Featuring just 37 artists, the Minnesota Biennial is a small-scale snapshot of the art of the state.
Intended as a snapshot of the many styles and media typical of the state’s art scene, the 2014 Minnesota Biennial exceeds that modest goal but leaves a huge amount of talent unrepresented.
No doubt that’s inevitable in a state that’s home to 5,350 artists, according to MNartists.org. Still, with just 37 paintings, sculptures, photos and other artworks by 37 individuals, the show is barely a bonsai sample. It runs through Aug. 3 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) in downtown St. Paul.
The Biennial’s limits were determined by the size of the MMAA’s “project space” in the Pioneer Endicott building, a historic 19th-century office building that is being renovated into living quarters. While easy to find on a desirable corner adjacent to the new Green Line light rail, the space is extremely problematic as an exhibition site.
Its lovely windows admit sunlight destructive to art; the floors are a distracting mess of worn tile patched with rough concrete and mismatched wood; pillars and baffles cut the space awkwardly; lighting is inadequate, security iffy.
Faced with so many issues, curator Christina Chang produced a commendable installation that brings out the best in the art. It was chosen by Chang and jurors Brian Frink and Meredith Lynn from 377 applications. While there are no obvious themes tying it all together, there are strains of environmentalism and a concern for nature and its fragility.
The artists are skillful and innovative in their manipulation of materials. Together they cover the emotional, intellectual and conceptual waterfront — from high seriousness to humor, from abstraction to figurative dioramas, from painting to photography to ceramics to traditional beadwork. Minnesota in a 37-piece nutshell.
Environmentalism slips in slyly. At more than 5 feet wide, Miranda Brandon’s “Impact” is a startlingly intimate photo of a dead hermit thrush isolated on a pristine white background. In nature a dead thrush is a modest handful. Her bird is a human-sized bundle of beautiful, silken feathers that seem oddly and unnaturally fluffed and flared in death. That’s because the bird died from crashing into a building, probably during a spring or fall migration. Brandon reports that there were 4,500-plus such bird deaths last year in the Twin Cities alone, and she invests that sad and alarming statistic with surprising power through her eloquent image.
Megan Vossler also shifts scales, drawing humans as tiny figures lashed together and clinging precariously to the face of a sheer cliff in “Canyon,” a delicate 15-foot-tall scroll drawing of a bleak landscape in which one wrong move would condemn them all to obliteration.
Nearby, Andréa Stanislav explodes her 12-foot-wide, cotton-candy-colored “Champagne Supernova” across three tall boards. As in earlier Stanislav projects, “Supernova” weds seductive Las Vegas sparkle to an apocalyptic vision of fiery destruction.
On a smaller scale, Dodie Logue draws stars shimmering in the night sky, and Keren Kroul turns myriad shades of blue into a map-like maze of crystalline pools in an eight-panel watercolor, “Drops in a Limitless Ocean.” Meanwhile, in her painting “Forces in Play,” Lisa Nankivil uses narrow vertical stripes in taupe, blue and brown to reference the geometry of Minnesota’s agricultural landscape.
Regan Golden McNerney has documented an encroached-upon forest near Thoreau’s famous Walden pond in photos and delicate cut-paper drawings whose slow disintegration echoes the forest’s steady disappearance, and Gregory Euclide produced a 3-D landscape of the North Woods, incorporating such “natural” and “invasive” materials as pine cones, corn husks and bits of broken Styrofoam coolers.
Unusual materials pop up everywhere, along with unexpected imagery.
Made from porcelain, Maren Kloppmann’s “Shadow Wall Pillows” are minimalist sculptures whose delicate gray and ivory surfaces seem to sketch a 3-D landscape along a gallery wall. Howard Quednau used toy shrubs and figures to create a miniature diorama of a car crash whose victims seem to have stepped out of a vintage Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Sarita Zaleha’s “Mourning Global Warming” is a participatory installation that includes a sensor-activated quilt whose temperature rises every 10 minutes in correlation with 100 years of global warming.
On a similarly grand scale, Kristina Estell made a clever and unexpectedly beautiful draped “sculpture” by painting liquid silicone rubber over an ancient classical frieze, a library wall and a window. Once the rubber dried, she peeled off the 40-foot-long sheet, producing a flexible frieze of human figures and architectural detail that is a haunting memento of past lives and distant places.
Simultaneously tough and delicate, Marie Schrobilgen’s “Self Portrait” is the show’s most daring conceptual piece and the least pretty. It consists of a tool-kit-sized orange industrial magnet suspended from the ceiling by steel cable above an iron-rich rock that’s tied to a steel slab on the floor. The powerful magnet lifts the rock and keeps it suspended in midair about an inch below the magnet’s surface. Any shift in position would break the equilibrium, causing the boulder to crash, dangerously, to the floor. As a metaphor for life’s drama, tensions, responsibilities and curious beauty, it’s a knockout.
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