Biennial pushes past boundaries

Special to The Times

There's A fable by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges that tells of a map so detailed, it is exactly the same size as the land it describes. This year's California Biennial might feel a bit like that map: With exhibitions, performances and public art projects in more than 24 venues from San Francisco to Tijuana, it's not exactly pocket-sized.

In fact, the 2008 installment is the largest and most ambitious in the show's 24-year history. Opening next Sunday and running through March 15, it is presented by the Orange County Museum of Art and curated by Lauri Firstenberg, founder and director of the Culver City nonprofit art space LAXART. Under her direction, the show has expanded to include more than 100 works in almost every medium -- painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, installation, film, video and performance, as well as public projects such as murals, posters and billboards -- by 53 artists and collectives, up from 31 in 2006. The roster is just as diverse: a mix of luminaries such as Raymond Pettibon, Mary Kelly, Tony Labat and Yvonne Rainer, and relative newcomers such as Michael Arcega, Skylar Haskard and Erika Vogt.

Although previous biennials have favored newer artists, Firstenberg wanted to provide a more comprehensive picture of California. "My biggest concern was how to break with that and provide a more in-depth context of how younger artists were being seen," she says. "It's really a concern about how younger artists are launched into the commercial sector and trying to think through and present a dialogue that is complex and related to a series of influences."

She also wanted to raise questions about the purpose and function of the event itself. "The biennial was always quite modest in scale," says Firstenberg, referring to the exhibition's usual mandate to show works produced within the state's borders, within the walls of the museum. "We were really kind of expanding and pushing the platform beyond what it had been before."

This expansive attitude reflects Firstenberg's background as an independent curator and her familiarity with a growing network of international biennials -- cropping up in places like Bucharest, New Orleans and Gwangju, South Korea -- that have already thrown the validity of national and regional borders into question. "When one is given geographical boundaries, it seems arbitrary," Firstenberg says. "We really wanted to dislocate the exhibition, get out of the suburbs of Orange County and collaborate with other institutions that a museum would not normally collaborate with."

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of outreach is a piece by Marcos Ramirez that will bring images of the U.S.-Mexico border into the OCMA galleries via a live video feed from the rooftop of Estacion Tijuana, his independent exhibition space 100 meters from the border. Two other Tijuana art spaces, Lui Velazquez and El Cubo at Centro Cultural de Tijuana, also will feature exhibitions, performances and talks with Californian and Mexican artists.

Although the show proposes an expanded definition of California, for some artists it is also an opportunity to be seen in a different light. Painter Mary Weatherford, 45, whose richly colored abstract forms are based on caves and other natural phenomena, says her paintings have sometimes been dismissed as "too pretty." She hopes her inclusion in the biennial will encourage people to see a more serious side of her work. "It has to do with mortality," she says. "It's very beautiful, but it's a little frightening."

Shana Lutker, who appeared in the 2006 biennial, also will reveal a different side of her practice. Known for her installations and text-based works, she will stage a "human puppet show" at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum on Nov. 6 and at the Lab, a so-called anti-mall in Costa Mesa, on Jan. 10.

The show consists of two onstage actors wearing headphones that are connected to two microphones in the audience. When people speak into the microphones, the actors repeat their words verbatim. The event is presided over by an emcee, whose utterances are in turn dictated by Lutker from behind the scenes.

The performance builds on the artist's previous drawings, sculptures and installations inspired by Freud's theories, which she says emerged 100 years ago as a response to the societal changes that came with modern urban society. "It feels like it's very relevant now again," she says, "maybe because we've come through this new technological age with the Internet; the way we communicate has been increased in some ways. It's a new phase of modernism, and the impact on our emotional landscape is major."

As if registering this shift, her works are often uncanny mash-ups of the personal and the public. Her contribution to the 2006 biennial included an architectural model of her childhood home filled with artworks she dreamed she had made, and "Dream Book 2003," a 365-page book reporting her dreams each night for a year. "If the 'Dream Book' was a collection of things from my unconscious, the performances are collections of the public's unconscious," she says.

One who's established

At 30, Lutker, who received her MFA from UCLA in 2005, is the kind of emerging artist the biennial typically showcases. Daniel Joseph Martinez, on the other hand, is an established provocateur who has examined relationships among the body, society and power for more than 30 years.

Perhaps best known for his controversial entry in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, in which he created museum admission badges that read, "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white," Martinez, 51, will present a life-size animatronic sculpture of his own body in the throes of a seizure.

