People’s Gallery and Biennial

Bob Newland’s photographs on view at the People’s Gallery capture the agony and ecstasy of the American rodeo. These are not idealized or stylized portraits of the American West. Shot at rodeos mostly in South Dakota between 1977 and 1984, these stark black-and-white prints convey the sport’s immediacy and violence. Taken from the floor of the arena, they bring viewers to the center of the action—much closer than even the spectators who were actually there. Instead of iconic images of American freedom and individuality, as images of the rodeo are often interpreted to be, Newland’s photographs proffer a more ambiguous perspective of individuals struggling with animals and seldom emerging victorious.

The photographs themselves tell only half of the exhibition’s story, however. This series is not new, after all, and Newland has all but abandoned art photography since these photographs were taken, instead focusing on art in other media, commercial photography, and marijuana advocacy, among other pursuits. The prints on display at the People’s Gallery have been in storage in the artist’s garage for years, and many of them bear signs of wear. The reason for the re-examination of this series lies in the mission statement behind the People’s Gallery, which is itself an extension of the People’s Biennial.

Conceived by Jens Hoffman, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and artist Harrell Fletcher, the People’s Biennial is a response to the increasingly insular nature of contemporary biennials, which tend to focus on work from a few cities by artists already entrenched in the established art world. As an alternative, Hoffmann and Fletcher selected five artists from each of five cities outside of the contemporary art orbit: Portland, Oregon; Haverford, Pennsylvania; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Newland’s Rapid City, South Dakota. The artists are both those who are considered outsider artists and those whose work—like Newland’s—is due for a critical reappraisal. The People’s Biennial will travel between these five cities in institutions that “must be in locations that lie outside mainstream art centers, but in places where art nonetheless thrives.”1

The People’s Gallery, organized by Fletcher, Hoffman, and Jana Blankenship, exists as an offshoot of the People’s Biennial. It will be open for only one year and will provide six artists featured in the exhibition with an opportunity to show their work commercially in a professional setting in which they may have never exhibited. The organizers cite two touchstones: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which serves to give voice to those disenfranchised by traditional histories, and art collective Group Material’s 1981 exhibition People’s Choice, which highlighted work from residents living on the same New York City block as Group Material’s storefront.

Undoubtedly, the established art world is too often an insider’s club, closed off to all but a few outsider artists who are welcomed into the canon, such as Grandma Moses or Henry Darger. Looking beyond rigidly defined artistic channels has often been a productive way to enliven staid practices. Artists, writers, and curators have historically rebelled against such confining systems, whether they are the academic restrictions of nineteenth-century France or the elitist gallery scene of 1980s SoHo. And now the People’s Gallery and Biennial are situated within this lineage.

What this exhibition is missing, however, is a clear contextual foundation. Although Blankenship gave me a thorough explanation of the gallery’s origins and mission, without this there was little information at the gallery that situated it and the exhibition within a larger framework. It’s not clear why the organizers chose these five cities and these twenty-five artists. Though the curators undoubtedly had good reasons as they visited each location, their research is not evident at the gallery. If the People’s Biennial and Gallery seeks to shift the focus away from isolated metropolitan centers to a more locally and community-oriented art experience, why not showcase local artists who work outside of the established San Francisco gallery scene? Indeed, was this not the focus of Group Material’s original exhibition—the striving for a connection between the group’s art practice and their community?

Though I applaud the organizers of the People’s Gallery and Biennial for bringing an alternative perspective to the traditional biennial format, it is unreasonable to expect this project to fulfill the overwhelming mandate to give voice to a nation of disenfranchised and overlooked artists. The mention of Zinn’s History, while perhaps an influential work, may distract from that at which the gallery actually succeeds. The goal the creators set for themselves is admirable, especially given the valid criticism that art institutions are increasingly out of touch with a general audience, and they deserve credit for simply attempting to bridge the gap between isolated art enclaves and the areas in between, where art is no doubt created and appreciated. Though they do not provide the definitive answer for challenging art-world elitism, the People’s Biennial does add a thoughtful voice to the conversation. And, in a way, Newland’s photos at the People’s Gallery are a fitting opening show for this project; both attempt to give agency to those toiling on the peripheries, against the odds, but the efforts of which reward contemplation.

A longer version of this review was originally published as “Bob Newland and the People’s Biennial”
on Art Practical.
1 People’s Biennial, curatorial statement. Independent Curators International.Bob Newland was on view at People’s Gallery, San Francisco, CA, March 19-May 7, 2011.
Images courtesy of People’s Gallery.

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