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July 9 - 16, 1999

[Art Reviews]

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Same old . . .

Biennial '99 is long on controversy and short on innovation

by Leon Nigrosh

ARTSWORCESTER BIENNIAL '99 At the Worcester Center for Crafts, 25 Sagamore Road, Worcester, through July 30.

 Pugsly Pork Pie Each time the Worcester Biennial comes around, it's immediately engulfed in controversy. In 1985, at its very first outing at Horticultural Hall (now the Worcester Historical Museum), someone "voiced" his displeasure by throwing red paint all over the entrance stairway. While nothing that violent inaugurated this year's ARTSWorcester exhibition, at the Worcester Center for Crafts, there has been considerable grumbling about how the show was juried.

Critics have characterized the jury as a bunch of carpetbaggers who blew into town, threw out 400 entries in half the allotted time, then rushed off, leaving the local arts community to nurse its deflated collective ego. And as one observer put it, the cliché-ridden jurors' statement printed in the program "reads like something off the back of a cereal box."

In fairness, the Biennial's three highly qualified judges -- DeCordova Museum associate curator Nick Capasso; Boston University Art Gallery curator of photography, paintings, and works on paper Karen Haas; and crafts consultant Gretchen Keyworth, who directs Boston's Crafts at the Castle show -- were told that, because of exhibit-space limitations, they could choose no more than 100 submissions (and only in percentages based on the number of entries in each category). And, of course, it must be remembered that a jury can make selections only from works actually submitted.

None of this explains why more than 90 percent of the show consists of representational work. There are drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculpture (what little there is) of people, boats, flowers, and even a portrait of a pet cat. Not to demean in any way the diligent artists whose artworks made the cut; on a whole, the works are competently executed, well presented, and visually engaging. But what are we actually looking at? As we approach the next millennium, are these works harbingers of things to come, or merely a wistful and nostalgic look back?

With the glaring exception of Michelle Lougee's sculpture made of ceramic, wax, fur, and live ammunition, and Susan Swinand's abstract painting West Wing (which ironically won the Best of Show award), virtually all the entries displayed are safe, easy to understand, and non-threatening to the average viewer. For some unexplained reason, leaves play a large part in many of the entries. Scott Holloway's round oil on wood, Leaves I, shows a woman asleep on a bed of autumn leaves, Dana Armstrong photographed a single maple leaf on mossy rocks, and MaryAnn Bushweller won the prize for photography with her black-and-white picture of transparent Eucalyptus leaves.

A special award should be presented to the WCC's exhibits preparator, David Brenly, for the way he brought some semblance of continuity to the hodgepodge of works in disparate sizes and media. He has discreetly placed Ann Rice's drawing of a nude along with Scott Orb's tasteful nude photo far from the "family values" area, which features the aforementioned cat, Bill Stone's mother-daughter portrait painting, and a cute dog-and-bear oil (a prize winner) by Edward M. Condon titled Pugsly Pork Pie and the Cosmic Bear. In another area, Brenly has mounted Anna Comolli's colorful oil-on-board seascape view of Gloucester, from "Portagee" Hill to complement Vitty Mattus's masterful watercolor, Kennebunk River. There's enough nice stuff here to give you the warm fuzzies.

But where is the cutting edge work in this show? Did it get thrown out, or was it even entered? And the crafts. For a city known for its outstanding craftspeople -- and in the very building from which WCC has received world-wide recognition for teaching crafts -- all of the crafts are woefully underrepresented. While all of the artists whose works are included in this show are certainly to be commended, the Biennial itself seems to have lost some of its steam. The daring professionals taking chances and the novices with new ideas are nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps this is a symptom of a problem larger than this exhibit. The sad fact for Worcester is that as soon as artists gain some recognition, they often leave town. The arts community is slowly hemorrhaging its best and brightest, partly because they can't make it here because of the lack of public support. Perhaps this year's Biennial will signal the start of a real push for an arts district -- and two years from now, the show could be in a bright new venue, no doubt sparking some new controversy.

The ARTSWorcester Biennial is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (508) 755-5142 or (508) 753-8183.

The awards ceremony and artists' walk-through will be held Thursday, July 8, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.


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