It’s time for something new on the Eugene art scene: Our own biennale.
Viewing this year’s Eugene Mayor’s Art Show for perhaps the sixth time, in search of a coherent way to write about this annual celebration of local art yet again, I finally had to admit I was stumped. If there is an overarching theme in the works, it isn’t interesting enough to ignite my imagination.
There is some fine art to be seen. Kathy Caprario’s sprawling wall piece commands attention, as does Karin Clarke’s moving monoprint of a little boy. Marjorie Taylor’s queen of hearts dress, though we’ve seen it before, offers perfect whimsy. Gotta love that big painting of two tourists by Kris Hurwit. In fact, most of the works that were juried in (by painter Jeffery Bird, Schniter Museum director Jill Hartz, and print collectorDavid Hilton) are fine and engaging.
But on the whole, while viewing the show I feel like I’m in a commercial gallery that lacks a vision of what its art is about.
I’ve been a fan of the Mayor’s Art Show more or less forever. It’s a wonderfully democratic institution, in that anyone from Lane County can enter work, and anyone often does.
But there has been something absent from the show in recent years – a sense of energy, of pizazz, of drive. What’s been really lacking, I think, is the idea that the show matters very much.
What went wrong?
A couple of different things. One is the change in the jurying process that took place a few years ago. Before that, the show – almost uniquely in the country – required artists to deliver the actual works they wanted to enter to the Hult Center. The jury then looked at real art works – paintings, sculptures, jewelry, weird installations – in making its decisions.
That is no longer the case. Now the jury looks at digital images projected on a screen. This shift in the jurying process inevitably favors some works over others. Colorful, punchy, crisp images come across well when projected on a monitor. Small, subtle pieces that depend on nuance and texture don’t. One result, I believe, is that the Mayor’s Art Show in recent years has tended to be more decorative than in the past.
There are other factors, as well. Years ago, two artists in town – Jerry Ross and Steve LaRiccia – started what they called the Salon des Refuses. Named after the French salon that first showed paintings by the Impressionists who couldn’t get their work exhibited by the official academy, the Eugene Salon was open to – and only to – art that had been rejected by the official mayor’s show.
The conceit that, somehow, the Salon des Refuses was showing edgy, great work that was too controversial to make it into the sacred Hult Center was delicious, if a little hopeful. But the Salon was great fun, and its opening reception, always on the same night the Mayor’s Art Show opened, was often the better party.
With the end of live jurying at the mayor’s show, the Salon came to an end as well. With live jurying, rejected art was easy to capture. On judgment day the Hult Center had a steady procession of people carrying their rejected works out the door. Ross and LaRiccia needed only to stand there and invite them to keep walking with their art to the salon down the street.
But it’s more than the change in jurying. The number of established local artists who enter the mayor’s show has been on the decline. That means that the show no longer offers a look at the best of Eugene. Instead, it’s just another resume-building open juried show, of which there are hundreds in the country. This one just happens to be local.
What if we did something else to spotlight local art? How about a well curated invitational show that exhibits the best art that Lane County has to offer? How about a biennial?
We could even call it the Eugene Biennale. We are, after all, the World’s Greatest City and all that.
In the past – from 1949 until 2006 – the Portland Art Museum held an Oregon Biennial. Trouble was, for whatever reason the curators rarely ventured out past the Portland city limits, at least in recent years, so the show, populated almost entirely by Portland artists, should have been called the Portland Biennial. (And now, run by Disjecta since 2010, it is – the Portland2016 Biennial will open in July.)
The curator of a Eugene biennial or biennale – perhaps we could call it the “Eugenale” – could pick a smaller number of top Lane County artists, maybe half a dozen or even fewer. Such a show could focus attention on their work in the larger context of life in Lane County. It could include careful examinations of the artists’ work and careers.
The exhibit would not replace but would complement the Mayor’s show, offering a look at the very best work in town from professional, accomplished artists here in the World’s Greatest City of the Arts and Outdoors.
Whatever we might call it, Eugene needs a show such as this. All that is lacking, of course, is money and time – the same things art always needs.