Interview: Michael Duncan

by Katie Anania & Katie Geha

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      Jayne Lawrence
      Integument (detail), 2008
      Graphite, watercolor and colored pencil on Lenox
      48 x 48 inches
      Courtesy the artist

      Michael Duncan, an L.A.-based independent curator and critic, chatted with ...might be good over email about his experience curating the Texas Biennial this year.

      …might be good: What criteria did you have in mind when selecting artists for the Texas Biennial?

      Michael Duncan: Since the group shows are based on open submissions, I wanted my selections to be as broad-minded as possible. Of course, my own prejudices came into play as well. I happen to respond best to figurative and narrative work but I made room for abstraction and a few conceptual pieces. I tried to include work in as many mediums as possible: painting, sculpture, crafts, ceramics, installation, printmaking, photography, performance and video.

      …mbg: As you traveled around Texas visiting artist's studios, were there certain themes that re-emerged throughout the artists' work?

      MD: The themes don’t seem specific to Texas art. Some of the recurring themes center on the fragmentation of the human body, a skewed sense of nature, celebratory ornamentation and a sense of place and displacement.

      …mbg: On the Texas Biennial website, you compare the Texas art scene to that of Los Angeles in 1991, when you began writing and curating in that region. You comment on the "deep spiritual integrity" and "free-spirited thinking" of Texas artists and imply that many of these artists are marginalized by the larger art world. What are the stakes of romanticizing or essentializing this region, that is, casting Texas as a nascent, "Wild West" climate that is underdeveloped with respect to other, larger cities?

      MD: I think celebrating the idea of independent thinking is a healthy thing to do. All visual artists in our mass-media-dominated, dumb-dumb culture are “Wild West” pioneers of thought and image. I’m happy to essentialize good visual artists as being independent free-thinkers. Texas just seems to me a more independent, less brainwashed locus for art-making today. I do feel that the art in the Texas Biennial is fresher than most of what I've seen in LA galleries in the past three years. Too much there is trendy, ponderous, attitudinal, sloppy, solipsistic, boring or hateful. I like the opposite of all those things.

      …mbg: To perhaps efface the last question (I love doing that), you do put certain "regional" artists into broader art historical contexts in your curatorial statement. If you were constructing an imaginary show to include someone like Kelly Fearing—a show that would travel and might be exhibited at larger venues—what might such a show look like?

      MD: A show including works by Kelly Fearing would center on meditative, spiritually evocative nature studies and portraits. The exhibition might also include works by Morris Graves, Melissa Miller, John Wilde, Jared French, Sarah Canright, Tom Knechtel, Thomas Woodruff, Pajama, John Paul Jones, Julie Heffernan, Joan Brown, Gregory Gillespie, Gertrude Abercrombie, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. If only an American museum had the nerve to present such a radical show.

      …mbg: What have been the advantages and disadvantages of putting the Biennial in the hands of a single curator from outside of the state, rather than, say, a curator more familiar with Texas-based artists?

      MD: The only real prejudice in the selection process was an attempt to make the show less Austin-centric. The Biennial needs funds to help promote the show during submission season so that more artists across the state know about it. It must be stressed that the funding for the Texas Biennial is miniscule and the project has relied almost solely on the good spirit and generosity of its organizers.

      I hope the Texas Biennial continues next time with a solo curator. It was certainly fun and a real revitalization for me.

      …mbg: If you had to choose a title for this Biennial, what might that title be?

      MD: Art is Big.

      Katie Anania is a curatorial researcher at Fluent~Collaborative and an assistant editor of ...might be good.

      Katie Geha is pursuing a Ph.D. in art history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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