Matthew Irwin

What Texans Talk About When We Talk About Art

Taking the pulse of the fifth annual Texas Biennial.


Above: Outside the "Big Medium" display.

I step out of my car at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio to find a spent bullet casing underfoot. It’s from a smallcaliber rifle. Maybe some renaissance dude inadvertently knocked it off the floorboard of his truck as he climbed out to dine in the trendy art complex, but regardless, it’s a bullet in the parking lot outside a happening white-walled art gallery. I pocket it. Later, I show it to Austin video artist Abinadi Meza, who moved from Los Angeles three or four years ago to work in Texas, and he is overjoyed. He asks to take a photo, saying, “That is Texas.”

The occasion is the opening event of the 2013 Texas Biennial, the fifth installment of this curated survey of arts across the state, and Meza and I are talking about what Texas has to do with contemporary art. The question has permeated the Texas Biennial since its inaugural edition in 2005. It seems especially relevant now, with the art world caught up in a particular moment in which city planners and politicians see artists as little economic engines, bouncing from one desolate neighborhood to the next and leaving prosperity in their wakes. Austin is a model city for this dynamic, and yet few who follow contemporary art are looking to the capital, or any city in Texas, for art’s next big movement, even though the field is wide open. If we want to be cynical about it, we can say that one reason we’re so curious about Texas art is that if we can define it, we can sell it. Less cynically, we might note that this year’s Biennial coincides with an increasing quality and scope of work across the state—work concerned with the same issues of location, opportunity and transition that nag the Western world at large.

TX13 is hosted by the Austin nonprofit Big Medium, and this is the biggest one yet. In addition to the main survey in San Antonio, the organizers have created two 5-year anniversary events that look back at past successes, build momentum for the main survey, and renew the idea of the Biennial as a statewide venture. They’ve also commissioned a piece in Marfa, established Biennial-related programming at CentralTrak (the artist residency of the University of Texas at Dallas), and partnered with more than 80 organizations across the state that are hosting events throughout the Biennial period.

Portrait of Stephen Colbert by Prince Varughese Thomas of San Antonio.
Portrait of Stephen Colbert by Prince Varughese Thomas of San Antonio.  Matthew Irwin

On August 22, I bus down to Houston to catch the first of these events, the opening reception for “Texas Biennial Invitation: Christie Blizard, Marcelyn McNeil, Tom Orr and Brad Tucker” at the Lawndale Art Center. Just before I leave, I receive an email from Big Medium’s Shea Little inviting me to a private reception the night prior to the opening. Collectors Judy and Scott Nyquist have opened their vaults, lining the walls and floors of their home with a boastful yet playful collection of contemporary art, (Why yes, that is a Jeff Koons. Not that I go for celebrity-artist pop art, but holy crap!). I spot Little wearing a sport coat, whereas I’m accustomed to seeing him in a T-shirt. He’s usually standing in some corner, overlooking the scene—he’s quite tall—but tonight he’s engaging two or three people at a time, shaking hands and nodding. When I approach he seems overwhelmed, but he tells me that he wishes Austin “had this,” which I take to mean the institutional art presences of Houston—the city’s Menil Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Contemporary Art Museum and Rothko Chapel—and the money. Before I have a chance to clarify, Virginia Rutledge approaches.

An intense and engaging woman with short silver hair, Rutledge served as the sole curator for TX11, and has returned this year as curator-at-large, helping Big Medium think big. She’s usually dressed mostly in black, and tonight she’s moving quickly, making introductions and meeting people. She pauses to flatter my interviewing skills and then she’s gone again. I look at my empty wine glass and decide to have an “adult slushie” out by the pool.

The next time I see Rutledge is the next evening at Lawndale, where a Biennial collection occupies the main space. I’m greeted by Lawndale’s executive director, Christine West, who is using the Biennial occasion to show off three unaffiliated artists. I walk around, halting on the third floor where Susannah Mira’s “Room Divider” hangs. Mira constructed the plywood sculptures in response to the collapse of American manufacturing. Though she lives in Houston, she is not in the Biennial proper.

Of the official Biennial, aka “Invitational” work, Christie Blizard’s at times wild and at times detailed performative pieces offer the best hint of what I will later see at the big show in San Antonio. “Walk Project (visiting where I grew up in Columbus, IN),” for instance, comprises a video of Blizard, who now lives in San Antonio, walking around with a painting on her back, which she attempts to alter with spray paint while walking, shown in conjunction with the painting itself and her walking outfit. The collection otherwise contains various interpretations of classic abstract modes, which, for all their technique and coherency, aren’t quite my taste. I tend to prefer work that seems unfinished or unrefined.