In addition to the physical and emotional effect of his work, Firstenberg selected Martinez, a professor at UC Irvine, because he has been influential for a number of younger artists. In another gallery, works by two of his former students, Marco Rios, 33, and Kara Tanaka, 25, also deal with bodily sensation and its limits.

Many viewers will have to stoop to experience Rios' installation: an empty room in which the ceiling has been lowered to the artist's height (5 feet 4). The spinning, disembodied skirt of Tanaka's mechanized sculpture was inspired by Sufi whirling dervishes, whose marathon dancing pushes spiritual as well as physical extremes.

Some works at OCMA trace intergenerational connections in less direct ways. Edgar Arceneaux's 2004 video "An Arrangement Without Tormentors" features his teacher and former collaborator, CalArts professor Charles Gaines, playing a song he wrote on the piano. Audiences will see a product of their relationship -- and Gaines, who, like Martinez has mentored many Southern California artists, makes an appearance in the biennial, albeit once removed.

In fact, it was in conversation with Arceneaux that Firstenberg first realized the centrality of the student-teacher dynamic in the California art scene. So to prepare for the exhibition, she and her curatorial team -- which includes assistant curator Aram Moshayedi and assistants Daniel Pelt, Cesar Garcia and Susan Bell Yank -- interviewed the director or chair of every major art school and university art department in the state.

"We were really posing the question: What is particular about artists in California?" she says. "Why do artists come here in droves?" They found the concentration of art schools and departments in Southern California and the Bay Area not only attracts artists but also creates an environment in which mentorship is more crucial than in, say, New York City, where the gallery and museum system is more prominent.

To the edge

ANYONE FAMILIAR with Gaines' drawings and sculptures that explore the relationship between language and experience will recognize similar concerns in the works of Arceneaux, 36, who studied with him, receiving an MFA at CalArts in 2001. In addition to "An Arrangement" the younger artist will create a new installation at the museum, continuing his exploration of the limits of human perception.

About five years ago, Arceneaux began releasing helium balloons into the sky and photographing them. "I would keep shooting until the point to where the balloon had moved beyond my capacity to see it," he says.

He then took the image in which the balloon is last visible and enlarged it by 200% on a photocopier. From that, he made another photocopy, also at 200%, and repeated the process so that the image's details break up. Arceneaux sees the effect as a metaphor for the contradictory nature of investigation. "The closer that you get to it, the more it starts to come apart," he says. The resulting images will appear as a video animation next to a slide show of the original photos.

Concerned more with the process than with a finished product, Arceneaux has produced several works that evolve over time. For example, since 1996, he has worked on an "artist-driven urban revitalization initiative" in Watts.

In some ways, this willingness to let projects grow in sometimes unforeseen directions echoes the expansive, unruly quality of Firstenberg's biennial. Yet the curator hopes its excesses will provide enough points of entry to attract a new group of people. "It's an open exhibition," she says. "There are also a lot of pressures, questions of translation, but it's hopefully a complex structure."

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Anne-Marie O'Connor contributed to this article.

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Beyond Orange County

For the first time in its 24-year history, the California Biennial is stepping outside the confines of the Orange County Museum of Art. The show runs next Sunday to March 15 at the museum's main venue at 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, but it will also manifest itself at unusual sites statewide. A sampling:

High Desert Test Sites: Initiated by artist Andrea Zittel, the High Desert Test Sites consist of a series of locations near Joshua Tree for experimental artworks. On Nov. 7-9, HDTS will include outdoor art by Patrick Jackson, Alice Konitz, Julia Scher and Marnie Weber. www.highdeserttestsites.com.

Queen's Nails Projects: For the last five years, this edgy San Francisco gallery next door to a nail salon has been one of the liveliest art spaces in town, featuring adventurous, often countercultural work by up-and-coming artists. From Nov. 20 to Dec. 31, the gallery will host a collaborative exhibition by mother-son Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie. www.queensnailsprojects.com.

Billboard on La Cienega Boulevard between Venice and Washington, facing north: Known for monochromatic graphite drawings imbued with social and political critique, Karl Haendel will exhibit the provocatively titled "White Al Sharpton" on a billboard above LAXART's space in November.

MacArthur Park, Nokia/LA Live and downtown L.A: Also starting in November, look for Matt Lucero's sculptures of battered boomboxes around the park, the new entertainment center and elsewhere.

For more venues and info: (949) 759-1122, www.ocma.net.

-- Sharon Mizota

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