Sigmar Polke installation at the Biennale

Most of us who attended the Biennale’s three press days last week agreed that this is the best Biennale we had seen in years.

There are several reasons for this. First, many of the leading nations have made their best curatorial picks in a long time…Second, the artistic director of this year’s Biennale was Robert Storr, the former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Now dean of the Yale University School of Art, he is indisputably one of the great curators working today, making exhibitions that display both a high degree of aesthetic discrimination, a depth of historical understanding and an impeccable sense of timing.

The German artist Sigmar Polke has been granted the most prestigious spot in the exhibition – the large, sunlit central gallery of the pavilion, in which he is showing enormous semi-transparent bronze-coloured canvases that look like glazed or oiled skins. These are encrusted here and there with imagery drawn from historical illustrations or the history of art. (The figures looked to my eye like explorers or philosophers, some like angels.) Standing back to enjoy these works, you can sometimes see through to the wooden struts that support the canvas from behind. Artifice and the means by which it is made are interpolated, and you find your mind shuttling between the courtly art of the grand European tradition and the primitive imperatives of nomadic cultures. Polke’s vision is encyclopedic.

Around the corner, Storr has installed a killer lineup: Ellsworth Kelly from the U.S. (showing crisp, split-level abstractions), Germany’s Gerhard Richter (a suite of massive multicolored pictures made by scraping pigment sideways on the canvas surface, often suggesting corrupted digital or photographic imagery) and Robert Ryman, the American master of the white-on-white canvas, who is showing new works subtly edged in blue. Taken as a whole, this lineup of senior statesmen seems to demonstrate the vast psychological and aesthetic terrain that painting can cover with the simplest of means – just paint and canvas. Engaging our senses with colour, texture and composition, Storr’s battalion of master painters lays siege to the mind.

Storr never seems to tire of defending painting, but sometimes this enthusiasm leads to uncharacteristic lapses in discrimination. The only weak moments in his show, in fact, occur in the painting department, where he included his long-time American favourites Elizabeth Murray (garish extravaganzas that are to me inexplicable) and Susan Rothenberg (rough-hewn horse paintings that likewise seem a bit dim), and a number of lesser known painters who fail to pass muster (such as Izumi Kato from Japan and Thomas Nozkowski from the United States).

The balance of the show, however – the sculpture, photography and projection works – more than make up for this. A theme emerges: Storr versus CNN. Taken as a whole, this exhibition presents a kind of sustained resistance to the smarmy platitudes and easy generalizations of the media, which so effectively gloss over the jagged edges of confusion, human tragedy and loss. Truth is to be found, Storr seems to suggest, not in grand and sweeping rhetoric. Rather, it is lodged in the nitty-gritty of lived experience, which art can make us witness to…

One of the ironies of the Biennale is that you walk from inside these galleries, where political and emotional trauma are so often the subject of art, into the blaze of the Venetian afternoon, with its pigeons, its fruit stands, its gondolieri singing Volare and its delirious tourists spooning up their hot-pink gelato di fragola in great melting spoonfuls. The contrast can be corrosive.

Storr has managed to select artists whose handling of dark themes is untainted by sensationalism and glibness, and that’s no mean feat in today’s art world. The works hold up, even against all this supreme silliness. Considering the show in retrospect, you feel chastened and inspired to expect more from art, and to think a little more rigorously about how we live. This show’s intelligence leaves a taste in your mouth that not even ice-cold Prosecco can wash away.

Sarah Milroy
Globe and Mail