Florence Biennale XI (2017)
Across the street from my Florence hotel there is a vast complex, the Fortezza de Basso, behind high yellow-brown brick walls. It is a space large enough for an expansive exhibition of juried contemporary art submitted by artists from around the world.
This year the variety of artists and media is rich, almost overwhelming. I wandered the indoor space and allowed the art to get to me, as much without filter as possible. I am an art lover and an art agnostic (that’s polite for ignoramus/dead amateur). I took one art course in college, during my final semester, and adored it without in the least understanding what it was about. We called it “Spots and Dots,” we clever undergraduates, and it formed the foundation of all my viewing ever since. “The surfaceness of the picture surface” (Clement Greenberg, I believe) has never left me, nor do I understand the phrase. I seek out art galleries and museums relentlessly, hoping finally for something to bubble from my brain beyond “Wow.”
The entirety of this large show did move me to tears. The inescapable message from this collection of artists mostly younger than I am is “Whither the world?” The sorrow and pain emitted by these paintings and sculptures, the installations, was somewhat mitigated by — I must say — the lovely coffee bar, the applause from the auditorium where awards were being given, and the cheerful expressions on the attendees’ faces — not to mention the large hairy dog gamely slipping and sliding across the glassy floor. There was actually less humor than I’ve come to expect from contemporary artists — on the whole, or taken as a whole, I mean — and much raw grief. I am grateful and agonized at the grace of the artists’ presentations and their horror at life as they see it. Art is not easy. Some art does lie or slither away from angst, sex, exploitation, domination, and disaster. Some doesn’t. These artists insist on being heard, and I think what I took away yet again is a renewed conviction that what we show matters. Just witnessing matters.
These paintings by Breger, invoking animal losses and desperation in Africa, are to me both arrestingly lyrical and anguish-filled. The previous painting, by Corrado, may give the lie to my statement on the relative dearth of humor in the show. In fact it is not surprising to learn that Corrado practices across a range of media, including cartoons and illustrations meant for children. Not just an echo of Munch, the painting spoke to me as a scholar of psychotherapy because of its graphic capture of the most horrific of our sleepless hours.
This painting by Leticia Marcos seems, judging by her website, somewhat atypical — her others tend to be landscapes and cityscapes, often rendered with vertical brush strokes and incomplete borders. I love those. I also found this one stunning, and of a piece with the paintings by Breger, in blurring the boundaries between human and animal, and depicting loss and sorrow.
This sculpture, “Sacrifice,” by Jiri Netik, is “older” — 2005. There was also a sculpture garden outside the main building, for large pieces like this one, by Gianfranco Meggiato:
And here is the entrance to the exhibition hall:
From the sublime to the ridiculous: the organizers followed a practice I have found common in Europe of one day-one ticket-one entrance. This is stupid and significantly decreases the viewer’s pleasure and ability to absorb the art. You cannot come early in the morning, study the pieces, then leave for lunch and return, perhaps with an eighteen-year-old who sleeps later than you do, without paying twice. I cry unfair, adding my woe to that of the artists I’ve spoken of. Finally, I find that the judges and I are in complete disagreement about the highlights of the show. Maybe it’s because I only took one art course in college. This is my comeuppance. But I stick to my choices.