• When Less Replaces Mess

    Date posted: August 31, 2010 Author: jolanta
    If ever there was a middle-of-the-road exhibition, (read Sandra Bullock minus the Jesse James scandal), this Whitney Biennial is it. In an effort to pull off an “Obama Change” and ostensibly please everybody, traditional, nattering, nabob art critics included, guest curator, Francesco Bonami, and Whitney senior curatorial assistant, Gary Carrion-Murayari, with a few standout exceptions, turned 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, one that lacks color, speaks mostly in low hushed tones, and prefers dressed-down matinees rather than paparazzo-fueled red carpet openings.

    Edward Rubin

    If ever there was a middle-of-the-road exhibition, (read Sandra Bullock minus the Jesse James scandal), this Whitney Biennial is it. In an effort to pull off an “Obama Change” and ostensibly please everybody, traditional, nattering, nabob art critics included, guest curator, Francesco Bonami, and Whitney senior curatorial assistant, Gary Carrion-Murayari, with a few standout exceptions, turned 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, one that lacks color, speaks mostly in low hushed tones, and prefers dressed-down matinees rather than paparazzo-fueled red carpet openings.

    Outwardly the change in tailoring is obvious. There are fewer artists on view than usual. Most of the films 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 75th edition of the Whitney Biennial are 50 works, many textbook-famous, culled from past biennial and annual exhibitions. It is interesting to note that the first biennial held in 1932 boasted the work of 358, predominately male artists. This biennial, politically correct to a fault, seems to have bent over backwards to equally balance gender, generation, and various artistic practices, among the 55 exhibiting artists.

    While the curators claimed to have scoured the country in search of artists that 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,” the majority of the artists selected for the biennial live in the art cities of New York (31), Los Angeles (11), and Chicago (4). Most of the works on view are from the collection of the artist, while some 60 percent are listed as courtesy of their gallery. Underscoring the mind-set of the biennial the curators go on to 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 to contemplate them in, it is easy, at least initially, as some works take longer to register, to separate the diamonds from the costume jewelry. As usual, thinking of the last two biennials, the strongest works fall into the video category. Perhaps this is because both eyes and ears are forced to focus. Josephine Meckler’s wordless video, transferred to DVD, Mall of America (2009), a cultural indication of what this country is about, is an otherworldly examination of conspicuous consumption in saturated hues of red, blue, and yellow. Slowly panning a near peopleless mall from stores displays, to escalators, to an amusement rides, with eerie music in the background, one would think we were in some kind of wax museum rather than a shopping mall that plays host to 40 million people a year.

    On the other end of the spectrum, loud and brassy, is Marianne Vitale’s in-your-face video Patron (2009). Staring directly into the camera, the filmmaker and performance artist, obviously having a grand old time, spends some 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 front window while a poetically scripted female voiceover, treating America variously as a lover, a family member, and a friend, exposes the strengths and weaknesses of our country, which in no small way turn out to be ours as well.

    Occupying the same gallery as the hearse is Lorraine O’Grady’s The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010). Simple, subtle, and tellingly clever by half, 75-year-old O’Grady, the oldest artist in the exhibition, in a series of photographs taken at different times during their short lives, compares the meteoric rise and fall of Michael Jackson to that of Baudelaire. She could have chosen Elvis, or for that matter, any one of us and made the same point. On the gruesome shock and awe side, adding a bit social relevance, as well as blood and guts, like Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina film When The Levies Broke, which was shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, the work of two photojournalists have been added to the mix. Stephanie Sinclair’s series, Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help (2005) document 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 during a suicide bomber’s attack. Both are painful to look at.

    Also drawing attention to the 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, using 16 male performers to execute 45 exercises taken from an 1858 “health and vigor of body and mind” book, one used well into the 1920s as a guide to moral behavior. In Untitled (New Way), 2009, Newsome using dancers known for their voguing abilities (the dance had its origins in New York’s gay ballroom culture during the 1960s and 1970s) recorded their various dancing styles. Through the process of editing, which removed these performances from their historical context, the artist created a new dance composed entirely of abstract movements. In Nipper’s, somewhat similar video, Weather Center (2009), dancer Taisha Paggett emulates the stylized gestures and movements of early modern dance pioneer, Mary Wigman.

    One of the most unexplainably satisfying works of art on view, arguably more arts and craft than art, is Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ obsessively collaged installation Couch For a Long Time (2000). Going back to the theme of Obama, I understand her point; as a touchstone the image of Obama is hard to avoid. Hutchins has covered her childhood living room couch with hundreds of photos of Obama taken from newspapers. Resting on the couch are several ceramic sculptures. Two are vessels, and two resemble severed limbs. As one critic wrote about her work, “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 thing can be said about much of the work in this year’s biennial.

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