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Feeling Petty About the Art World? This Biennial Is For You

Two Chicago curators intervene on behalf of artists marginalized by mainstream art fairs.

This spring, one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions opened: the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale. Countries from around the globe built pavilions and commissioned artists to address the concerns of that nation and the world. Yet, half a world away in Chicago, two young curators named La Kiesha Leek and Sadie Woods were staging their own venerable show called The Petty Biennial at the University of Chicago's Arts Incubator in Washington Park.


The Petty Biennial is not a biennial , or even a biennale, in the traditional sense. It's a one-off curatorial project that the curators consider "an intervention." Inside the space, run by artist Theaster Gates, the curators are displaying the work of seventeen artists showcasing regional and national perspectives unique to North and Central America and the Caribbean. The videos, paintings, performances, photography, and installations on view by artists like Ricardo Gamboa, NIC Kay, Alicia Everett, and Stephanie Graham aim to explore and complicate portrayals of gender, class, and race in communities of color.

Darryl Terrell, Untitled (Dion #2), 2016, Archival inkjet print. 36 x 41 in

"The Petty Biennial is a result of conversations surrounding regional curatorial practices and working within communities of difference: Black and Brown artists, queer and gender minorities, and women," says Woods. Some critics argue that regionalism is an outdated exhibition framework, and their viewpoint also inspired the project. "In this Biennial format, we are centering these communities of artists through hyper-visible representation, presenting work that comes from a lived experience and is reflective of our sociopolitical climate."

Woods and Leek see the exhibition as a platform for artists' concerns surrounding regional identities and politics they feel have been marginalized by institutional structures. The Petty Biennial is an "effort to decolonize the canon of, and what is valued in, contemporary art," the curators explain, following the legacy of artists like Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser whose practices are concerned with institutional critique.


Ricardo Gamboa, Fag Fucking is Prettier Than Yo Mama, 2017, Watercolor painting, Dimensions variable.

Ricardo Gamboa's watercolor, Fag Fucking is Prettier Than Yo Mama, is a delicate scene depicting brown men having sex, which complicates notions of love and intimacy. The Chicago-based artist is invested in gender abolition through a queer, Latino, male lens. Darryl Terrell's photograph, Untitled (Dion #2), of three partially clothed black males, and Oli Rodriguez' queer print, Eros st Psyche (La Seducción Fetal), which appropriates the style of 19th century painting, seems aligned with Gamboa's gender-fucking politics. All three of their works, like a lot of the art on view, considers the politics of the body through self-representation.

The show also features a selection of exceptional video works that deal with the intersection of labor, gender, violence, and race. Arif Smith's series of short video works such as BCLK from his Biscuit series, uses cleverly cut found footage to explore shifting perspectives on black identity, by collapsing contemporary imagery with Black Power-era clips of Richard Pryor, James Baldwin, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross. Indira Allegra's Open Casket: Half Couch 1, turns the 9-1-1 calls, cell phone audio, and news interviews that result from police brutality into ahorrifying soundscape.

Maya Mackrandilal, knife/woman, 2017, HD Video with sound 11:34.

"We wanted to include Maya Mackrandilal's video in this exhibition because of her deep commitment to creating work that problematizes a patriarchal society," the curators say, in a joint statement. "The potency of her work embodies a multilayered testimony about being a woman, broken, and other. Her language is vivid, and felt." In one portion of the video, knife/woman, considered a three part poem, she says, "A girl can only be brutalized so much before she becomes a goddess." The line, according to the curators, "reminds the viewer and herself that change is the only thing that is constant, and surviving and reclaiming freedom positions us one step closer to dismantling a cis male dominated culture."


"Sometime you have to turn a concept or a structure on its head or inside out to better understand it for yourself," explains Leek. "We asked ourselves, what was the pettiest move that we could possibly make as a result of resistance toward the censorship of marginalized folks?" She says the answer was to amplify the voices that they see engaging their identities in contexts rarely acknowledged by the art world. "Sometimes your contemporary moment and lived experience is not just your own, but in fact, a contribution towards a shift in society. It's what the artists in this exhibition are responding to," says Leek. "We want The Petty Biennial to be a safe space that welcomes truths, ratchetness, and humorousness and that celebrates and complicates."

Elizabeth Axtman, "Cosby Jazz Art #15"

Oli Rodriguez, "Eros et Psyche"

Stephanie Graham, All Praise to Pelle, 2017, Archival prints, gold frames. 20 x 24 in.

The Petty Biennial continues through June 23 at the University of Chicago's Arts Incubator in Washington Park. Click here for more information.


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