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.
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.