"Live Nude Genitals" by Madsen Minax.
“Live Nude Genitals” by Madsen Minax.  Matthew Irwin

“I haven’t slept in days,” Rutledge tells me when I finally hunt her down. She’s curated the Lawndale exhibition with Los Angeles writer and curator Michael Duncan, drawing on some of their favorite artists from past Biennials, but before she’s able to walk me through the space she’s pulled away to address the crowd. When I try to grab her later, she and Little are preparing to drive back to Austin to finish setting up “New and Greatest Hits: Texas Biennial 2005-2011” at Big Medium’s Canopy studio and gallery complex. “Talk to Tom,” she says, pointing to Tom Orr, who happens to be standing right there, so I do.

Working primarily with raw construction materials such as glass and metal ribbon, Orr has been lately placing objects together, he says, rather than constructing them. He grew up in Texas, went to school in Rhode Island and spent time in New York, but he and his wife, artist Frances Bagley, returned to Dallas in the 1970s. “We have friends in New York—and believe me, we go to New York all the time, it’s very important—but they’re working three jobs, and they’re not getting their work done,” Orr tells me. “I’m sure we’ve missed out on some opportunities, but we’ve also been able to do the work. I think that’s
what every artist wants.” Having appeared in three previous Texas Biennials, Orr thought he’d give it a rest this year to focus on a major installation, but then Rutledge visited his studio and picked three of his newest pieces. Like everyone I talked to during my Biennial visits, Orr sees the gathering as an opportunity to network with other artists. “The Biennial has matured,” he says. “It gets bigger and bigger, which some people don’t like, but it encompasses a lot more people.”

That growth has developed through trial and error. In 2005 and 2007, Big Medium ran one-day, majority-rules selection processes with prominent curators from across the state. In 2009, organizers invited Duncan to curate the whole show. Both the volume and the quality of the work increased along the way, Little says, and by the time Rutledge took the curatorial lead in 2011, entries numbered around 800. Big Medium knew it would need to expand the selection process to include more curators, leading to this year’s process. “We also shifted the exhibition from multiple venues in Austin to one major venue in San Antonio,” Little says. “This is the first time all the works selected from the open call have been in one place.”

"Braided Rug" by Frances Bagley
“Braided Rug” by Frances Bagley.  Matthew Irwin

The morning after the Lawndale show, I hop on a bus back to Austin for the opening, later that night, of “New and Greatest Hits.” The crowd favorite is Frances Bagley’s “Braided Rug.” Allan Gindic—a nervous/excited volunteer who recently moved to Austin from Laredo to forge his own career as an artist and musician—tells me that he’s obsessed with the piece. “The artist told me there has to be a communication between life, art, and everything,” he says. “We’re animals, so why not do what animals do and make a nest. I don’t know how exactly to explain what she was trying to propose, but I love it.”

Later, I follow up with Bagley—whose husband is Tom Orr, if you remember—via email, and she has this to say: “Yes, one of the messages in the rug might be a relationship of how humans and animals are similar … but I am very interested in man’s relationship to other beings. It is not a nest I am thinking about; it is an animal-skin rug.”

When I head over to examine the piece myself, I catch independent curator Adrian Aguilera admiring it. Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, Aguilera traveled around the U.S. for about five years before settling in Austin in 2011. He thinks the art scene here is full of possibility, and now he’s working with the Mexican American Cultural Center as well as the house gallery Polyglot. “I found a niche for me, where my ideas and experience can contribute to the community art scene,” he says. I ask if it isn’t just a lifestyle-based, zeitgeisty moment that has created the current energy in Austin but he disagrees, saying
local institutions have begun focusing on a new generation of artists from “the community,” and asserting that some of the art in this year’s Biennial reflects that shift in focus. “I believe that in the next years we will see developed strategies where Texas art will be more inclusive,” Aguilera says.

