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Biennial pushes past boundaries

This year's activity will stretch from San Francisco to Tijuana. The scope is broader too. It's a dialogue. And a quest for context.

October 19, 2008|Sharon Mizota | 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."

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