Cu­ra­tor trav­eled 11,000 miles over seven weeks to se­lect works for the Texas Bi­en­nial.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Luke Quin­ton

The plan for the Texas Bi­en­nial was that it would be, you know … bi­en­nial. But whether it was fund­ing and lo­gis­tics, or just a cri­sis of pur­pose, it has been four years since the last un­der­tak­ing of the statewide sur­vey of vis­ual art.

In­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor Les­lie Moody Cas­tro says art crit­ics and cul­tural mavens in var­i­ous pock­ets of Texas sus­pected out loud that maybe this was for the best.

They had thoughts: “That the bi­en­nial in the past was too cen­tered on the cities and didn’t reach out into the smaller cen­ters. It wasn’t trans­par­ent, it didn’t pri­or­i­tize (its own) open call to artists, and there wasn’t a great ges­ture to un­der­stand the whole state’s arts com­mu­ni­ties.”

This, says Cas­tro, was the ba­sic cri­tique be­ing lev­eled at the bi­en­nial from peo­ple such as Lub­bock artist Jon Whit­fill. Ouch. Sur­pris­ingly, though, Cas­tro ac­tu­ally agreed.

“Totally! I did, and I had my own crit­i­cisms, too. Why was it in so many venues? Why were there so many cu­ra­tors? It was just stuck in this an­ti­quated vi­sion of what a bi­en­nial should be,” she says. “I was grate­ful to hear it. I needed to hear it.”

There are hun­dreds of bi­en­ni­als, from Is­tan­bul to Ha­vana. When Austin’s Big Medium arts or­ga­ni­za­tion made the first Texas Bi­en­nial in 2005, as­pir­ing to make a Texas ver­sion of a provoca­tive,

mean­ing­ful sur­vey of art — a la orig­i­nal Venice Bi­en­nale — it was un­ques­tion­ably worth a try to stake out the state as a place where art is made.

So when a de­ci­sion was made to restart the Texas Bi­en­nial once again, Cas­tro, who splits her time be­tween Austin and Mex­ico City, got to work re­think­ing things. After con­sult­ing with the event’s crit­ics, it seemed to her that, as the first post-hia­tus cu­ra­tor, she needed to re­spond by shap­ing an event that was less about ap­peal­ing to bour­geois tastemak­ers and more ac­ces­si­ble to artists. Be­cause, she says, “that’s who we’re serv­ing.”

To do that, over the sum­mer she fired up her 15-yearold Mit­subishi Galant and hit the road for a sev­en­week tour of the art com­mu­ni­ties of Texas.

“I think we did more than 11,000 miles,” Cas­tro says. She, along with friends and fel­low cu­ra­tors, vis­ited 26 towns and con­nected with 200 artists and arts part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions. It would bring her through Cor­pus Christi, Brownsville, Huntsville, Lub­bock, Tyler — and, be­cause they had ex­panded the call for artists to in­clude 10 miles out­side the Texas bor­der, Cas­tro also made stops in Juarez and Mata­moros.

It was seven weeks of mo­tels and fam­ily and friends’ houses, with just a cou­ple of days’ break at home in Austin. A road­weary Texan might ask, what was she think­ing?

“I ask my­self that ev­ery day,” Moody says with a laugh.

In­stead of pick­ing which stu­dios to visit, Cas­tro tapped into the Bi­en­nial’s net­work of part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions and vis­ited stu­dios that in­vited her, a sub­tle ges­ture of re­lin­quish­ing con­trol.

Cas­tro doc­u­mented her experiences on the Bi­en­nial’s web­site, and it’s a rich doc­u­ment of the scope of who’s mak­ing art in Texas. Joe Peña’s story stands out. As Cas­tro tells it, Peña, a Cor­pus Christi painter and teacher, was at some­thing of a cre­ative stand­still. “He al­most had writer’s block,” she says.

Peña was eat­ing menudo at his fam­ily’s home when he was struck with a thought.

“He saw the texture of the meat, and it was so vis­ceral and raw,” Cas­tro says. “So he de­cided to buy a bunch of raw meat, take it home, and paint it.”

Peña, a re­al­ist painter, took his brush to his own sur­round­ings, the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in Cor­pus.

Along with his tex­tu­ral paint­ings of meat, Peña painted taco trucks in a style Cas­tro calls Car­avag­gio-es­que, after the great Ital­ian painter. In one, the truck glows with a soft light. A cook has her back to us. The rest of the scene is dark. It’s al­most re­li­gious.

