Across This Fraught Place: Survivance at the 2021 Texas Biennial

Steve Parker, "Sirens," 2018. Courtesy the artist.

In one part of Tomashi Jackson’s video Vibrating Boundaries (Law of the Land) (Self Portrait as Tatyana, Dajerria, & Sandra) (2015), we hear audio from Sandra Bland’s interaction with the police officer who pulled her over in Waller County, Texas. As the traffic stop escalates, Bland describes the officer’s hostility as misplaced power: “You feel real good about yourself, don’t you,” she says.

Vibrating Boundaries overlaps recorded encounters between Black women and police officers with a series of brilliantly calibrated exercises: a collaborator reads excerpts from a book on color theory, for example, as Jackson’s hand enters the frame and removes a photograph of Bland from a nearby wall. Throughout the video, reflections on abstraction are paired with images of the artist and her collaborators frozen in the stress positions that Tatyana Rhodes, Dajerria Becton, and Sandra Bland suffered. What does color theory have to do with systemic and violent oppression? Josef Albers describes the vibrating boundary as the unstable area where colors meet and create friction, and the metaphor here is suggestive. From her studies of Albers’ writing and legal defenses of racialized violence, Jackson’s video describes a conceptual entanglement.

Tomashi Jackson, “Vibrating Boundaries (Law of the Land) 1963-2015 (Self Portrait as Tatyana, Dajerria, & Sandra),” 2015.

While driving, I thought about the question the work provoked in me: how do we make exhibitions that engage questions of form as they also illuminate questions of life or death, of love and loss, of a collective imaginary within structural systems dedicated to violence? Which is to say, can an artist or curator’s formal decisions matter, when the state is brutalizing its people?

Jackson’s video became a cipher for my entire experience of the 2021 Texas Biennial, framing the 1,700 miles I drove across the state, from El Paso to Houston and back, at the end of October. I was driving Texas specifically to see exhibitions, hopeful about what they could say in response to the legislative realities the state was chasing. In the summer 2021 legislative session alone, Texas pushed through the nation’s most extreme anti-abortion restrictions; attempted to block gender-affirming healthcare for trans kids; allowed unlicensed gun owners to carry weapons; banned Critical Race Theory from schools; made it possible to jail citizens for public protest; allowed religious communities to ignore public health guidelines; committed to not offer financial assistance to Texans affected by energy blackouts during a crippling winter storm; and reduced state funding to any city that opted to divert police funding toward social programs, libraries, or parks. In its particular abuses of power, Texas as a state seems to feel real good about itself, still.

Against these murderous realities, the Texas biennial offers reckoning and some repair. It leans into other futures, insisting that the state remains worth imagining forward. And, by placing formal studies alongside the embodied experiences of its subjects, curators Ryan Dennis and Evan Garza suggest that such visual and material qualities of art might yield useful structures for our models of resistance.

Alisha Wormsley, “There Are Black People in the Future,” 2021, the Texas Biennial.

San Antonio hosts four of the biennial’s venues, a fifth is in Houston; all are located in institutional spaces. I began my biennial circuit downtown, where Alisha B. Wormsley’s banner reads THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE across the side of the Artpace building. A mile away, the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) has given the biennial one of its more challenging spaces: its small contemporary gallery on the museum’s second floor is divided by four massive columns. One wall is truncated severely under a drop ceiling. Alongside Jackson’s video are works that utilize abstractions as politic. In Virginia Jaramillo’s Point Omega (1973-2018), for example, panels of red, maroon, purple, and violet are scored by two almost-parallel white lines; its title nods to its science-fictional referent, a utopian future in which all human consciousness merges.

Rick Lowe, “Black Wall Street Journey #5,” 2021. Photo: Thomas Dubrock. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Imagining another future requires revisiting the past, and, nearby, Rick Lowe’s canvas Black Wall Street Journey #3 (2020) draws from Lowe’s recent work in Tulsa for the centennial commemoration of that city’s massacre of its Black residents. In the canvas, Lowe ruptures green and black grids into collaged fragments across six panels, dizzying as their cut configurations suggest streets and buildings of Tulsa’s former Black business district. Beside it, Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Step and Screw: Meanwhile Somewhere in Texas (Five Foot Furry Flash) (2021) also outlines a place, as it spirals the words “Meanwhile Somewhere in Texas” out of black synthetic fur. The fur draws the state with jagged suggestion, its words also fracturing into dark antecedent meanings. Between the columns in the center of the gallery, José Villalobos’s installation of a glittering, mirrored saddle hangs above a mound of dirt and flowers, a shiny Texan symbol turned ghostly without its horse or rider.

History is a thing shared, and our collective writing of it sits at the heart of the biennial installation at the McNay Art Museum. Through incantatory offerings, from warning to meditation, song to benediction, the site signals the power of community experience. Rachel Gonzales’s labyrinth of paper hangs in spirals, covered in black painted sworls and pencil drawings. Up close, hand-written phrases describe healing practices in a graphite whisper. Gonzales resides in a gallery otherwise devoted to the Filipinx Artists of Houston, a cross-disciplinary collective whose inclusion in the biennial emphasizes collaborative resistance to the state’s famously aggressive individualism.

