The second installment of a curatorial project by Jens Hoffmann and Harrell Fletcher, the People’s Biennial 2014 takes a stronger approach to its mission than the first. In 2010, the idea was to highlight five cities in the US that are not art centers and showcase the work of artists working within contemporary art frameworks. This year, selected established artists from all over the US invited a creative person whom they personally know but are outside of the art world to collaborate on an installation within the refurbished Woodward Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. From a brilliant autistic child, to blind woodworker, activists, collectors and outsider artists, the exhibition highlights the value of individual expression, ability and passion of all humans, why that can be artistic and is beautiful as art. So a child’s imagination can be on the same playing field as a celebrated photographer, just as an upholsterer can be exhibited nearby the 2011 Venice Biennale’s US artists.

"The Neckanite" by Carson Ellis and Hank Meloy

“The Neckanite” by Carson Ellis and Hank Meloy

 

Each collaboration is framed by a simple wood shed painted a solid color, equalizing all that is within. Drawings of the duo or collaborative by Studio Stripe accompanies some biographic info and an interview or introduction to the lesser known’s work. The collaborations vary, but in most cases, the established artist tends to take a back seat, marveling at the non artist or marginalized artist’s creative process.

 

Photograph of Xav Leplae

Photograph of Xav Leplae

Scott Reeder and Xav Lepae create a playful booth that evokes a bit of Gary Panter and Wayne White while showcasing the 24/7 radio station Lepae runs. Lee Walton & Harriet Hoover lovingly tell the story of Mr Coppers, a caring man who runs a small upholstery business. The resulting display augments the rich life that he has. Cary Loren and Jimbo Easter, having collaborated before, create a seamless installation that relishes in underwhelming Halloween effects, primitive paper mache and abject piles of junk as pen and ink drawings cover the walls. Dara Friedman chronicles Ishmael Golden Eagle, an amateur archeologist, who serendipitously discovered a significant spiritual well in LA, and whose dedication to preserving it is heroic.

 

Mounting an exhibition of non artists collaborating with established artists will likely yield different results, and not all of them may be visually engaging. This proves to be the exhibition’s only shortcomings, and as it is somewhat expected due to the nature of the exhibition, is minor. Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla and Robert Rabin’s work, as well as Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger’s collaborations suffer from this condition; the latter of each group’s direct activism visually nullified by bland documentation. Some stories are not easily translated visually, especially within regimented structures, but it appears to be through the fault of the established artists collaborating that this has happened.


Opening up dialogue not just about what is art, but what is artful, the exhibition gives equal weight to the pursuits of non artists and marginalized artists. What may draw us to the show are the names of Alec Soth, Cary Loren or Dara Friedman, but what keeps us there is Jimbo Easter, Ishmael Golden Eagle and Mr Coppers. A simple, beautiful message about civilized life, where everyone is equal, every vision is unique and everyone has a story to be told. What we are left with is a more inclusive and open proposal for what the contemporary art world could be.

 

The People’s Biennial is co-curated by Jens Hoffmann and Harrell Fletcher and is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD) from September 12, 2014 – January 4, 2015.

Thomas Friel

Tom Friel is an artist and writer currently based outside of Detroit. He works within the cracks of performance, video, sculpture, sound and drawing, and has shown his work both nationally and internationally.