Border Biennial spans the Rio Grande

There are a lot of ways to set up a biennial or art festival.  You can have a group from the sponsoring body scour the landscape to handpick artists a la Whitney or you can have an individual select a portion of the festival with other galleries or countries sending in their own choices a la Venice. The El Paso Museum of Art seems to have adopted what I’m calling the Emma Lazarus approach. To paraphrase that poet’s words from the Statue of Liberty “Send me your oils, your videos, your installations, yearning to be displayed.” Anyone living within a 400 mile radius of the border can submit work, but there is no criteria given, no theme, simply a request for entries with judges deciding based on their own private criteria. This is perhaps more democratic than some other methods, but I can only imagine it leaves some people scratching their heads. In any case, this year some 285 artists responded, a larger number than previously and of those 44 were selected. They were pretty evenly divided on either side of the border with 21 from Mexico and 23 from the US.
This year’s judges were Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros from Mexico and Eduardo Diaz from the United States, although  a few days before the opening Mr Diaz resigned in protest over the exclusion of a local artist who he had selected to be included. (I have been told there are lawyers involved at least on one side so I want to leave the matter alone except to say that the grounds for exclusion apparently involved a perceived violation of one of the few requirements for entry.)

Santiago has a long and distinguished career as an art critic and curator in several Latin American countries writing for  Art Nexus among other publications;He also worked in the cultural section of the Mexican embassy in Venezuela and later Canada.  and in 2008 was named National Coordinator for Plastic Arts at  the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura(INBAL). In short he seems to have spent his life dealing specifically with contemporary art as both critic and administrator.

Eduardo Diaz is currently the Director of the Smithsonian Latino  Center, though El Pasoans might remember him from when he was a consultant  in San Antonio and was paid a great deal of money by the El Paso City government to form a master plan for the city arts department which included, among other things,  putting all of the major cultural institutions under one umbrella organization rather than having them continue to run as separate fiefdoms.
From this MCAD came into being. He also had a meeting with artists where he spent a fair amount of time explaining his plan and they spent a fair amount of time yelling at him; I forget why. Prior to being named to the Smithsonian post, he was the  Executive Director of the National  Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, the largest such  center in the country.

A major interest of Mr. Espinoza was to select art which “had something to say”. This is not only a view currently in vogue-many festivals and biennials all over the world have suddenly discovered they need to take a look at the world around them, but I have long believed that a great majority of Latin America art has long concerned itself with societal issues, sometimes overtly and others obliquely, but always taking society or local history into account. This in contrast with northern attitudes which too often seem to be about me and what I found in the trash or my bed.
There is of course an alternative view which  is perhaps more interested in purely aesthetic matters or other ideas. This tension might have played a part in deliberations for this biennial, but I would say the bulk of the show reflected, in a variety of media, societal concerns such as immigration and violence, life on the border, and the use of reworked  historical iconography to express present day concerns.  The works were mainly two dimensional but using widely varied techniques and media.There were also videos, sculptures and in one case, yes, found objects
I want to mention  a series of small elegant pencil drawings by Ana del Aguila Malvaez illustrating health pointing out health hazards in maquilas, and large oils by Rigoberto Gonzalez imitating Caravaggio to show powerful but horrifying scenes of modern cartel violence  in “Medusa” and “Perseus with the head of Medus”. There were photographs of daily life on the border and a series of small cards remembering the 43 disappeared students at Ayotzinapa.

Not all was specifically border related. Quing Liu’s Tea Dream series showed beautiful  delicate brush and ink work on tea bags, and others were concerned with color and composition and I very much liked Rebeca Mendez’s two deceptively simple videos El Norte and Circumpolar.
Artists had to submit two works because the show opened simultaneously in El Paso and Juarez, and it is really worthwhile to see the show in both museums. not least because the difference in spaces also makes a difference in the show. The larger El Paso Museum of Art was originally a bus station while the smaller circular Museo de Arte was built specifically to show art. What this means in practice is that in Juarez the smaller space makes the show seem more intimate while in El Paso the works seem more separate. Something the El Paso museum does is to provide text taken from the catalogue in which the artist  talks about the specific pieceon view. I know there are differing opinions about text on gallery walls, and some artist statements can be problematic, but here it often does much to enhance the work.
Without the text, we might not really know what Rebeca Mendez was doing trudging back and forth in the snow with a Mexican flag (she was trying to symbolically claim a part of the Arctic for Mexico) nor would we understand that Andres Troncoso’s overweight virgins came about because he was troubled as a child in church from  the discrepancy between the images of the flawlessly beautiful Virgin he saw in paintings and the women he saw around him in church, wondering why the Virgin didn’t look like them. Many reading fashion mags are asking the same thing, so I’m wondering if these early religious images were the Vogue or Elle for the faithful, but I digress.

There is much to like in this show, though I have to say much of it seemed famiiar. Perhaps this simply reveals a unity to be found here-the distinctive voice which emerges from this very distinctive culture, but of course, there are thousands of artists living on the border and many of them are working in an entirely different vein or with different concerns. Regardless the show which will be up through early February is definitely worth an exploration.

The bilingual catalogue is for sale in El Paso, though not at the Museum in Juarez. -david sokolec

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One Response to “Border Biennial spans the Rio Grande”

  1. Richard Baron Says:

    David – Your memory is lacking concerning what happened when Eduardo Diaz was brought in by Joyce Wilson to corral the municipal arts into the service of the Chamber of Commerce. Prior to his plan, The Arts Resources Department (ARD) did all the same things (plus some) the current MCAD does. It acted under the capable hands of Alejandrina Drew (originally from Mexico DF) who was a dedicated advocate of the arts and who–as the ARD acted as its own department–reported directly to the mayor. The director of EPMA, Becky Duvall Reese, acted as head of The Department of Museums, and she too, as head of it’s own department, also reported directly to the mayor. When Diaz came to town, he brought with him a copy of a plan for the organization of the arts that he was paid to write for the city of San Antonio. El Paso paid him highly to replace the words “San Antonio” with the word “El Paso.” He gave one presentation that was open to artists in which he he bored everyone with a lot of bureaucratese, and at which nobody yelled at him. I wrote a piece criticizing the plan for Newspaper Tree, but it otherwise received no other criticism, loudly or otherwise, and it easily was accepted and adopted by the city. The ARD was promptly dismembered and rebranded MCAD, which no longer retained its status as an independent department answerable only to the mayor but was rather made a branch of a newly formed Department of Quality of Life. Furthermore, the Department of Museums was demoted to a branch of MCAD (which was a branch of the DQL. The two department heads who previously reported directly to the mayor, now reported to a woman who had no previous experience as an advocate or administrator of the arts. Diaz’ plan was less a matter of “putting all of the major cultural institutions under one umbrella organization”, which sounds both orderly and stifling, than it was a political coup and a crippling of the arts.

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