This year's Biennial fizzled rather than sizzled

Although the middle of July marked the apex of activities related to the 2013 Denver Biennial of the Americas, the official exhibits connected to the event are still going through this weekend.

The first rendition of the Biennial, which took place three years ago (meaning this incarnation was one year late), showed some promise, even if it had a lot of problems. The key deficiency had to do with a disconnect between the local art community and the 2010 Biennial board. The existing hierarchy of gallery directors and curators was mostly walled off from the event, resulting in a limited role for Colorado artists.


2013 Biennial of the Americas

Through September 2 at the McNichols Building (and elsewhere), 144 West Colfax Avenue, 720-865-4220, artsandvenuesdenver.com.

So there was an obvious lesson for this year's board: Bring in the locals, harness their enthusiasm and connections, and build on that.

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Unfortunately, it was not to be. Not only did the business and government types behind the 2013 edition not learn from their predecessors, but they did an even worse job. Although they had an extra year to get things lined up, the boardmembers still mismanaged the event, with the original curator, Abaseh Mirvali, leaving or being forced out in late 2012, with less than a year to go.

But if I have brickbats for the movers and shakers behind the Biennial, I have nothing but praise for the curators — not just Mirvali and the other members of her team, notably Paul Anderson and Gaspar Libedinsky, but also those who were tapped just a few months ago by MCA director Adam Lerner to pull the thing together: Carson Chan (who had formerly worked under Mirvali), Cortney Stell and a handful of others.

The main show, Draft Urbanism, was put together by Chan, a Berlin-based freelancer who had the fragment of the Mirvali show tossed in his lap. The architectural incursions were from Mirvali's show, and at least one, "Mine Pavilion," by the Chilean firm Pezo von Ellrichshausen, was successful. This multi-story wooden structure, set on a bed of rocks, manages to simultaneously refer to the state's history and function as a non-objective sculpture. The others are weaker, though I did notice people gathering under Plan:b Arquitectos' "Skyline Cloud," which is made up of a group of lumpy umbrellas, so at least they produced shade. We'll never know if Mirvali's unrealized show would have transformed downtown into an art fair, but the few pieces that were built decidedly did not.

Cleverly, since it was relatively easy to pull off, Chan added a billboard component to the architecture part. For this element, artists — including some locals, such as Mario Zoots — had their work carried out in this way. (Zoots went above and beyond the call of duty by assembling his own slide show of the billboards, which can be seen at mariozootsblogspot.com.)

A shortcoming of the billboard portion is that there wasn't sufficient time to arrange for the signs' proximity to one another; as a result, they're scattered so far apart that it would take a whole day to see them all.

Another issue Chan had to deal with, though he mostly sidestepped it, was beer. The wizened powers-that-be at the Biennial had determined that the event should refer to Denver's craft-beer culture by playing off the word "draft." There was even a special beer, Biennial Maya Nut Brown, created by the Denver Beer Company just for the event. The beer component is another issue that could have been solved with more input from art experts. Apparently no one at the brainstorming session that chose the concept seemed to realize that beer is not an established theme in contemporary art, nor is it an established subject for contemporary artists. And that's why virtually nothing in Draft Urbanism refers to beer.

Given the short time he had, Chan did an admirable job, even if his show is scattered geographically and includes non-compatible parts. But if I'm going to give Chan a pass, then I'm going to give Cortney Stell a bouquet of flowers for First Draft, the last-minute Biennial show she organized.

According to Stell, in late March she received a call from Chan, who had gotten her name from Lerner, asking if she would take over the Denver show in the McNichols Building. The emerging curator quickly accepted — but without realizing that she had exactly seven days to come up with a list of participants as a result of the city's elaborate permitting requirements for the McNichols. That's why she defined "draft" as "version," so that just about anything any artist did would qualify. And that's also why she tapped people she already knew. Another problem was that the McNichols doesn't allow permanent sculptures or installations away from the walls because the spaces are used for events. (The city couldn't make an exception for the Biennial show?)

Despite these rules, Stell did include some sculptures and installations, with two suspension pieces being the show's standouts. First is Jaime Carrejo's piece, made of a trio of architectonic brackets that terminate in spheres on chains along with vinyl-covered pillars that were visually modest but intriguing from a narrative standpoint. I thought the whole thing was stunning. Second is Laura Shill's eye-catching blanket "chandelier" (originally a blanket "tent"), which provides a great link to Spun at the Denver Art Museum. Then there's Tyler Beard's trio of marvelous small post-constructivist sculptures bolted to lightweight tables that can be whisked away when necessary (another nod to the building's rules). Also engaging is Tsehai Johnson's wall shelf lined with forms based on a famous Russel Wright carafe.

As might be expected, most participants are represented by wall pieces, and one of these, the latex cast of a bedspread by Amber Cobb, also relates to Spun, but only conceptually. In one of two wraparound corner wall paintings, Carlos Frésquez equates MasterCard with Manifest Destiny. Both wall paintings are so smart, it made me realize that this king of post-Chicano art never makes a false move. Brandon Bultman's sign is also compelling, conveying a poetic quote in bright-white lights. This piece is related to Gary Sweeney's stack of conceptually repurposed neon signs.

First Draft is filled out with interesting works by Theresa Anderson, Nicole Banowetz, Devon Dikeou, Brian Evans, Tobias Fike and Matthew Harris, Ian Fisher, Chase Folsom, Conor King, Laura Merage, Adam Milner, Alicia Ordal, Gretchen Schaefer, Shawn Taylor and Rebecca Vaughan.

The question on everyone's mind is whether there will ever be another Biennial, especially since this one fizzled instead of sizzled. If only the rich and powerful on the board would let the art community in, they might find themselves with a success on their hands rather than what happened this year.

Draft Urbanism and First Draft

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