If ever there were a middle-of-the-road exhibition, this year’s Whitney Biennial is it. In the spirit of an Obama promise for ‘Change’ and to ostensibly try to please everyone—traditional nattering nabob art critics included—guest curator Francesco Bonami and Whitney senior curatorial assistant Gary Carrion-Murayari transformed, with a few standout exceptions, what is usually a messy and colorful cacophony of coloratura voices all fighting to be heard, into a relatively tame and well-ordered blue-haired lady. This latest effort by the Whitney appears to lack pizzazz, speaking mostly in low, hushed tones and preferring dressed-down matinees to paparazzi-fueled, red carpet openings.Fine Arts Magazine
Outwardly, the change in tailoring is obvious. There are fewer artists on view than usual. Most of the film and videos are on one floor, and art that one could call entertaining, compelling, brave, gay, cutting edge, obscene, or breaking new ground (if appearing at all!) has been kept to a minimum. The change du jour is on the 5th floor. Here, celebrating the seventy-fifth Whitney Biennial are fifty works–many textbook famous–culled from past Annual and Biennial exhibitions. It is interesting to note that the first Biennial in 1932 boasted the work of 358, predominantly male, artists. This year’s, PC-to-a-fault, seems to have bent over backward to equally balance gender, generation, and various artistic practices, among a mere 55 exhibiting artists.
While the curators claimed to have scoured the country for artists who truly represent the year 2010, “We thought that geographic boundaries and limitations would help to build a more defined exhibition. We stopped at the Pacific Ocean, the Mexican border, the Atlantic coast, and the Canadian border,” as the catalogue describes. The majority of those selected for the Biennial live in the nationally-recognized art centers of New York (31), Los Angeles (11) and Chicago (4). Most of the works on view are from the artists’ collections. Some 60% are listed as ‘courtesy of’ their galleries. Underscoring the mind-set of the Biennial curators, they write, “We looked to Hawaii, but without success; we did not feel too bad, though, since Hawaii is celebrated by leaving the coolest artist of all in the White House.”
In an exhibition with so few works, and so much space in which to contemplate the installations, it is initially easy to separate the ‘diamonds’ from the ‘costume jewelry.’ As with the last two Biennials, the strongest works fall into the video category. Perhaps this is because both eyes and ears are forced to focus, thereby absorbing more content. Josephine Meckler’s wordless video (on DVD), Mall of America (2009) is an interpretation of American retail culture today. It is an other-worldly examination of conspicuous consumption in saturated hues of red, blue and yellow. Slowly panning a large mall, nearly void of people, the camera moves from store displays, to escalators, to amusement rides, the visual tour heightened with eerie background music. One could imagine being in a wax museum, rather than a shopping center that hosts nearly forty-million people a year.
At the other end of the spectrum—loud and brassy—is Marianne Vitale’s in-your-face video Patron (2009). Staring directly into the camera, this filmmaker and performance artist, obviously having a grand old time, spends eight minutes screaming a litany of commands to the viewer. Ironically welcoming us to “The Future of Neutralism,” she orders us to stand up, open our mouths, recite tongue twisters and spit at the ceiling.
On the more contemplative side, quoting a Joseph Beuy’s 1972 performance piece, is Bruce High Quality Foundation’s ambulance-cum-hearse installation, We Like America and America Likes Us (2010). YouTube video clips, Hollywood movies and new media flash across the windshield while a poetically-scripted female voiceover, referring to America variously as lover, family member and friend, exposes the strengths and weaknesses of our country; which in no small way reflect our very own, as well.
Lorraine O’Grady’s, The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010) occupies the same gallery as the hearse. In a series of three side by side diptychs taken at different times during their short lives, O’Grady compares the meteoric rise and fall of Michael Jackson to that of Baudelaire. Sharing similar traits: they were both perfectionists, flamboyant in their dress, sexually ambiguous, addicted to drugs, died young, and were skewered by the media for openly expressing lifestyles and beliefs. As social commentary, the artist examines the roles of art and popular culture, as well as how modern figures are presented, flattened, and distributed through the news media. Though simply presented—as is O’Grady’s style—her ideas are both subtle and in-your-face, complex but not complicated.
Not unlike like Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina film, When The Levies Broke, seen at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, the socially-relevant, viscerally-brutal work of two photojournalists is included in the mix: Stephanie Sinclair’s series, Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help (2005) documenting women who, in acts of desperation, set themselves on fire; while Nina Berman’s series Marine Wedding (2006/2008) – commissioned by People magazine – follows the heart-wrenching life of Ty, whose face was blown off by a suicide bomber attack. The experience of looking at both is painful.
Drawing additional attention to the human body – perhaps the subtheme of the Biennial – are the videos of Jesse Aron Green, Rashaad Newsome, and Kelly Nipper. In, Artzliche Zimmeregymnastic (Medicalized Indoor Gymnastics (2008), Green choreographs sixteen male performers to execute forty-five exercises from an 1858, “health and vigor of body and mind” manual, used well into the 1920s as a guide to moral behavior. Newsome’s, Untitled (New Way), 2009, features dancers known for their voguing abilities. The dance had its origins in New York City’s gay ballroom culture during the 1960s and ‘70s and his video highlights these various dancing styles. Through imaginative editing that removes the performances from their historical context, the artist creates a new dance composed entirely of abstract movements. In Nipper’s similar video, Weather Center (2009), dancer Taisha Paggett emulates the stylized gestures and movements of early modern dance pioneer, Mary Wigman.
Curtis Mann’s, After the Dust, Second View (Beirut), 2009, a large, gridded assemblage of 120 altered photographic images, documents the thirty-three day war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Using common household bleach, Mann erases most of the original image. All the viewer is left with—primarily at the edge of each photograph—are a few random details of objects and people in a city devastated by war. His transformation of photojournalistic record-keeping, gathered on the Internet, from places he himself has not visited, moves personal grief and hardship into the realm of abstraction, much like our own experience of tragedy being reported from places far removed from our comfortable, daily lives.
One of the most inexplicably satisfying works of art on view–arguably more arts and craft tha,n art–is Jessica Jackson Hutchens’ obsessively-collaged installation, Couch For a Long Time (2000). Returning to the Obama reference, I can appreciate the curatorial point that his image may be practically unavoidable in today’s world. Hutchens has plastered her childhood living room sofa with hundreds of his photos, taken from newspapers. Several ceramic sculptures rest on the couch: two are vessels and two resemble severed limbs. As one critic wrote about Hutchins’ work in an earlier exhibition, it is, “steeped in a California funk attitude. Her papier-mâché sculptures and collages share a crass aesthetic and a preoccupation, with the thin line between disaster and success that disguise a genuine attempt to convey ideas about communion, fear and loneliness.”
The same indeed, can be said for much of the work in this current Whitney Biennial.
by Edward Rubin, Contributing Writer
Edward Rubin is a writer-photographer whose writings appear regularly in various magazines such as Sculpture, ArtUS, Canadian Art, d’art International, Hispanic Outlook, and NY Arts Magazines. Mr. Rubin is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), Outer Critics Circle (an organization of writers on the New York theatre for out-of-town newspapers, national publications, and other media), the Drama Desk and the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). When he is not art-viewing, he is reviewing theatre for NY Theatre Wire, and Hi! Drama, a Time Warner cable TV show, based in New York City.