Every three years the Boise Art Museum offers a moment to stop, take a breath and look at where we are both culturally and geographically. The Idaho Triennial, which opened Nov. 16, explores Idaho through the perceptions of artists. They come from Idahos large population areas, such as the Treasure Valley, and far-flung rural areas, such as Troy.
In many ways, this show seeks to defy the common perceptions of art from the West as simply cowboy imagery or rugged mountain landscapes. The Triennial showcases contemporary artists in Idaho who are working on par with their peers in the region and around the globe, exploring ideas that are both local and universal through a growing diversity of mediums.
This years Triennial class is all over the media map. Youll find more traditional arts, such as oil and watercolor painting, photography and sculpture used in nontraditional ways either by application or subject matter alongside new media, such as video, 3D printing, and digital arts and mixed media.
The work in this show is part of our contemporary world, says Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, this years Triennial juror and the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
In the Intermountain states and in the whole Northwest you find that artists are concerned with environment, population, race and gender like they are in other parts of the region and the world, she says.
What makes it Idaho art is how artists are influenced by their immediate surroundings and the experiences that link biography and geography through the creative expression. That gives art a sense of time and place that comes through literally and metaphorically in the work.
Theres something about living out of a major city that gives an artist more time to work on ideas, Laing-Malcolmson says. And being in a beautiful place like Idaho, there are a lot of environmental influences.
Take Chris Binions Storm, Early Spring a large-scale painting of a thunderhead he photographed from his Boise backyard, or first-time Triennial artist Thomas Finnegans aluminum sculpture Taraxacum Tormentum, an ode to the scourge of suburban lawns the dandelion. Both have direct influences of Idahos landscapes and touch on universal emotions.
Other artists contrast the natural world with mechanized culture, such as a collaboration by Eli Craven and Maria Chavez, who juxtapose natural elements with latex, video and photography in their installation Canoeing: Rescue, or sculptor Rikki Harveys exploration of technology through the modality of a QR code.
Im interested in the overlap between the virtual and real world and how much were connected to social media, Harvey says.
Harvey uses the QR code as a metaphor for our sometimes blind acceptance of the virtual as actual. You scan the code and it unlocks another reality. Once you enter, you can lose touch with the physical existence you leave behind.
I enjoy the convenience technology offers, she says. Im trying to bring it to the viewers attention that you dont have to just accept it. Thats why I enjoy art. You put stuff out there and people can interpret it how they like.
MUSEUM & SHOW SHARE A RICH HISTORY
Since it opened in 1937 as the Boise Gallery of Art, the museum has sought to exhibit Idaho artists.
An annual Idaho Art Exhibit started in the mid-1950s. As the museum grew, added galleries and began running exhibits for longer durations, programming became more complicated. So, the annual became a biennial in 1979 and triennial in 1991.
Some artists felt it as a slight when the museum cut back to every three years, but Boise Art Museum curator Sandy Harthorn says it was a practical concern.
If we were still doing the annuals, the Idaho show would be every fourth show, she says. By the time we would be taking it down, artists would be submitting for the next one.
Since moving to every three years, the show has hit its stride. It happens often enough to satisfy the art audience without overdoing it and allows artists enough time to create new bodies of work in between.
In the time between Triennials, the museum works to exhibit Idaho artists whenever it can, Harthorn says.
In the past few years, Boise artists Troy Passey, Karen Woods, Charles Gill, Kirsten Furlong and Renda Palmer, Caldwell artist Garth Claassen, Moscow artist Marilyn Lysohir and others have been featured in solo and group shows. Harthorn also weaves Idaho artists into shows that pull from the museums permanent collection. Several of those pieces were put in the collection after the artist won a Triennial.
Shows like the Triennial can trace their history to 18th century Paris, where salons were created to lionize the artists from the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the French national art academy, says Boise State art history professor Craig Peariso, who specializes in contemporary art.
The 18th century was a time of national antagonisms and rivalries, so saying Frances culture was better than, say, Englands was sort of the point, Peariso says.
Those shows also became points of contention in the Paris art world. Artists working in new styles or who focused on questionable subject matter such as Manet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne were rejected. That led to the Salon des Refuses of 1863, an exhibition of rejects at the command of Napoleon III, that offered these artists a chance to show their scandalous work.
Biennials became popular in the 1990s as shows such as the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and others in cities such as Istanbul and Shanghai became internationally prominent. Museums started offering these types of shows to establish themselves as cultural hubs and to attract tourists.
Of course, the point today is not to suggest that art in Idaho is better than in Washington or Oregon, Peariso says; however, comparisons are inescapable.
PERSPECTIVE OF SUBJECTIVITY
Getting into the Triennial is a subjective experience. The museum brings in experienced, out-of-state jurors, who then choose the best art from their own perspective.
So, this show is more a reflection of Laing-Malcolmsons aesthetic than of any quantitative measurement of quality, which she freely admits.
When you invite a guest curator, you invite that persons vision, she says. I want to show people what I see as the strongest work of what I saw across media.
