SAN DIEGO — It was a "hot" event the night of April 3, despite the intermittent downpours that sent groups of festively dressed celebrants scurrying about the streets of the downtown art quarter.
There were several important gallery openings that night, but the pre-eminent one was at Installation, which was inaugurating its large new space at 930 E St. with an exhibition of works by artists who live in San Diego. The nonprofit organization's move from the modest storefront it had occupied at 447 5th Ave. was a statement of confidence in its future. This exhibition was a statement of pride in the region's artists.
There had not been such an occasion for universal enthusiasm in the San Diego art world since the spring of 1985 when the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art opened "A San Diego Exhibition: Forty-Two Emerging Artists." Many hoped there would be more such exhibitions, at least biennially. Installation decided to take over the reins for 1987.
So there were good reasons for self-congratulations in the art community. It was felt that, with this exhibition in the middle of the city, San Diego showed that it was maturing as a center for contemporary art.
But the self-congratulations were premature.
"The Biennial" exhibition includes the works of 29 artists chosen in haste during the past two months by interim director Dan Wasil and interim associate director Karen Atkinson.
Among their choices are veteran San Diego artist Richard Allen Morris and nationally and internationally known artists such as Eleanor Antin, Ken Capps, Manny Farber, Chip Lord, Kim MacConnel, Patricia Patterson, Italo Scanga and Ernest Silva. The balance of the 29 generally have emerging reputations.
Farber is represented by two large, handsome paintings dating from 1985 that evince the vision and hand of a mature master, and Scanga by two works from his recent "Troubled World Series" that demonstrate his genius for transforming found materials into works of art of a high order.
Morris' abstract paintings are also exceptional, but they date from 1981. Antin's playful work (painted figurative cut-outs) dates from 1979. The oldest works in the show are two charcoal drawings by Robert Sanchez. They date from 1976!
There is something wrong here: A biennial is an exhibition of artists' current work, specifically the work of the past two years.
There are, however, fine examples of current works by strong artists--the minimal landscapes of Gillian Theobald; the enigmatic abstractions of Richard Baker, a beautiful assemblage/painting by Gail Roberts; challenging conceptual pieces by the teams of Walt Cotten with Steve de Pinto and Louis Hock with Elizabeth Sisco; a beautifully crafted and mysterious sculpture by Jim Skalman.
But there are also minor works by talented artists Margaret Honda, David Avalos and Kim MacConnel, among others.
Then there are works by other artists that are weak and forgettable, works that should not be in an exhibition that aspires to represent the best of San Diego art.
Artists have a responsibility to themselves and to their profession not to let minor and old works out of their studios despite their understandable desire for recognition in an exhibition like this.
Finally, artists of great merit--Martha Alf, Ethel Greene, DeLoss McGraw and Raul Guerrero, for example--were not considered, whole categories of media such as photography and ceramics are not represented, and there is not even one installation in the show. How is that possible?
Space and time were considerations, Atkinson said.
But criteria like quality and timeliness seem not to have been.
What looks like an attractive exhibition from a distance proves to be, when viewed up close and evaluated, a very serious misadventure.
Wasil and Atkinson have assumed direction of Installation since the departure of former director Robert Bush last month to assume the position of director of the Volcano Art Center in Hawaii. The Installation board of trustees has appointed Wasil interim director until January, 1988, board president Carole Laventhol said, and it will make a national search for a new director.
Members of Installation's exhibitions committee customarily participate in the selection of artists but did not this time.
"They didn't have much to do with it," Wasil said. "Karen and I selected the show."
According to Laventhol and board member Mario Lara, both members of the exhibitions committee, the panel had no input at all.