Visual Art 12-10-2007

Seeing the 3-D Biennial at the Minnesota Museum of American Art

Ann Klefstad takes her jaundiced eyes to the MMAA 3-D Biennial II. It’s up through February 3 at the Minnesota Museum on Kellogg Avenue in downtown St. Paul. Call 651-266-1030 for hours and information, or go to


The 3-D Biennial is how sculptors assess the state of their art in the state, every four years. (And why is a biennial every four years? Because it alternates with a 2-D Biennial. So each is every four years, even though there’s a show every two years. Yes, it’s a little confusing. Could we do with more? Sure.)

And the state of sculpture right now—at least in terms of juror Jennifer Jankauskas’s selections (she’s associate curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin)—is very different from four years ago. The last version of this show was mainly constituted of works in pretty conventional media: bronze, cast iron, ceramic, wood—some cloth, some paper, but mostly works made, let’s say, “artfully.” Stephen Woodward, John Orth, Marie Olofsdottir, Charles Mattson Lume, a number of others including (full disclosure) myself—we all had an orientation to “well-made object” sculpture as well as, frequently, a conceptual or spatial component to the work.

This year’s show, in contrast (and I didn’t apply for this one), is mostly made up of works that exist mainly as idea, and only kind of incidentally seize on stuff to make their points. Rags and ropes, sand and snippets of paper, a huddle of expandable lengths of vent piping, a collection of plastic bags with rocks in them: they all set themselves to recalibrate your experience of the everyday built environment. Experience me, they say, and you’ll never quite have the same blind assumptions about stuff again.

Unfortunately, a lot of the works didn’t quite do what they claimed for themselves—it’s hard for stuff-in-the-world to seem more special than other stuff-in-the-world. As Peter Schjeldahl recently wrote in his November New Yorker review of Martin Puryear’s show at MoMA (incidentally a fantastic show, the best that a sculptor could do at the very present moment), “The show reminds me that the frequent downfall of contemporary sculpture… has been the question of how anything can presume to be extra special just by showing up in a world that is already more than full enough.”

Fortunately, there are some things that live up to their intentions—mostly the mischievous ones. Jack Pavlik’s Six Bands, a wildly kinetic machine of flapping steel bands that could easily take a finger off, if not put your eye out, is quite beautifully made and an effective presence. Ruben Nusz’s imminently flaming wastebasket (it got thrown away once) has a seemingly burning, fat golden pillar candle submerged in a tin wastebasket stuffed with papers—some with interesting headlines. It’s called Fear of Loss. David Bowen reprises one of his Island-of-Doctor-Moreau-if-Moreau-Was-a-Botanist pieces—little bamboo plants are plugged into a network of wires and sensors that give them trembling and agonized movement. Asia Ward’s perverse little stuffed animals that move are right next door. And Pete Driessen, a painter, has a great collection of piratical little crude white ships with his hypnotic glyphs inscribed on them—maybe not great art, but great toys, all.

And maybe that’s what sculpture is called to be, nowadays. Our relationship with the physical world of objects in this class-divided society, where the rich and the rest of us diverge farther every day, is a bad-faith relationship. The rich spend twenty thousand dollars on dessert; the rest of us buy throwaway objects—breakable furniture and sweatshop clothes—that barely meet the function they’re made for. Maybe a joking relationship with the built world is the best we can hope for.

About the reviewer: Ann Klefstad is staff writer on arts and entertainment for Duluth News-Tribune and was’s founding editor. She is a member of the Visual Arts Critics Union of Minnesota.

What: Minnesota Museum of American Art 3-D Biennial
Where: Minnesota Museum of American Art, Saint Paul, MN
When: Exhibition runs through February 3, 2008