People’s Biennial & Conference (part I): Looking for art on the road in America

“I come from a farming background,” Harrell Fletcher says. “My sense is that it’s better not to have a monoculture.”
Miranda: At table

Harrell on the right looking thoughtful. Photo: Lisa Boughter

Harrell, an artist known for his socially engaged, interdisciplinary projects, is talking about the art world. He and curator Jens Hoffmann are at ICA for People’s Conference, a two-day event growing out of People’s Biennial, an exhibition curated by Harrell and Jens that looks at art made outside the art world’s center of gravity. In collaboration with Independent Curators International (ICI), the two men traveled to five cities across the country, spreading the word through local community art centers, and galleries, and the radio, and fliers distributed by students on bicycles, that they were looking for art by anyone making things. They invited the public to bring their work to local gymnasiums; they drove around city streets looking for interesting objects in storefronts; they were invited into people’s kitchens. And in the end, they choose works by 36 artists for an exhibition that traveled to each of those five communities—a kind of snapshot of creativity across America.
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Jorge Figueroa, Untitled, 2007

Here are some of the things that are in People’s Biennial: Black and white paintings of neighborhoods that look, at first glance, like photographs. Videos of microscopic backyard life. A series of photographs of riders at the rodeo, and another series documenting life on a South Dakota military base. A battle scene made in Lego. Family portraits painted on cross sections of tree trunks. Soap sculptures. (“We joked about finding a soap carver,” Harrell said, “and then we did.”)
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Bernie Peterson, Soap Carvings: soap dish, 1983–1994. Soap.

Bernie Peterson, the soap sculptor, was among the artists represented here who wasn’t interested in selling his work, even when the offering price was raised several times. The artists wrote their own wall text and catalogue notes, and judging from those, as well as from reports from the curators, they’re a diverse group who came to the project with a wide range of motivations. Some considered the biennial a delightful but singular event in lives that were focused elsewhere; others were glad to use the opportunity as a stepping stone to a more mainstream art career.
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Robert Smith-Shabazz, Tupac, 2007. Watercolor on carved wood.

And what of the motivations of the curators?

“To highlight these other practices that exist and might otherwise slip through the cracks,” Harrell said. “Questioning the roles of curator and artist,” Jens said. “I’ve had this sense that in the art world there’s this homogenized quality,” Harrell said. “Our departure point for the project was certainly some issues we had with the world of art…how certain structures or codes are created and how we break through them,” Jens said. “You don’t need to be trained as a professional to be an artist,” Harrell said. “That’s one of the things I think is super exciting about art.”

Of course, all art institutions wrestle with these issues, sometimes in ways quite similar to the People’s Biennial project and other times in different ways. Most of the curators I’ve met, both at ICA and elsewhere, feel it’s their job to look broadly, to travel, to talk to artists about what they’re excited about, to constantly test the boundaries of what’s considered art, bringing a steady stream of the new and strange into the galleries along with more traditional work.

At one point on Friday night, Harrell talked about how, after he got his MFA, he felt he had lost something important to him: some feeling about or attitude toward art that he had had before he was trained. He was interested, then, in looking at what untrained artists were doing—and, I think, at how they were feeling about their work as well.
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Dennis Newell, Lego Battle with Droids and Clones, 2010. Legos and lights.

Obviously there is joy in making art that people see, that you get paid for, that gets written about in magazines. Is there also a different kind of joy in making art without the spectral art world lurking around at the edges of your consciousness, rattling its chains like a Victorian ghost? That, I think, is one of the questions the exhibition explores. Though of course, one might equally well contrast the discomfort of making art inside the system with the melancholia of laboring outside of it.
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Photo: C.J. Morrison

Jens and Harrell on their journey remind me of Huck Finn lighting out for the territories, of Steinbeck traveling the country with his dog Charley, of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty on the road. Whether or not you agree with the audience member last week who called curators’ journey a Quixotic quest, how deeply American to take to the highway in search of something authentic, joyful, and surprising.

People’s Biennialis a traveling exhibition organized by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York. Guest curators for the exhibition are Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann. The exhibition, tour, and catalogue are made possible in part by a grant from The Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and The Cowles Charitable Trust; the ICI Board of Trustees; and ICI Benefactors Barbara and John Robinson.

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