Marfa and Terlingua artists open exhibitions at the Texas Biennial

(Dis) Associated, a digital photograph made by Marfa-based artist Xavier McFarlin in 2020. McFarlin’s work is on display at the McNay Art Museum as one of the artists selected for this year’s Texas Biennial. Courtesy of Xavier McFarlin

WEST TEXAS – The 2021 Texas Biennial officially opened Wednesday, and this year’s event, A New Landscape, A Possible Horizon, is more expansive than ever, filling art spaces in San Antonio and Houston and representing 51 artists who were born in Texas or now call it home. Two artists from West Texas were selected for this year’s art show: Xavier McFarlin from Marfa and Jarrod Beck from Terlingua are both exhibiting at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, and the biennial works are on display through January 2022.

McFarlin moved to Marfa in August of 2019 as an intern at the Judd Foundation, later joining the staff as the catalogue raisonne research assistant. Born in Germany and raised between Aoimori and Okinawa, Japan, his photographs involve an intricate building of worlds that introduce a cast of cyborgs using elaborate costumes, sets, greenscreen and photo manipulation to get to his final image. At the McNay, those images are printed on aluminum and inlaid into the wall.

“I’m in a lot of my work, but I play different roles in my work. In this work, I’m playing a character that I developed here and have been working on for two years,” McFarlin explained. There’s a variety of ways his life in Marfa has been informing his work lately. He describes his latest character as a guardian, tinged with the look of a “prepper,” someone preparing for an apocalyptic future.

“Are they protecting themselves or are they over-paranoid?” McFarlin asks. “Oftentimes I feel like being a queer person of color in the desert – am I protecting myself or do I need protection?” The work addresses erasure and survival but interweaves glamour and cheekiness and a healthy portion of futurism.

There’s challenges to making work as an artist in Marfa, McFarlin said, pointing to the isolation and the economics of life in the small art town, along with the difficulties of accessing high quality equipment and coordinating logistics. But he’s also found a community of support – recently Eugene Binder lent his space to the artist to prepare and execute a photoshoot. 

Discussing the work in his biennial exhibition, he said, “I feel like it’s a collage of different things that have the architecture of materials that are prominent here, mixed with some landscapes of Japan.”

He often thinks about how his understanding and attraction to things could be influenced by the Tokyo fashion he spent his adolescence around, but more so than recognizing the trends, McFarlin is mirroring how he wants to see himself. The clothing choices he makes for the cyborgs are pretty close to how he wants to be seen.

“When I look at the cyborgs, I want them to feel like a part of myself, but also not – I never think of them as self portraits,” McFarlin said. “I think it’s about living out your fantasy and that aspect of reality where everyone should be accepted for who they are,” the artist said. 

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Joining McFarlin from West Texas is Beck, who splits his time between the dusty outpost of Terlingua and the bustling city of Los Angeles. In his exhibition for the biennial, he mounted 28 cast iron sculptures ranging from 2 to 7 feet tall and installed them on a sloping hill of a sculpture garden. Each is unique, poured into wooden molds the artist created, which burn up as the iron is poured inside.

Each work captures the ecstatic, dynamic movement of the materials meeting. As he explained it, “The mold explodes as the iron hits it, so there’s this moment where the iron is hot and fast and the wood is just barely trying to hold together as much as it can but it’s in flames.” The iron forms and the mold disintegrates. “I’m using those materials to capture that moment of fragility and it’s a state change.”

The chaotically-shaped sculptures are placed into a geometrical order. Over the past year, he’s seen so many people lining up, waiting for tests and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he’s drawn from that experience. “I think there’s going to be a feeling of that, elements standing together waiting for something. I hope the piece has this state change idea.”

The piece will also be connected to his home in West Texas, where over a decade ago, Beck traded a piece of art for a desolate plot of Terlingua land. He already has a long-term project – entitled “Disruption Regime” – where over the years he has created hundreds of plaster pieces, placed them on the land and allowed the water, wind and cattle that move across the land to be disrupted by the plaster, slowly carving out the earth around them.

“In the course of going out and making it, I pulled my head up and realized West Texas really means something to me,” he said. “I spend a lot of time there walking, meditating, absorbing that landscape and I feel that it’s kind of the well I pull from. When I’m in Terlingua it’s slower, it’s more connected with the ground.”

During the biennial, he’s inviting those who view his work in San Antonio and those who live in West Texas to make an appointment to spend a day on the Terlingua landscape with the artist, walking through the land, finding “almost a non-ordinary moment of reality,” choosing a spot, and letting the participant mark it in some way.

While the iron sculptures show a physical state change of liquid to solid, he hopes to evoke a state change within the Terlingua visitors within themselves through a meditative experience.

“The land we’re going to be doing this on is elevated from other spots, there haven’t been a lot of beings that have moved through that. It feels unmarked,’ Beck said. “It’s an invitation to come from their lives, come from everything going on, come from I-10 and end up somewhere and mark that moment for themselves and hopefully go inside with this meditation.”


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