Friday, March 23, 2012

The 2012 Whitney Biennial

By Charles Kessler

I know it's weird, but I like Whitney Biennials. I like learning about new art and artists, and I especially like the arguments that arise from the shows. The main problem I’ve had with past Biennials, and large group shows in general (e.g. The Armory Show), is there’s so much art competing for attention that only flashy spectacles — usually expensive ones — succeed in getting our attention. But these kinds of extravaganzas are so common now that they’ve become stale. Not only is there none of that in this Biennial, but, to the credit of curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, this is a not a Biennial of blue chip artists from blue chip galleries. Instead the work seems sincere, unpretentious and intimate — intimate in that it’s hand-made, DIY work and thus more personal than art done by assistants or fabricated in a factory.

But, unlike Roberta Smith who thinks this is “One of the best Whitney Biennials in recent memory,” or Peter Schjeldahl who wrote it was “...decidedly among the best ever,” (sorry, no link — New Yorker paywall), I think this show is pretty lame. There’s plenty of okay work, but there’s very little that’s new or inspiring.

It’s possible that this kind of unpretentious and intimate art works best on a modest scale, and in a venue where the expectations aren’t so high — a place like the Dependent art fair, for instance. But off the top of my head I can think of several artists who would be better: Shane Hope, B. Wurtz, David Altmejd, Charles Garabedian, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Judy Pfaff, and videos by John Miller, Victor Alimpiev and Cliff Evans. And if they want to revive an artist or two or three, how about Alan Saret, David Park, John McLaughlin or the film-makers James Nares or Klause Vom Bruch?

The installation and performance art in particular (and there’s a lot of it) looks tired and self-indulgent. Los Angeles artist Dawn Kasper moved all her belongings to the third floor and will be using the space as her studio for the duration of the Biennial. This is an idea that has to go back to Lascaux. Marina Abramovic and about a hundred other artists have done it before. And Kasper's own work, at least from what I can see of it in the clutter, looks like warmed-over Los Angeles feminist art from the 1970’s. 
Installation view of Dawn Kasper (in the plaid shirt), This Could Be Something If I’d Let It, 2012 Whitney Biennial.
Judith Koether presented some truly awful 1980's-style East Village-type paintings around one of the Whitney’s signature windows forming an installation that I guess was to make them look avant-garde or something.
Installation view of Judith Koether, The Seasons, 2011, synthetic polymer and oil on glass.
And then there’s Joanna Malinowska who re-interpreted a Joseph Beuys performance into an American-Indian ritual and also converted Duchamps’s bottle rack into a stack of faux bison tusks. If there such a thing as sophisticated kitsch this is it.
Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial (photograph © Paula Court and courtesy the Whitney Museum)
The fourth floor is given over to the creation and rehearsal of dance performances by Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark. (For more on these dances check out Aaron Mattocks’s series of articles for Hyperallergic.) Are the Biennial curators claiming that the creation of art, the choreographing and rehearsal of a dance, is art in itself? If so, is it worth showing in a forum that’s supposed to include the best and newest art? Besides, let's face it, like most creative enterprises, choreographing a dance is a slow, deliberative, trial-and-error process and painfully boring to watch.

At the risk of being accused of being a Bushwick booster, I recently saw a better solution than watching live rehearsals, in a group show of Bushwick art called “What I Know” organized by Jason Andrew at NYCAM (New York Center for Art and Media Studies). It was an 8-minute video by choreographer Julia K. Gleich set to a score by Nico Muhly, entitled 14 Seconds. It condensed the development and rehearsal of a dance so that one could actually see the evolution. (This video can be seen by appointment at the Norte Maar gallery.)

(I noticed a minor but interesting problem. Because these dancers are not used to breaking the fourth wall, they studiously avoided eye contact even when they weren't rehearsing — not that I blame them; it’s embarrassing. But that’s the position they were put in — awkward all around. At least Dawn Kasper wasn’t bothered by it since she seems to be naturally outgoing.)

I guess you can call the two artist-curated exhibitions within the exhibition a type of installation art. Nick Mauss installed an eccentric section of art from the Whitney’s collection and, more successfully, Robert Gober presented the work of the self-trained, visionary artist Forrest Bess. This is nice and interesting, but what has it to do with the Biennial?  Are they saying curating, if it’s done by artists, is a new art form? And again, if so, is it worth showing in this forum?

One work getting universal acclaim is Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul, a five-screen digital projection of the landscape etchings of the relatively unknown 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers. It is set to exquisitely beautiful music: a haunting hymn sung in the Wolof language of Sub-Saharan Africa; a Handel aria; and music by the Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger. Critics report they were moved to tears. I, on the other hand, felt manipulated. With that music, ANYTHING would be moving, and almost anything else besides five close-ups of landscape etchings would be deeper and more interesting. Why do we accept this kind of heavy-handed schmaltz on film or video but not with the other visual arts? Take a look of this clip of Ernst Reijseger chewing the scenery (overacting) to see what I mean. 

The painting, photography and collage selections are better, if also somewhat antiquated. And it’s to the Whitney’s credit that this time they offered enough space for a lot of work by each artist. But keeping the space open, supposedly to allow for the interaction of work by different artists, makes it difficult to focus on one artist at a time. Not surprisingly, artists with their own rooms, or at least a corner to themselves, have been getting raves — Nicole Eisenman, for example. 
Nichole Eisenman, mixed media monotypes, 2011.
But as impressed as I am with her facility, I can’t help feeling I’ve seen work like this that's been around since the 1920's (German Expressionism for example). And Andrew Masullo has also been getting praise, and I do like his work, but come on, hasn’t this type of abstraction been around since at least the 1940’s? And why is he arbitrarily limiting his pallet to tube colors?
Andrew Masuillio, installation view via ArtFagCity, 2012 Whitney Biennial
I really liked the tiny hand-made sculptures of Matt Hoyl, and although he didn’t have his own room or even a corner, I think because the work was so small they created their own worlds — worlds separate from the Biennial distractions. But even this work isn’t particularly unique. Donald Lipski (his early wall pieces) and others have done similar sculpture, and usually with more humor.
Installation view of Matt Hoyt, Component Objects, 2010. Mixed media. Collection of the artist.
Behind the space where the dance rehearsals were taking place is an installation I unreservedly loved: Wu Tsang’s Green Room, a replica of a green room in a Los Angeles Latin tranny bar (which also sometimes serves as an actual green room for the dancers). The installation includes a video interview with the owners of the bar and with some of the drag performers. The hot colors, dark, close quarters and over-stuffed interior made for an intense experience, and perhaps the only unique one at this Biennial.
Wu Tsang, Green Room, 2012


Kyle Gallup said...

Hahaha! Charles, your review of the Biennial gave me a couple of chuckles. Thank you! Highlights for me were Forrest Bess(did not know his work before this and just saw the group of paintings up for sale at Christies today) and Nicole Eisenman's paintings. There were a couple of other artist's work that impressed me on my quick run through a couple of weeks ago but now have vaporized in my mind. I hope to go back and take another look around.

grouchom1977 said...

I can still smell the musty smell of the Baroque Gallery you have a pic. of in the MFA, Boston, even though I haven't stepped foot in it for over 8 years... I hope Philip IV and Zubaran's Monk are still doing wel