Horrible news to have to share (brace yourselves), but the second deCordova Biennial - the preeminent survey of contemporary art made by artists living and working in New England - is a major letdown. Where the inaugural 2010 edition was lively, theatrical, smart, and playful, this latest edition feels inexplicably tired and amateurish.
There is good work in this show, and I’m eager to tell you about it. But there’s no getting around the preponderance of silly stuff.
I thought we had outgrown smarty-pants biennials, filled with arcane and self-obsessed art by artists hypnotized by the riddle of their status in the world, and audibly gnashing their teeth over what purposes they might legitimately serve. (Important issues, of course, but - like outbreaks of acne on one’s rear end - not ones we’re all dying to address.)
Actually, most good artists do outgrow this stuff and get on with making art. The trouble is, curators - for whom art-making often remains impenetrably mysterious - still love it. Or think they should love it. And so we have biennials and triennials that overflow with self-consciousness, with worn-out conceptual japes, and with lazy gestures of political consciousness that have all the committed warmth of a dictator waving his gloved hand behind tinted windows.
The tone is set even before you enter the building by Steve Lambert’s large, old-fashioned sign combining aluminum and electric lights. “Capitalism works for me!’’ it says, and at either end “True’’ and “False.’’ As you walk past you’re invited to press a button to register your vote, and the sign keeps a tally.
It’s quite fun, I suppose, and very au courant - the 99 percent and all. DeCordova curator Dina Deitsch (who organized the show with guest curator Abigail Ross Goodman) told me she personally pressed both “True’’ and, a few moments later, “False,’’ because “it’s a complex question.’’
That sums up the matter nicely, and rather makes a mockery of a work that is already a mockery of issues it doesn’t even try to get a handle on. So let’s move swiftly along.
In the main gallery, on the third floor, Joe Zane, a Cambridge-based artist whose work is pretty much the last word in conceptual onanism, has another sign, this one in gold letters affixed to the wall. It reads: “This is not the Biennial I was hoping for.’’
Reading it, I felt momentarily outflanked, my ungenerous, rube-like thoughts revealed and writ large. But then I registered the bathos of the gesture, and its reliance on that old teenage trope of being forever smarter and more sarcastic than your audience. After which I merely felt tired.
Brattleboro-based artist Jonathan Gitelson thinks along the same clown-like lines: He has a series of blown-up photographs of a sweater, pair of socks, and denim shirt called “Items of Clothing Secretly Hidden By My Girlfriend (So I Wouldn’t Wear Them Anymore).’’ The title, as the wall text admits, “more or less tells you everything you need to know.’’ I concur.
Some artists want to reveal everything. Others want to conceal the mystery and pain of creativity behind random acts of kindness. Boston’s Jessica Gath, for instance, plans to be at the museum herself “most Saturdays of the exhibition’’ performing “domestic ‘acts of kindness’ on a stage: gift wrapping presents for visitors to give to others, embroidering phrases into T-shirts, and supplying postcards for mailing to loved ones.’’
I missed this particular spectacle, having other things to do most Saturdays, and had to make do with an empty stage, a single wrapped present, and a few rolls of wrapping paper. But I did wonder: Is this what art museums, in their increasingly desperate attempts to court interest, have come to? Wrapping presents for people?
No doubt, as with Zane, and as with Lambert, we are supposed to think “No,’’ and “Yes,’’ and probably “No’’ again. Someone, take my hand and lead me away