Welcome Back, deCordova Biennial

“Why would I want to go to a sculpture park in the dead of winter?”

It’s not a bad question, really, but the deCordova is no ordinary sculpture park. As any previous visitor knows, it’s situated on 35 acres of prime, bucolic real estate in Lincoln, complete with hills and valleys and dales, all dotted with massive works by 20th century stars like Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, and Jim Dine. Even if you don’t know the artists well, just strolling through the park and stumbling across this ginormous granite head or this composting paper installation or this surreal take on Pegasus is just a quietly exhilarating experience. It’ll get even more ghostly and strange during future winter seasons, once Andy Goldsworthy’s Snow House is installed.

But the deCordova also recognizes that their mission to be a showcase for New England artists can be fulfilled — while still getting people out to Lincoln in, say, February — by pumping up the museum side of the equation. That’s where its 2012 Biennial comes in, which opens on Sunday and runs through April 22. Not only will there be plenty to see and do there for the four months, but the museum will also run programs throughout the Boston area.

So what is this deCordova Biennial? The first one took place in 2010 and featured 17 artists from all six New England states. It opened with a talk by the insanely intense conceptual/performance artist (and Bates College professor) William Pope.L, most famous for crawling all 22 miles of Broadway in New York City while clad in a Superman suit. Let it not be said that the deCordova plays it safe.

For this year’s exhibit, curators Dina Deitsch and Abigail Ross Goodman visited about 100 studios around New England, scoping out and then choosing the 23 final artists and collaboratives. The important thing to remember here is that these are not household names — these are meant to be artists in our backyard that are relatively unsung, but that the deCordova wouldn’t mind making household names.

Cullen Bryant Washington Jr.“Leverage,” 2010, graphite and acrylic on paper, by Cullen Washington Jr. (Courtesy of Cullen Washington Jr.)

And it’s quite a varied crew: There’s Roxbury’s Cullen Bryant Washington Jr., a recent SMFA grad whose mixed media collages mash up cultural references from across the decades to explore the African American experience. There’s MassArt alum Lauren Kalman, who redefines “body art” by sculpting acupuncture needles, crafting bodices made with pillows, and gilding tongues. There’s textile artist Anna von Mertens of Peterborough, New Hampshire, who portrays star trails in the night sky and Kurt Cobain’s aura on luminous, elaborately stitched, hand-dyed quilts. There’s the striking black-and-white photo still lifes of Boston’s Matthew Gamber; Ghost Radio, the audio collage of paranormal stories (which you can contribute to), by North Adams multimedia maven Ven Voisey; and the bold, ironic signage of Jamaica Plain’s Steve Lambert. And I would be remiss in not mentioning the South End Knitters, who practice the ridiculously arcane but oddly wonderful art of “yarn bombing” — essentially graffiti on public property through knitted work instead of spray paint.

Steve Lambert“Capitalism Works For Me! True/False,” 2011, aluminum and electronics, by Steve Lambert (electronics by Alexander Reben). (Courtesy of the artist and SPACES, Cleveland, Ohio.)

So that’s some pretty neat stuff, and hardly the complete list. In addition to the show at the deCordova, the Biennial will also feature lectures, discussions, and installations at the BCA’s Cyclorama; a mysteriously worded “participatory piece” with Lambert that will take art lovers through the streets of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville; as well as family programs to get the kids totally megapsyched about contemporary art. (I’m not poking fun, that’s how I got into this stuff when I was a wee bairn.)

If I have any quibble, it’s that a few of these artists may have been born in New England, but now work in Chicago or are half-based in Brooklyn. Having transplanted myself out of the region at various times, I am hardly a provincial New England native, but it does appear that there are a couple minor stretches of the New England purview here, when I’m sure some other artist still based here would be deserving.

But that’s a minor complaint that I’m not even living up to. A couple of these not-quite-New England artists are ones that I highlighted above, simply because their work is just cool. And that’s going to be what matters the most. We have perhaps the best contemporary art show of the season opening this weekend, and it’s 95 percent local. So put on some good boots, scrape off your car, and get yourself to Lincoln this winter.