Cumulative voices also float from Steve Parker’s Sirens (2018), installed in a passageway that connects the three galleries dedicated to the biennial. The sculpture is built from several brass civil-defense sirens, all playing songs of distress sung in different languages. The sirens, their speakers artfully tucked away and their surfaces patinaed from use, point in many directions. Originally made as warning systems, here their layers of plaintive song indicate shared losses, even despair.

Even in loss, though, song can be celebration. Just past Parker’s installation, Irene Antonia Diane Reece’s Home-goings (c. 2019 – “forever growing”) recovers objects from church services – commemorative paper fans, floral decorations, a prayer kneeler – pairing them with large-format photographs from home-going services in Black churches. On the objects, Reece prints texts insisting on the sacredness of Black life: a paper fan reads, “We need to protect Black girls, because they ain’t protected…” A pile of flowers spills out under a photograph, and visitors are invited to lower themselves onto the kneeler. In every room of the McNay, we hear introspective utterances: in song and text, the exhibition hums with reparative invocation. Yet, even when the biennial invites healing, it is also clear-eyed about the original traumas that necessitate it.

Virginia Jaramillo, “Point Omega,” (1973-2018). Image courtesy the artist and Hales, London and New York. © Virginia Jaramillo.

At Ruby City, a contemporary art center run by the Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio, the biennial takes over Pace’s former studio in the memorial garden built for her son. The mournful intimacy of the space is matched by the somber and spare install. Sondra Perry’s black crucible centers the experience immediately in the legacies of slavery; inside and above it, two video monitors seem to image the forging of shackles. Beside the crucible, Perry fills a clod of concrete with metal objects, including meteorites, railroad spikes, and shackles. The installation finds its poetic sister in Sargassum (2019), Jamal Cyrus’s minimalist sculpture made from stacked triangles of sargassum and tabby concrete. In both works, the oceanic traces of the Middle Passage chart a map of America’s roots. Cyrus’s work is misleadingly simple, its associative depth connecting the healing properties of sargassum to the concrete aggregate made with oyster shells, by enslaved peoples. Perry and Cyrus’s research-driven works chart experiences untold in Texas’s founding mythologies, centering material knowledge of Black Americans as unassailable rejoinders to their erasure. Everywhere, the biennial looks underneath and beyond the unwritten to tell community histories.

In Houston, Dennis and Garza joined curator Max Fields for In Place of an Index, a Fotofest exhibition within the biennial that specifically centered photography and video to get at what might be archived and reconsidered. The exhibition sprawls across the hallways of Silver Street Studios, an awkward community studio space on the edge of the Houston Heights. Despite its setting, there are tremendous moments of gravity as the exhibition grapples with how to document events unseen. Ja’Tovia Gary’s immersive video installation, The Giverny Suite (2019), pairs clips of Monet’s gardens with excerpts of a Nina Simone performance and street interviews with Black women and girls, in which Gary asks them if they feel safe (some do, some don’t). Two small altars of flowers, fruit, candles, honey, spices, and shells are tucked into the corners of the installation. These quiet offerings felt emblematic of much of the work in the biennial as they honored ancestors and proffered a protective magic.

Ja’Tovia Gary, “THE GIVERNY SUITE,” 2019, installed in the exhibition In Place of an Index at FotoFest, 2021. Presented in conjunction with the Texas Biennial 2021. Photo courtesy of FotoFest.

Back on the road, I saw fields and small towns littered with newly-painted Trump signs, anti-vaccine propaganda, and defiant MAGA sentiment. But as I drove, Sandra Bland’s voice also echoed across the landscape, insisting on the wrongness of the state’s misplaced power, haunting its surety. And, across Texas’s indescribable expansiveness, I returned to the question of what an exhibition could offer in this terrifying place that is still somehow home.

My answer came from a video on view at the McNay. Teeter Totter Wall (2019) by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello depicts an impromptu borderlands playground. A hot pink metal seesaw draws a bright line across the mid-beam of the massive steel wall dividing Mexico from Texas. Children on both sides squeal joyfully as they play. Their laughter can’t negate the impressive inhumanity of the wall, but it certainly – if briefly – breaks its power.

This biennial describes state violence and white supremacy – ongoing legacies of slavery – with incisive clarity. But the artists here also make a counter-proposal, at once complex and generative. In resistance, research, mourning, survivance, celebration, and play, the project insists that art retains its power to unsettle. Emphasizing form, the biennial undermines whiteness as the state’s only meaning-making device, emphatically resisting the boundaries Texas – as a state and a national ideology – builds between us. Across this fraught place, A New Landscape, A Possible Horizon plumbs the productive possibilities of a world spectacularly more true than the ones that a current Texas offers, choosing instead to honor the state’s histories of color, to listen for its songs and spoken prayers, and to dig into the depths of its abstractions.

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