The new exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art offers an expansive look at some of the best work by local artists.
The 2014 Biennial, which runs through August 3 at the MMAA’s project space in downtown St. Paul, offers up pieces by Minnesota heavyweights at the peak of their game (think Andrea Stanislav, Gregory Euclide and Maren Kloppmann) along with strong pieces from relatively new voices.
Marie Schrobilgen’s “Self Portrait” is fraut with dynamic tension, as a chunk of steel strains against its cables to connect with an industrial magnet. Miranda Brandon’s “Impact (Hermit Thrush)” displays the beauty of a native bird while simultaneously pointing to the massive avian casualties of our built environment.
Curator Christina Chang was one of three jurors who pored over hundreds of submissions before making their final cut. The others were Brian Frink, chair of the art department at MSU Mankato and Meredith Lynn, director of the Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids.
“We wanted to give a snapshot of the kinds of art being made at this particular moment,” said Chang. “We tried to be as representative of the different kinds of media, styles and traditions that are being practiced in this state, based on the applicant pool. We were looking for what we collectively thought of as the best work in the state – both in terms of technical expertise and artistic vision.”
The MMAA project space is chock full of paintings, photographs, drawings, ceramics, and sculpture.
“The final selection was relatively small because of the nature of the space but also because a lot of the works that were selected were big,” said Chang. “Thinking about it, it makes sense, because we asked people to submit their best work. Best work is often the most ambitious work, and ambitious work often ends up being larger.”
For Chang the challenge was to display such a wide variety of works in a way that was coherent. And for the most part, it works. Stanislav’s opulent “Champagne Supernova” covers one wall in glitter and resin, while Alison Hiltner’s alien flowers creep out from a corner nearby. Kloppmann’s abstract ceramics hang adjacent to Mary Berg’s “Plane Tangencies,” made up of folded paper portfolios.
So if the purpose of a biennial is to take the pulse of an arts community, what does this show say about Minnesota?
“I’ve been reading a lot lately about Minnesota lacking a critical discourse,” said Chang, “and there’s a counter argument that Minnesota isn’t presenting good enough work to create a critical discourse. It seems we’re constantly asking ‘are we good enough or not?’ I feel like that kind of thinking betrays a certain kind of provincialism. This exhibition shows that Minnesota is making really strong, amazing art that definitely could hang with New York and LA artists. But it also has its own very distinctive sensibility – a Minnesota aesthetic.”
One element of the “Minnesota aesthetic” is a deep connection to the land. In Sarita Zaleha’s piece “Mourning Global Warming,” viewers are invited to climb into a makeshift bed and experience first hand how the global temperature has increased over the past 100 years, condensed into ten minutes. The quilt on the bed charts the temperature rise in red; nearby, people are invited to sit and embroider the names of devastating tropical storms.
“Another element we picked up on was this obsessiveness to detail and really repetitive, labor-intensive work, said Chang. “Is it because we have such a long winter? Or because of our Puritan work ethic? Who knows. But Minnesota artists put a lot of work into their art.”
Such attention to detail can be found in Douglas Limon’s “Cradleboard Project” with its intricately beaded medallions and beautifully crafted cedar and oak. It’s also apparent in Gregory Euclide’s complex landscape, and Michelle Johnson’s calligraphic drawings.
Chang says she’s interested to see what kind of dialogue the show provokes.
“This is about a moment in our artistic history. Who wasn’t included? Why weren’t they included? Those are questions we want to pursue,” said Chang.
To that end, the MMAA will be hosting two conversations in July featuring biennial artists.