“They’re so clas­si­cal and so metic­u­lous,” Cas­tro says.

Cas­tro’s road trip took a cue from an­other event called the Peo­ple’s Bi­en­nial, where artists come to the cu­ra­tors. “They ba­si­cally set out a fold­ing ta­ble and in­vited peo­ple to come show their work,” she says.

The re­sults of this jour­ney — liv­ing in the mo­ment, plan­ning the next stu­dio visit and fi­nally re­flect­ing on the vis­its for the blog — sound both ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ex­haust­ing.

“I stayed in friends’ homes, I stayed in re­ally bad mo­tels, I stayed in a mu­seum,” Cas­tro says.

“I was in past, present, fu­ture at once,” she says. “I was telling peo­ple to have a good week­end on a Tues­day.”

She vis­ited Marfa for the first time (which seems in­cred­i­ble, given that town’s pull and Cas­tro’s ré­sumé as a cu­ra­tor) and con­nected with cities and towns in ways she did not ex­pect.

“We got lost ev­ery­where in Ed­in­burg,” she says, be­cause her home­town’s roads were un­der con­struc­tion. “We missed ev­ery sin­gle exit we had to take in Dal­las.”

“I re­ally fell in love with Lub­bock and Laredo,” she says, an odd cou­ple if ever there was one.

In Lub­bock she saw a tightly knit art com­mu­nity, where 5,000 peo­ple come out for the First Fri­day art walk.

“Laredo, it’s a bor­der town, but it’s seam­less. I spoke more Span­ish there than any­where else,” she says. Her ho­tel room win­dow stared di­rectly over the bor­der bridge.

Her trips to the bor­der towns revealed the other side of the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate. In Juarez, she says, “there is a mil­i­tancy there that’s quite pro­found,” a sort of ex­is­ten­tial dread of the fu­ture, in a town that was once joined to its Amer­i­can sis­ter city by a sim­ple trol­ley.

The re­sult of all this is a sin­gle show of work by the 33 artists Cas­tro se­lected. And few will be sur­prised to hear that after a se­lec­tion process that re­jected the think­ing of a white­walled art gallery, the show is lo­cated in a ware­house space be­hind a work­ing fur­ni­ture store just off South Con­gress Av­enue.

In Bi­en­ni­als of the past, Cas­tro says, “there were a lot of re­peated names, and I wanted to avoid that.”

How, she asks, “do you rep­re­sent eq­uity, not only ge­o­graph­i­cally, but cul­tur­ally?”

Of the artists she’s cho­sen, some like San An­to­nio’s Cruz Or­tiz seem fa­mil­iar, while some don’t even have web­sites.

But even Or­tiz, she points out, has never been in the Bi­en­nial be­fore.

Cas­tro’s picks for the Bi­en­nial are a mix of for­mal, ironic sculp­tors, like Dal­las’ Erin Stafford, and scruffier artists like Or­tiz, whose work is less of an in­tel­lec­tual pur­suit, hung on a wall, and more an in­ter­ac­tion with a com­mu­nity.

Cas­tro’s road trip fi­nally hit a wall in her fam­ily’s home. “I ac­tu­ally got to eat a home­made meal,” she says. “Some­thing about the com­fort about just be­ing whome that makes you re­ally not want to work.”

She sums up her art-find­ing mis­sion with a pic­ture of a state that tends to be hard to frame.

“I got a tat­too in San An­to­nio, which my mom hated,” she says. “I had Sal­vado­ran food in Huntsville, Mex­i­can in Amar­illo, Venezue­lan food in Mid­land, and Cuban food in Laredo.

“I had the en­tire state tak­ing care of me.”

In­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor Les­lie Moody Cas­tro took a seven-week tour of the art com­mu­ni­ties of Texas to find works to fea­ture in the Texas Bi­en­nial.

“Mar­facello (Jef­fer­Judd)” (2017) by Nick Bar­bee.

“Un­ti­tled (PPR43)” (2016) by Max Man­ning.


Rabea Ballin’s “Remix­ing Del­phine” (2017) is part of the Texas Bi­en­nial 2017.

Erin Stafford, “Sen­ti­men­tal Of­fer­ings of Trade and Com­merce” (2015).


Cather­ine Allen, “Build­ing 3” (2016).

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