"The Gathering II" by Pete Dugins from the Austin show.
“The Gathering II” by Pete Dugins.  Matthew Irwin

The issue of inclusivity comes up frequently among Biennial attendees, which Little says he’d expected, given the statewide ambition inherent in the project. Big Medium does seem to make an effort to include as many people as possible if we count the open call, the huge curatorial team with the ability to choose an unlimited number of works, the group survey, the 5th anniversary programming, the satellite events and partnerships. Still, not all the attendees are convinced that the selections fully represent the Texas spectrum; curators weren’t instructed to seek out relevant Latino works, for instance, or challenging or surprising political work. They were told to follow their own proclivities. While the result might paint a partial picture of the state’s artistic diversity, it is a very art-world approach—the taste of a few presented to the many—and each artist I talked to came to Texas in part specifically to avoid that art world. But some measure of exclusivity is unavoidable. If I were to throw that bullet casing I found in any direction at the group survey in San Antonio, it would be difficult not to hit an artist, and a meaty cross-section of those artists are certainly represented in the Biennial.

Beyond the art world, however, the sense of inclusivity is less certain. Outside of Blue Star, a man who nearly runs me over on his bike scoffs at the crowd. He mumbles, “Well, I’m a vet, so…” and pedals off, as if to say, “This has nothing to do with me.” This makes me wonder: If the Biennial is in part about what contemporary art has to do with Texas, and vice versa, to what extent should it also be about what contemporary art has to do with Texans who are not artists?

A gallery view of Blue Star.
A gallery view of Blue Star.  Matthew Irwin

Chris Christal, who lives in an apartment that shares an alley with Blue Star, found the exhibition perfectly inviting, even if he doesn’t care for the art itself. Besides his day job at a copy center, Christal runs a gallery out of his apartment, and tonight is his gallery’s opening night, intentionally planned to coincide with Biennial traffic. Christal moved to the area for the art, so he’s disappointed that commercial galleries and restaurants have helped raise local rents, forcing out experimental spaces such as the UTSA Satellite Space, an annex gallery of the University of Texas at San Antonio that relocated to Alamo Street just before the Biennial. The only piece in the Texas Biennial group survey that he approves of is Rebecca Carter’s “The Wrong Perspective with The Dirty Rainbow.”

“It’s two pianos drawn on a wall in a gallery, with fake [electrical] plugs and some colorful string. It’s sort of like graffiti, and they can’t take it with them.” Before I head back into Blue Star, Christal rings one more bell of approval for the Biennial: “Anything you do to promote your state is good,” he says. “Everyone thinks we’re hillbillies.”

A worker cleans up after someone bumped into "Cultivated Land" by HIroko Kubo.
A worker cleans up after someone bumped into “Cultivated Land” by Hiroko Kubo.  Matthew Irwin

On opening weekend, the group survey exhibition welcomed 4,000 visitors, according to Blue Star. The range of materials and ideas and the overarching aesthetic of restrained polish are impressive. There’s a high volume of video and performance work. Even so, the Houston show, which was curated by Duncan and Rutledge to highlight a cohesive exchange between the works of four artists, suggests that similar exchanges and pairings might benefit the group survey, or that they might emerge as the Biennial continues to mature.

Abinadi Meza agrees that the Biennial is still “in process.” Texas, as many attendees note, is an enormous state to attempt to survey in a single, relatively young exhibition. It needs more time for trial and error, Meza says, and “lots and lots of feedback.” In fact, Little tells me that Big Medium and its partners reexamine their process, from funding to format, each time out, and, each time they take feedback. What’s really at the heart of their deliberation isn’t how to run a better Biennial, but how to facilitate conversations about Texas art. “I don’t know that we are trying to fine-tune the Biennial into something repeatable for the foreseeable future,” Little says. “We want to explore and be responsive to the ever-changing landscape of art in Texas and abroad.”

Bullet casings in the parking lot might lead some people to think that even at an art gallery, Texas is full of hillbillies. But to Meza, Texas is a land coming into its artistic own, and the Biennial stands witness. Meza’s contribution to the Biennial is a two-channel found-footage video installation called “Melencolia,” depicting the space shuttle Challenger launch as if the vessel never exploded.

“I would say that there is sort of this sense of becoming,” Meza says, “this newness that I hear people voicing—I think that is Texas.”


TX13 Group Survey Exhibition
Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum
116 Blue Star, San Antonio 
(210) 227-6960
Through November 9
Second Opening: October 3

Commissioned Artist Project, The Dallas Collective, Open Studio: 
“Every Person Is A Special Kind of Artist, with Baggage” 
Ballroom Marfa
108 E San Antonio St., Marfa 
(432) 729-3600
Through November 9, 2013