. It is a brief, one-off visual gag that provides a chuckle before fading fast. Josue Pellot’s neon work “1493” (2008) depicts an encounter between an Amerindian and a Conquistador that results in nothing so much as what you would expect to happen in such an encounter. Hewing in the direction of historical correction, the work (one of three) feels wildly dated and trite, regardless of its intended content. The twitchiness of the neon only works to underscore that fact.

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“Field Radio” (2015), DJ Jesse Kaminsky at Ricardo De Lima’s gallery (photo by Natasha Moustache)

Ricardo De Lima describes his practice of outsourcing as activating “third spaces.” He’s programed a series of events including ongoing radio broadcasts. De Lima has built a number of clear acrylic and concrete display walls that directly riffs upon/pays homage to Lina Bo Bardi, which will be used during the course of the exhibition to show additional work De Lima has curated in the space.

Sandrine Schaefer, a stalwart member of Boston’s performance art community and connoisseur of ephemeral and site-specific work uses a long museum corridor to distribute and redistribute her presence. The corridor, which is lined with windows that face out into Boston Harbor, is an apt venue for Schaefer’s work and the traces of it she leaves behind. Currently, a snail-like trail is visible on the windows, a remnant of her performance “Investigations in Wandering” in which she engaged with the horizon during twilight by using her body. In a piece called “Exercises in Proximity-See/Sea,” scheduled for July 12, Schaefer will offer a performance that will be visible both from the museum and through a live feed which can be viewed on monitors in the ICA’s Mediatheque.

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Sandrine Schaefer, “Investigations in Wandering” (2015) (photo by Nabeela Vega)

While it is easy to understand the impulses that drive the ambitions for this exhibition, the execution begins to feel like a game of telephone. The further one is from the actual source of the impulse, the more garbled the transmission becomes. The programming here is unwieldy and unfurls itself in fits and starts, which is fine except that the initial signal thins out so quickly. It feels, too, as if this all was hastily put together, with traces of a mad scramble evident in the incoherence of some of the programing and the attempts to curate outward falling flat. What lingers is the sense that this, at root, is an institutional failing. In a gesture that is supposed to signal a real commitment to local art, the Foster Prize should be given the time and attention to detail that any other exhibition is given. Instead, it all feels like a quickly organized afterthought.

The James and Audrey Foster Prize continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (100 Northern Ave, Boston, Massachusetts) through August 9. 

Robert Moeller is an artist, writer, and curator. His writing has appeared in Artnet, Afterimage, Big Red & Shiny, and Art New England. He lives in Somerville, MA.

5 replies on “Boston Art Prize Disappoints by Snubbing Local Artists”

  1. Well, lackluster exhibitions seem pretty par for the course for the ICA. When they do good shows, they are utterly amazing, but everything else is just meh.

  2. The same can be said of most museums. I particularly enjoyed the Josiah McElheny exhibit in 2012. His work looked great in the galleries.

  3. If you’re interested, that’s not Ricardo De Lima. It’s Jesse Kaminski. Nice work fact checking.

      1. Vela Phelan is the artist of “Obscurus Fidem.” The radio project is a collaboration between Ricardo De Lim and Jesse Kaminski. The caption has been fixed to include Kaminski’s name as well.

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