MMAA opens "2014 Minnesota Biennial"

Today, the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) hosts its first biennial since 2008, before it closed its doors in 2009 and regrouped, opening again officially in the beginning of 2013. Now located in St. Paul's Lowertown area, the museum is restarting its practice of holding biennials, which it has done off and on since the 1950s. With 36 finalists, the selection of artists includes a wide range of talents from the Twin Cities, as well as out-state artists working in different mediums of visual art. 

Founded in 1907, the museum has undergone a number of transformations, changing its name seven times and existing in 13 different locations. Starting with an instructional approach, it began assembling the bulk of its collection in the late 1940s, holding its first biennials in the 1950s. "The institution has evolved and is always trying to figure out the right identity," says Christina Chang, curator of engagement. Right now, MMAA is really focused on supporting Minnesota artists, including craft artists. 

The museum re-launched with a soft opening as the Minnesota Museum of American Art in December of 2012, then opened officially in January of 2013. Since then, they've aimed at having about five shows a year, each two months long, as well as a shorter show presented in conjunction with St. Paul Public Schools. 

Unlike the Whitney Biennial in New York, and the Soap Factory Biennial in Minneapolis, MMAA took a juried approach, rather than a curated one, for this biennial. Three jurors -- Brian Frink, Meredith Lynn, and Chang -- went through all of the applications submitted through the museum's open-call process, and unanimously agreed on the 36 finalists. Chang says they selected fewer artists than originally anticipated, because many of the pieces they wanted to include were so large. "There's a good number of statement pieces," she says, "but there are intimate pieces as well." 

The hope is that MMAA's biennial will complement the Soap Factory's biennial, and they will be holding it on opposite years. Rather than focusing on emerging artists, MMAA takes focus on a whole spectrum of emerging to established artists. 

The jury process is a bit more of a democratic, intended as a way to open up the process. The museum also felt that there was a need in the community to have more exhibition space and a process that was more inclusive. The jurors initially looked at the work blind, without knowing the names of the artists. Later, they were able to make tweaks when all was said and done, in order to "make sure we had the right selection," Chang says. 

This process led to a majority of women artists being represented in the show, as well as 10 of the 36 artists identifying as being from a diverse background. In addition, there's a 38-year age span between the oldest and the youngest artist, and about one third of the artists come from the outstate areas.

While there are a number of different styles and mediums of visual art represented in the show, Chang says that they ended up not selecting any performance or video work, though those types of pieces were eligible. No performance pieces were submitted, she says, and only a few artists submitted video pieces. "Performance is trickier," she says, "because it has to be existing work." However, the museum is partnering with dance artist Jennifer Pray from Ballet Minnesota and Ryan Horton from McNally Smith for an event on June 26 where the musicians create music inspired by the artwork. 

There's also a presence of craft in the show, in keeping with the museum's roots. Back in the 1950s, the museum used to have alternating craft biennials. Among the craft works in this show is a lovely pastel-colored porcelain necklace created by Debra Evans Paige, as well as four colorful Native cradleboards (dikinagan), exquisitely made by Douglas K. Limon, an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation, descendent of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. 

Another piece that uses craft but also an element of audience participation is an installation by Sarita Zaleha. A comment on global warming, the piece includes a blanket equipped with sensors that turn on heat when you move the blanket to get inside. The installation also includes needlepoint works that spell out the names of hurricanes, commenting on the effects global warming has had on society. Pete Driessen also takes a contemporary twist on the craft medium with a painted afghan blanket. 

There a number of photography works in the show, notably Miranda Brandon's photograph of a dead bird, captured with disturbing beauty and majesty. Selma Fernandez Richter's portrait of a young girl sitting on a porch fence also demands notice. Dressed in a colorfully patterned hijab, the girl wraps her shoes around the banisters for balance, hiding her arms and looking quizzical, almost untrusting. Fernandez Richter's realistic portrait subtly plays with different blues and the browns in the piece, creating a symmetrical composition that offsets the uneasiness of her subject. 
While the open call and jury process turned up a pretty commendable diversity to the show's lineup, it feels a little safe. There are many stunning and beautiful pieces -- Alison Hiltner's creeping flowers that cling to the wall, Andrea Stanislav's glittery explosion, Gregory Euclide's three-dimensional landscape, Kristina Estell's transformation of silicon rubber into watery draperies, Megan Vossler's haunting use of graphite on paper -- but at the same time, the word "biennial" does tend to evoke the Whitney Biennial's reputation of breaking ground and starting new trends. However beautiful the works in this exhibition are, as a whole they're not striking into new territory, perhaps because of the fact that some of the strongest pieces come from artists who have been making work for quite some time. 

None of the artists received a stipend for being selected in the biennial. However, there are a couple of prizes: Wet Paint and Master Framers will each be awarding one artist a $250 certificate for supplies and framing services, respectively. In addition, Chang says that the museum plans to make two or three acquisitions from the biennial. The two sponsor prizes will be announced on opening night, though Chang says that the acquisitions might take a little longer to announce. 


2014 Minnesota Biennial

Thursday through August 3

MMAA Project Space, 141 E. Fourth St., St. Paul

The public opening is Thursday from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Additional events include Creative Collaboration: MMAA + McNally Smith College of Music present a night of art + music, co-presented with Ballet Minnesota on June 26 at 5:30. There will also be artists' talks on July 12 and 26 at 2 p.m., and a Really Short Film Festival, featuring six-second videos from Minnesotans about art in the state, on August 1 at 6:30 p.m.