SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Stashed away in the tony suburbs just west of Boston, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and its engagement with the wider, grittier world outside its gates has sometimes been called into question. That impression was somewhat nullified by a series of recent exhibitions that were both poised and thoughtful. The museum has also begun focusing its attention every two years on local artists of New England — six states by last count if you include the parts of Connecticut where there are unharmed Red Sox fans.
This third iteration (the word “iteration” is a must in any biennial review, it seems) of the deCordova biennial manages, at times, to be both poised and thoughtful, but like any survey of its size, gaping holes challenge the overall stability of the exhibition. To be fair, the premise of this biennial — any biennial, really — is itself almost defeatist at root. The pageantry of the showcase, the sheer number of artists involved, and a graded level of the work’s overall quality push and pull in so many directions that any one unified ambition is torn asunder. Here, working under the banner of regionalism, or “Made in New England,” it’s better to inure oneself to the showcase aspects of the exhibition and let the geography fall away, as it would in the real world. Better, too, if curators would stop harping on the theme of networked groups across the globe engaged in some sort of rarified, enlightened conversation that neglects to mention the fact that these conversations generally emerge from monied cultural centers and not places like Karachi. Certainly, there is a global dialogue about art practices, but please …
With signage placed both outside and in the museum, Pat Falco’s wise-assed art world jibes are the sparest cultural critiques money can buy. These honed-down, text-based pieces work simply because they appear not to be fussed over. And yet, the math that goes into Falco’s calculations of what to say and how to say it is very much about the work not being an end result but rather the assembled parts of an ongoing conversation.
Also outside, plopped down just beside the entrance to the museum, is a small house (“Home Depot House”) built by John C. Gonzalez. With the number of ideas swirling around this piece, it’s amazing that there was time to drive a single nail home. There’s a tired sort of homage to Walden (Walden Pond is just down the road) and a riff about institutional partnerships (the artist works at Home Depot), and the house also functions as a studio, where there will be a curated residency involving other artists. Add in some plein air painting and you’re amazed that this structure doesn’t collapse under its own weight. An outdoor snack bar, with a smaller menu, might have been a better idea.
J. R. Uretsky’s work “The Aggressive Love Project” is touching, funny, and at times, a bit scary. Touching, because what underpins her work is viscerally human; funny, because of the methodology of her approach; and scary, because it reminds us just how far we can slide off the grid when it comes to love and the need for acceptance it provokes. Uretsky’s work is a mix of video, performance, and sculpture, all manifest in elaborate playlets and centered on a secretive form of gift giving.The gifts are sculptures, and the recipients are all unsuspecting of Uretsky’s aggressive love. The project circles back upon itself in ritualistic fashion, as the artist requires the consent of the recipients of the gifts to then exhibit them. There is a sublime process of engagement here that feels electric and authentically new.
On the other hand, a modernist sculpture called “Wonder World” by Jilaine Jones sits in the midst of the exhibition feeling outdated and doughty. This sleepy piece made of steel and debased concrete has the look of a museum gift shop curio (an enlarged bookend, perhaps) rather than anything remotely interested in being located in the present tense. Jacin Giordano’s project “Harpoons for hunting rainbows,” a series of decorated tree limbs, falls flat, too, just as you’d suspect a series of works based on “hunting rainbows” might. Whimsy can be dangerous — I mean, come on!
Two very different types of painters fare much better. Both Peter Gallo and Anthony Palocci Jr. are at the top of their game. Gallo, who works with, among other things, studio detritus that’s close at hand, makes paintings that are remarkably unknowable — caustic and severe talismans. “Blow Up The Abattoir,” fashioned out of dental floss, toothpicks, and paint, is a primitive chemical dreamscape that references Chryssie Hynde and The Pretenders with a scrawled text that sits above a mushroom cloud.
Palocci Jr., who’s perhaps more sedate, considers everyday objects like sinks, air conditions, and fans, in all their ignored glory, and while his paintings are about painting, they also pulse with the undepicted life that surrounds them. In a large depiction of the aforementioned fan, Palocci manages to capture the banality of the subject matter, the intrinsically simple beauty of the object itself, and the sweep of imagined, circulated air in the room.
The staff at the deCordova, especially Lexi Lee Sullivan, who curated the exhibition, deserves praise for the scope of their ambition. This biennial business is unwieldy and difficult and almost impossible to pull off under any circumstances. That they were able to navigate their way through so much work and come up with what they did lends promise to the idea that the next iteration of this event will be even stronger.
The 2013 deCordova Biennial continues at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, Massachusetts) through April 13, 2014.