Art of the State

Paintings with flora and fauna: Paul S. Benson's "In Theoria"

The work is pleasant enough. The pieces by 29 artists that make up the exhibition Minnesota Biennial: 2D 2000 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art come in a variety of sizes, colors, and styles. And they encompass a great many of the techniques, media, and methods you might expect to see in such a statewide sampling of artists.

Yet as a juried exhibition that purports to present the best that Minnesota has to offer in the way of 2-D art forms, there is something definitely amiss in the Minnesota Biennial. There is something is terribly, dangerously amiss!

First and foremost, the show includes virtually none of the art stars that local conventional wisdom would have you believe are Minnesota's best. Not one of the oft-interviewed, oft-awarded cabal of local artists is present in the bunch. There's no Ta-coumba Aiken and the colorful swirling abstractions that are nearly ubiquitous across the Twin Cities. There's no Tim Harding, whose brightly colored textile works are well-known nationally. There's no Diane Katsiaficas, whose paper works and installations have won nearly every major local arts grant over the past ten years. In fact, many of the artists in this show--hang onto your berets here--are not from the Twin Cities.

All of which is odd, really, when you consider that usually the opposite is true. Consider the "Peanuts on Parade" sculptures, for instance, set just outside the MMAA's Landmark Center digs and all across the city of St. Paul. Among the many amateurs and first-time craftspeople involved in creating canine tributes to native son Charles Schulz, there are also a handful of celebrated artists--Ta-coumba Aiken, for instance, and public-art master Cappy Glaser, to name two.

Those among us who would like to believe that art-world rewards have nothing to do with politics and insider elbow-rubbing, and everything to do with merit, will take note: The Minnesota Biennial was juried by an outsider, not from the Twin Cities, not even from Minnesota. In fact Robert E. Knight, the director of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, was carefully chosen by the MMAA for his lack of local ties. In the posted placard that introduces the show, Knight explains how he whittled the more-than-500 artist applicants down to fewer than 30.


I began with no preconceptions and selected what I considered the best of the submissions....I gravitated toward visually compelling works that explored an array of issues, offering new twists on landscape, figuration and the natural world. The final selection stands as a testament to the fact that the two-dimensional forms of drawing, painting, printmaking, and photography are alive and well in Minnesota.


"Yeah, we have a lot of people who are unknown," says MMAA curator Lin Nelson-Mayson of the Biennial. "We were happy to tap into pockets of artmaking we typically don't see here in the Twin Cities. I think [Knight] did a very good job."

The other odd thing about this show is that while it lacks some of the (empty) edginess and (clumsy) conceptualism that defines much of the local gallery scene, it offers instead a great amount of elegance and professional competence. This may say something about the aesthetic biases of Knight, who must be a straight meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, artistically speaking. Consider "In Theoria" (1998), a seven-foot-high triptych of acrylic, gold leaf, and tar on wood panel by Paul S. Benson. Its imagery--a large white tropical bird, lush tropical plants, a fist-sized bee--is neither revolutionary nor contemporary in terms of its conceptual content. Still, the piece is cleanly and immaculately painted, its warm tones of mustard-yellow, golden-orange, and scarlet-red evoking the expressive qualities of the Mexican muralists of the 1920s. The unusual scale of the flora and fauna in the images (a bit like Henri Rousseau without the dreamlike lushness) pushes the images toward, yet not over, the line of the grotesque. It is a compelling rendering of an idealized natural image. And while this may not be the picture that keeps you up at night--in dread, in awe, in anger--it is nonetheless a memorable one.

The images that might be forgotten only by downing a fistful of Sominex are by artist Shana Kaplow, including the small, one-foot high oil paintings "Partial Chain" (1999) and "1 by 1" (1998). These works are closeups of odd or mundane objects--string, small stones, pieces of amber--painted monochromatically in a flat, photorealistic style. The artist arranges the objects in odd ways, and then apparently--judging by the strange optical effects of the final product--photographs these tableaux before making a painting based on the photograph. The translucent stonelike objects in "1 by 1" are positioned in a circle on an orange-white surface. Kaplow pays such close attention to the visual details of this odd scene that the final image is compelling and enigmatic. Is this a ritual or is this a joke? Whatever the answer, the clarity of vision in these pieces remains burned in the brain many days after viewing them.

Other notable entries include Virginia Bradley and Paul Clifford's "Land of Milk and Honey" (1999), an eight-by-nine-foot mixed-media piece on birch plywood. This crudely expressionistic landscape encompasses almost every imaginable painting technique across a surface that the two artists have gouged and inlaid with various metals. William Capel Slack's "Target" and "Blue Target" (1999) are monotype prints of dark, ghostlike figures. The artist incorporates various letter forms into the image and creates an intriguing texture over the surface of the dark figures.

Overall, there are any number of poignant and beautiful moments in a show that is likely to make waves by virtue of its decidedly untrendy curatorial approach. That is to say, the mostly pleasant and serene work here does not strive to fit any preconceived notion of what is thought locally to be Good Art. And that, my friends, is to its everlasting credit.

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