Laing-Malcolmsons creativity is steeped in the Northwest and Intermountain sensibilities. Once a practicing artist, Laing-Malcolmson delved into curation for the first time in Bozeman, Mont., where she earned her masters degree in fine arts at Montana State University. She put together the first hometown show of wood and metal horses by the now internationally known sculptor Deborah Butterfield.
Thats when Laing-Malcolmson discovered that her true artistic calling was not creating her own works. It was showing other artists to their best advantage, something shes done in the Northwest throughout her career.
Laing-Malcolmson also spent time in Idaho and proudly reports that shes fished nearly every river in the state. From her position at the Portland Art Museum she curates work from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Shes currently putting together a show of new work by Boise painter Charles Gill, who was a finalist for the Portland museums 2011 Contemporary Northwest Art Awards that Laing-Malcolmson curates. That show comes with the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize.
The Idaho artists she already knows are those whom gallerists and museum directors have nominated for awards.
Judging the Triennial has been good for Laing-Malcolmson because she saw the work of 222 Idaho artists, she says. Its also been good for the artists who get their work seen by an important regional curator.
This gave me a much broader view of whats happening in the state because its an open call, Laing-Malcolmson says.
Working from digital images, Laing-Malcolmson went through three tiers of judging the work first just looking at the work with no connection to a name or artist statement.
I eliminated more than half in that first go-round people who look like hobby artists, and who dont really belong at a show of this level, she said.
The second time through, she looks at size, scale and media, looking for opportunities to use more than one piece per artist. (About 30 percent of the artists will show more than one piece.)
Then she looks at how the pieces relate to each other. Thats when she starts to read resumes and statements. For the last cut she considers the square footage, wall space and shape of the galleries, even though she wont be on hand for the installation.
That will be handled by head curator Harthorn and her staff.
Im going to be surprised when I see it up, Laing-Malcolmson says.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Harthorn started at the Boise Art Museum in the mid-1970s, and after more than 200 shows, she knows its walls well. Still, hanging this or any Triennial comes with the particular challenge of working with many artists across different media.
Harthorn starts with a map of the galleries, on which she installs thumbnail images of the work to get an idea of how the pieces might hang together. Of course, she wont really know until all the art arrives at the museum and is unpacked. She starts placing the largest pieces first, which usually means the installations.
Because this Triennial contains multiple pieces by the same artist, those works must stick together. At the same time, Harthorn wants to keep the diversity of the medium throughout.
Im looking for a balance I look at relationships. In some ways theyre like a musical score; they go from one note to another, and there is a rhythm to it that you can pick up on.
She knows theyve hit it when after a night she can walk into a gallery and it just feels right.
Being in a Triennial can open doors.
Amy Westover, who has three pieces in this one, made her Triennial debut in 2001. She didnt win an award, but it did give her an entrance into the world of public art. Shes done several pieces Downtown and at the Boise WaterShed interpretive center in the past 12 years. This is her second Idaho Triennial.
Besides the cash prizes that range from $250 to $1,000, the museum sometimes will purchase a piece from the exhibit for its permanent collection. And many artists have received their first solo show after being part of a Triennial. Sound artist Ted Apel received a solo show in 2006 after winning the Jurors Award in 2004.
For many artists, it is the first time their work is seen in an accredited museum and is included in a high-quality catalog. So, many of them have a love/hate relationship with it.
Its a crapshoot, says Binion, who is in his second Triennial. I dont put any pressure on myself. You either get in or you dont. If you dont, all youve wasted is the 25 bucks, and if you do get in, you feel really good about yourself.
NOT WITHOUT CONTROVERSY
In 2001, Philip Brookman, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., selected a Triennial show that ruffled feathers because it contained no traditional artwork. The community had a strong reaction and organized a real Salon des Refuses.
In 2004, juror Arthur C. Danto, who died last month at 89, was one of the countrys foremost art philosophers, writers and critics. He came to Boise to curate a show for the first time. The result was an interesting mix of new and nontraditional media, abstract painting, craft, sound sculpture and robotic art not a landscape in the bunch. Another Salon des Refuses was put together in what is now R. Grey Jewelry Gallery in BoDo. Both events turned out to be a great night for art in Boise.
In 2010, the museum received a grant for the Triennial that required it to have a theme. The museum chose Sustain + Expand, in an attempt to speak to contemporary interests and allow a flexibility of interpretation.
Many artists didnt embrace the idea, and some, including Binion, didnt even apply that year. From that, Seattle curator Beth Sellars chose 45 artists work from 157 who applied.
Some of us are reactionary that way, Binion says. We do the knee jerk and then we calm down. It was just one more thing. But now I realize I probably had work that would fit that idea.
Most jurors today work from digital images, and that can become a factor. Its hard to see textures and get a real sense of scale in a jpeg. But thats the reality of the art world today, Harthorn says.
In 2007, the museum received a grant to send then-juror and BAM associate curator Amy Pence-Brown to artists studios throughout the state over the course of three months for her final cut.
The result was an extremely solid show. Theres nothing like seeing the actual work, Harthorn says.
Laing-Malcolmson was selected as the juror because of her expertise in Northwest art.
She put together a wonderfully cohesive group of work, Harthorn says. I think this (is) one of our strongest yet.
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Blogs.IdahoStatesman.com/ArtsBeat.