- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

When artists took paintings off the walls and projected them into surrounding spaces, as with cubists Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braques' 1920s collages, it was just a matter of time until art enveloped its audiences witness the free-standing, 3-D environments and installations of today.
Associated with this kind of art is the philosophy that ideas or concepts about art are more important than their physical representations. When Jonathan P. Binstock, curator of contemporary art for the Corcoran Gallery of Art was organizing the "47th Corcoran Biennial: Fantasy Underfoot," he naturally looked to art that had broken free of traditional boundaries.
Actually, Mr. Binstock's move was not so natural. The Corcoran held its first biennial of paintings in 1907, and its emphasis on painting has traveled through several decades. The focus continued, but the museum began encouraging more experimental work in the later biennials.
Then, in 1995 with the 44th biennial, artists demonstrated their breakthrough into other media. The exhibit caught up, somewhat belatedly, with the times. Sculpture and installation art were "in," 2-D painting "out." Finally, the 46th biennial of 2000 showed artists revolting against former aesthetic and philosophic principles and turning to new technologies.
Mr. Binstock's biennial continues this but with a twist. The exhibit of works by 13 artists from Canada and the United States is by no means a "head trip," but it requires viewers to tie in with the show's conceptual focus to explore the ideas behind the ideas. The biennial also requires a love of the photography and video mediums used by many conceptual artists.
Look, also, for the haunted and otherworldly. The mysterious pervades Bruce Nauman's videos, "Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage)"; "The Paradise Institute" by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Ken Feingold's sculptural installations that speak; Susan Smith-Pinelo's "Dances With Hip Hop"; and Bruce Yonemoto's two-room "global" installation. Mr. Feingold and Mr. Yonemoto use videos only as parts of their works.
Kojo Griffin (paintings of threatening anthropomorphic menageries), Canadian Marcel Dzama (gouaches of absurd scenes and people), and Mr. Feingold (animatronic mannequins who have existential discussions with each other) embrace universal fears of loss and victimization. They do it in paintings on paper, miniature gouaches and mannequins that speak.
Mr. Binstock demonstrates that conceptual art can be funny with Nancy Davidson's gigantic, site-specific "Double Exposure." Ms. Davidson made it of red, inflatable weather balloon material and floated it above the Corcoran's grand, two-story entrance. She lit it from within and suspended it with strong handmade blue rope.
"I look to humor and the grotesque for inspiration," the sculptor says. The oversized forms can be interpreted as what Mr. Binstock calls "buoyant breasts and salacious bottoms."
Yet, when viewed from below, the sculpture seems womblike and nurturing. From above, it could represent some kind of bound erotica. Obviously, it's a challenging work set in a dramatic space.
Tim Hawkinson used water, electricity and sound in "Drip," a work he created especially for the Corcoran. It's both funny and threatening as drops of water, powered by electrical valves, fall to different surfaces. He used electricity and water to create a huge, almost-ceiling-high sea monster.
When visitors listen to the syncopated rhythms, they can become apprehensive. Danger seems to lurk everywhere, but the irregular gasps of the mechanical apparatus also will make viewers laugh.
Jacob El Hanani's ink drawings, made with compulsively repeated geometric marks, letters, words, lists, figures, symbols and many multifaceted details, do not really fit into the conceptual framework of the biennial. Neither do Linda Bessemer's remarkable abstractions created with no support surfaces. Photographer Nigel Poor shows connections between people in the Corcoran's rotunda.
They comprise part of Mr. Binstock's stated biennial mission to represent as many generations and locales of artists possible. Mr. Hanani, 55, hails from Casablanca, Morocco, and now lives in New York. Ms. Bessemer, 45, was born in South Bend, Ind., and works in Los Angeles. Ms. Poor was born in Boston and lives and works in San Francisco.
The curator offers interesting reasons for making a show like this. "I had a tough time finding a title for the biennial. The artists are different, but connected. On the one hand, 'Fantasy Underfoot' presents artists whose pieces are conceptual, abstract, and imaginary. On the other, the works suggest fantasy, and the abstract world of ideas are in today's art world, concrete matters, issues of the here and now," he says.
His ideas are challenging, but the art is more so. Visitors will find it impossible not to discover a work they like and that stimulates them. The biennial is multifaceted, but one theme runs throughout: Life is mystical and unexplainable. As is this art that tries to interpret it.

WHAT: "The 47th Corcoran Biennial: Fantasy Underfoot"
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street at New York Avenue SW
WHEN: Open daily, except Tues., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 9 p.m. Thurs. Closed Tuesdays. Exhibit closes March 10.
TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 students with valid ID
PHONE: 202/639-1700

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