8th International Florence Biennale

by Stavros Pavlides, January 2012

The Invitational Firenze Biennale takes place in the Fortezza da Basso, an old military fortress-cum-convention center, that is a beautiful if somewhat isolated venue. The show itself, in scope, size and architecture, recalled the New York Armory show, with its sprawling corridors and looming artwork. Their content however is markedly different: Whereas the Armory boasts a sensory overload of ironic statement and brash imagery, the work in the Biennale was of a milder, comparatively modest temperament. For one, scarce was the use of alternative mediums, the vast majority of the work consisting of representational oil/acrylic paintings in their various permutations, and the occasional accent of experimentation being primarily formalistic, a play on a familiar tune rather than a startling new instrument.

Billur Varli’s collage harbors, for example, while pretty, were re-interpretations of a very common Mediterranean theme. A painting of the Mona Lisa with Leonardo’s own countenance replacing that of the Giaconda was well executed but exceedingly pedestrian in its content. The profusion of lackluster still-life and straightforward landscapes in such abundance was equally mystifying, and there was simply an inexcusable surplus of horse paintings.

If such a critique seems overly harsh, the blame lies heavily with the curators of the show and their apparent torpor in selecting wisely. There was indeed much to love, most notably the virtuosic impasto landscapes of Kristina Assarsson, the soft and warm handling of Stacha Stawiarski’s paintings, the loving obsessiveness of Marco Lanfredi’s sculpture, the brightness of Sophia Asimopoulou’s “mosaics” and the arresting naivety of Vagner Anticeto’s “Don Quixote” painting, but even these valuable works of art revolved around familiar themes, canvas-bound and two dimensional.

Shock and awe are not prerequisites for a successful show, and to suggest as much through comparisons with the Armory would be facetious. There is no Platonic art show to delegate imperfections, but there is variety and there is homogeneity, the fresh and the rehashed, and in Florence the scale weighed heavily in the latter direction. Excluding three or four specific pieces, there was nothing that was overly offensive, nor anything startling or preposterous. The artwork steered clear of the jugular,instead digging into established tropes to produce a viewing experience that was as pleasant and agreeable as it was forgettable.

It is very much worth noting however that unlike Scope or the Armory, the artists in the Biennale were not all professionals, and many a hobbyist paid out of his or her pocket for the chance to exhibit their work in Florence. This suggests that much of the work came from a different place than its bigger, more commercial brethren. What the work lacked in agenda, coercion and seduction, it made up for in unabashed craftsmanship. Participation came at a blistering cost that most were not likely to see any returns on, and in light of this and the effort and eagerness exhibited, it is hard not to admire the lack of conventional wisdom and enthusiasm displayed by the artists.

Certainly the opportunity for distinction and commercial exposure teased every participant on some level, but ultimately the failings of the work, rather than the triumphs, revealed a commendable naivety and even a purity of artistic expression.

8th International Florence Biennale
3—11 December 2011
Fortezza da Basso