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Art in the Shadow of Trump at the Texas Biennial

The 2017 Texas Biennial offers work from Texans around the state and across the border.

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"Building #3," by Catherine Allen, on the left. "Juegos Fronteras: Watch Tower Slide," by Angel Cabrales (photo by Jordan Gentry), on the right.
Catherine Allen, Jordan Gentry

A few days after Donald Trump’s election in November, as liberals lamented the outcome in the press and on social media, an idea emerged to console those reluctantly steeling themselves for an uncertain future: at least art gets better under right-wing presidents. It was a controversial argument then, but now, almost a year later, the question beckons anew. For better or worse, has the Texas art world changed in the Trump era? The 2017 Texas Biennial, an Austin-based survey of recent visual art from around the state, offers an interesting test case.

Viewers encountering a politically barbed work like Angel Cabrales’s Juegos Fronteras: Watch Tower Slide at the Biennial could be forgiven for seeing it as a response to a Trump-era challenge to make visual art sharp, audacious, and meaningful again. As the title suggests, Cabrales’ sculpture reinterprets a children’s playground slide as a prison watchtower, complete with chain link, forbidding black paint, and high-wattage lights. “You can see the sentiment of what the playground is, it’s visibly there, but it’s completely closed off,” explains Leslie Moody Castro, curator of the Biennial, which opens September 30 in Austin. “You can’t get up the ladder, and you can’t walk up the slide.” The result is a potent allusion to the militarized U.S-Mexico border—and a commentary on the situation of current generations growing up there, or anywhere in the U.S., along dividing lines of ethnic identity.

Cabrales’s sculpture was not, however, inspired by the election of Trump. It dates back to 2013, before the wall became a presidential rallying cry. A humbler border wall had already been built by then in Sunland Park, New Mexico, the El Paso suburb where Cabrales grew up. One day, exploring a mesa area where he and his brother had roamed as children, Cabrales discovered that a favorite play area had been split in half by a border wall. He responded by constructing an entire playground set with swings and monkey bars, all unusable, cordoned off by chain link and wire.

Texas political art, one might say, was already great before our current president came to office. For many Texans, including many of the state’s artists, Trumpism has simply meant that the rest of the country is facing up to recent Texas-style politics writ large. It helps, however, to have a newfound audience for this kind of work in places like Austin—and, to serve that audience, curators willing to go the extra mile to find fresh voices.

Run by Austin arts hub Big Medium, the Texas Biennial has gone up every other year from 2005 to 2013. (It took 2015 off amid concerns about legitimacy.) This year, Moody Castro was brought in to renovate the brand. “The Biennial had taken a lot of a criticism over how things were run in the past,” she says. “I would hear things from other art communities, in Dallas or Houston or San Antonio or what have you, of the Biennial being very insular, very Austin-focused, not really having as much equity as it could. So I was coming to the table knowing all of these things, and knowing that that was the starting place that I needed to work with in order to bring the Biennial to a place that was a healthy foundation.”

Under Moody Castro’s direction, the curation process this year was more transparent and democratic. The Biennial set an open call for submissions, attracting over 1200 applications and culminating with a seven-week road trip during which Moody Castro visited over 200 artist studios in 27 cities and towns in every corner of the state. “I had to put a clear timeline on it,” she says. “Otherwise I would never have stopped driving.”

In what feels like a response to the current divisive political atmosphere, Moody Castro also opened the call to artists living within ten miles of any Texas border. “It was a gesture of addressing the fact that the state is itinerant,” she says. “People come from everywhere; people are moving in and out.” The final selection includes artists from Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez.

The result of all her outreach is a survey with a deep commitment to both geographical and cultural diversity. The vision of Texas that emerges from the work of the 33 selected artists expands beyond the mythology of cowboys and lawmen, cheerleaders and barbecue. These are new, often radically personal ways of looking at Texas, movingly authentic and capable of broadening how we see our current state of flux.

For Moody Castro, Trump’s presidency acts as a call for cross-cultural understanding and exposure. “I feel very connected to own my identity as a person of color and my identity as a female right now more than I ever have, almost to the point of militancy,” she says. “So yes, I think that the Latin-American, Hispanic, and border conversation is a really important one. But I think it’s also really important to recognize that there are other groups that are dealing with identity issues in this state as well. The Mexico-Texas border isn’t just the only border that exists. There are also cultural borders, ideological borders.”

The rough edges of Texan self-definition can be seen in works by Houston’s Rabea Ballin, who uses African-American women’s hair fashion as a muse for exploring the limits and confines of identity, and the works of San Antonio’s Jennifer Ling Datchuk, whose work also involves hair but whose inspiration comes from an Asian-American cultural context. Catherine Allen of Midland paints rural landscapes interrupted by large modern multi-story buildings, complicating the pastoral stereotype of Texas beyond its big cities; Joe Peña of Corpus Christi makes meticulous oil paintings, steeped in art history, depicting late-night taco stands. For good measure, Jarred Elrod of Lubbock does engage with football—but critically, with helmet mock-ups for teams like the “Galveston GMOs.”

Because of its reflection of the frightening current political climate, the most gripping commentary in the 2017 Biennial tends to address border and immigration issues. For instance, Fabiola Valenzuela of Grand Prairie, one of the youngest artists in the show, contributes Study Questions, an installation that she originally exhibited at Gallery 76102 in Fort Worth. Her full installation features three cakes, each decorated with an edible transfer of a different official naturalization letter from one of the three previous presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Each letter, Valenzuela implies, contains a different idea of American identity. Exhibition viewers in Fort Worth were invited to consume the cakes in a participatory performance meant to mirror a celebration of Valenzuela’s father’s naturalization, organized by his coworkers, with a cake decorated with an American flag. What are immigrants supposed to make, Valenzuela seems to ask, of the competing ideas of American identity fed to them by the parties and factions rotating in and out of political power?

The 2017 Texas Biennial isn’t just a notable survey of new work in the early Trump era. It’s also an admirable attempt to heat-map the cultural scene of the increasingly contested state of Texas, a giant red state that shifted left while the rest of the country tacked right in 2016, the only “majority-minority” state that consistently elects Republicans in statewide elections, and the home of a long international border that could someday include Trump’s wall.

Andrew Breitbart, founder of the Breitbart News Network, coined a phrase often repeated on the Trump-era right: “Politics is downstream from culture.” This year’s Biennial should be essential viewing for those interested in tracking the ideas and energies now making their way downstream from the Red River to the Rio Grande. If Texas art does, in fact, get better, more political, and more vital under Trump, what other forms of participation, turnout, and energy might follow in its wake?

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