2016 Southern California/Baja Biennial at the San Diego Art Institute
By Richard Gleaves
Through January 29th
First, some preliminaries. SDAI has 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, making it comparable in size to the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. The institutional scope is mega-regional, with shows regularly including artists from Los Angeles to Baja California. And the director, Ginger Shulick Porcella, has a national rep as an arts administrator and curator.
SDAI’s 2016 Southern California/Baja Biennial presents work by 71 artists. The show was juried by Anthony Graham, assistant curator at MCA San Diego. But it doesn’t look juried – for its rare juried shows, SDAI wisely makes a policy of factoring its exhibition space into the art selection process. The result is shows like this one, with several large-scale installations which are effectively site-specific. The show looks curated rather than juried, which is a blessing in shows this large.
True to its nature, the Biennial is both encyclopedic (photography, installation, painting, video, sound, sculpture) and diverse. What holds it together is consistently strong work (with the possible exception of a few paintings bordering on generic abstraction).
But with strength comes a problem. One of the more depressing moments for an artist: to have work in a group show, and to read a review of that show, only to discover that the reviewer chose to write about some other artists in the show, but not you. This hurts. On the other hand, a review which attempts to call out the work of all 71 artists would inflict undue duress on the reader.
And so the reviewing criteria used here, which quite arbitrarily focuses on a) the work most ambitious in terms of scale, and b) the work that surprised me. For everyone unnamed here: your work is solid, and contributes to the community of art on display. Thank you for making this such a good show.
The biggest work in the show – Adam Manley’s industrial “A Simple Machine (Advent)” – bisects the gallery space with what appears to be an assembly line of sawhorses. Closer inspection reveals an additional element: a sawhorse-sized vise poised above one of the sawhorses, and behind it a trail of sawhorses with broken backs. This turns out to be a time-based work, though like a millennium clock, no viewer will ever see it tick. Every Monday and Friday, before the gallery opens, the vise is duly applied, then advanced to the next horse.
Beliz Iristay and Terry Arena each contribute large-scale installations with a common syntax: multiple circular elements, dispersed and floating across the wall. In both cases the elements serve as armatures for the associated imagery, and in both cases the work feels like an entire show in a single work.
Similarly, Charisse Weston and Cathy Breslaw commonly deploy transparency in their works, as a stratagem for adding fractional dimension to media normally 2D (paper, textile). Breslaw works with scale and color, while Weston presents her work in a horizontal orientation, which in its freshness queries what is gained and lost in the practice of hanging flat things on walls.
The title of Trevor Amery’s installation (“Cactus To Clouds”) is also the name of a hiking trail which leads from Palm Springs to the top of San Jacinto Peak. This hike is infamous for its extreme temperature changes along the way, and this in turn seems to be the impetus for the artwork, which consists of (among other things) a full-sized working sauna. As such, this work can be classified art-historically as a presumably fictive Non-site, of the sort collectively hallucinated by freezing exhausted mountaineers.
Janice Grinsell and Hugo Heredia co-present another in-building in the show, this time a phone-booth-sized structure. Enter through the black curtain and brace yourself for space-building of the finest order, as you abruptly transition from the spacious well-lit gallery to a dark and extremely cramped situation. Sparing the details (which is crucial, as theater is at play here), the overall effect is one of turning one’s eyeballs around in their sockets, and observing what lies within.
Much more externalized are Ashley Blalock’s monster crocheted doilies, which merrily consume SDAI’s grand staircase. The trans-retinal payoff here is how the scale of the work bends the scale of the stairs, taming what’s normally an overbearing feature.
Shifting to the smaller-scale work, Anastasia Castle elevates the venerable medium of cross-stitch by framing her needlework under thick blocks of clear acrylic. The latter is so assertive that it functions as a complementary element, rendering the composite as sculpture.
And though working in different media, Mira Alibek and Khang Nguyen share absolutely compelling surface and color. I’d love to see Alibek shown with Ken Price and Craig Kauffman, as a master class in finish.
All this and more… lots more, considering the amount of time-based work in the show. When planning your visit be sure to treat it as museum-scale, and allow extra time (and walking shoes) for the grand social sculpture that is Balboa Park.