One of the great opportunities Venice affords is the chance for artists to fully transform a space. Nearly every pavilion gets a complete makeover every two years, but this came to mind particularly when looking at the exceptions. Take Canada’s Steven Shearer, a well-known painter and sculptor represented by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. He’s worked in large formats before. In 2008, he produced a bad boy metal-music flop of a show at The New Museum that included a giant room-sized cube made of black PVC pipe. This year though, only a tiny bronze maquette of this same piece was on display in the Pavilion and it looked like it was for sale. Add to this, a vetrine full of sub-standard sketchs and a poem in which the individual words did more to express the abject than their combination, and you’ve got a pavilion people will discuss almost entirely in the negative.
Having never understood the appeal of Steven Shearer’s figurative paintings, I told a friend at the Biennale that Canada’s choice of shows was the rough equivalent of the United States asking Elizabeth Peyton to fill their pavilion. In both cases, only a few pieces in their body of work go any way towards explaining their accolades. That aside, given artists’ predictable transformative interests and viewers’ predictable approval, it’s worth asking whether any painter – particularly one working in small formats – can compete.
It’s a dangerous bet, but I’d guess the best small Hernan Bas paintings would hold their own Pavilion. Other names on that list include Thomas Nozkowski (USA), Alice Neel (USA), Neo Rauch (Germany), Tomma Abts (British) and Katherina Wulff (Germany), Whether they could win a Golden Lion is another question, mind you — a lot of politics inform the awards, and I don’t claim to understand what they are — but in a climate in which the goal is to produce a pavilion that stands out, their work would do so very economically.