Monday, March 15, 2010

Whitney Biennial 2010

Whitney Biennial 2010

by Tom McGlynn

I’ve been attending Biennials at the Whitney since Eric Fischl was painting little boys on tricycles (knee high to a neo-expressionist) and the most radical painting being shown was the weird “new imagist” work of painters like David True and Neil Jenny. This was in the late 70’s early 80’s at the tail end of the so- called Pluralist period. This was prior to pluralism getting the newer tag of Post- Modernism. What most didn’t conceive of back then was that pluralism was not just another period but a permanent vacation from art fixity and an assumption of epochal significance. The importance of the Biennial is historically linked with this idea of a pluralist potpourri. It’s offered up in vain or valiant attempts to capture a zeitgeist that might define an art moment, or a snapshot of a parallel art world relevant to the meaning of the world at large.

Most reviews of Biennials past talk of the format and venue as cumbersome, parochial and nationally chauvinist in a global world, and therefore bound to disappoint someone or everyone. It’s the show we love to hate. On the night of the opening the Whitney was packed with a human bricolage of love-haters, really tall European couples, diminutive but very rich collectors, artists, and their others. The crowd itself felt as de -associated and as un –cohesive in any significant way as the show. Or perhaps this is the social condition of plurality: the post- modern cocktail party.

The Biennial has been slowly moving toward becoming more of an international venue than one just limited to American artists, as has been its mandate for most of its existence. It seems as if this one is the most international. Artists from Poland (Piotr Uklanski), Germany (Josephine Meckseper) and Japan (Aki Sasamoto) are among the artists with room-sized installations. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that the thematic material dealt with by these specific artists, a super -sized 70’s style jute wall hanging, a video of the Mall of America and a virtual karaoke bar, all could be taken as cultural referents to the world becoming more American rather than the other way around.

There are other works that refer directly to the American scene in the documentary vein of photographers like Bruce Davidson or Nicholas Nixon. Nina Berman’s series of color photographs of a horribly disfigured Marine sergeant, a victim of a roadside bomb in Iraq, attempting to reintegrate into home life are technically nothing to write home about, but they look the repercussions of war unflinchingly in the face. When I saw these first at the opening I found them to be distastefully exploitive, but on a second look I saw their grave relevance to a country largely insulated from the personal damage of the war in Iraq. A similarly disturbing series of photos, although set abroad, by the photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, depicts a burn unit in Afghanistan for women who set themselves on fire in desperate reaction to domestic violence and other aspects of cultural confinement in their culture. In both of these series the very vulnerable human body takes the brunt of abstract ideology, redefining the meaning of subjective/objective truths.

There’s a lot of academically hip filler in this show which probably stands out more since the usual stampede of art and artists (the original Biennial had 358 artists) has been culled down to a modestly rambling 55 individuals and one art collaborative. Much of the video work in the show comes down on either side of the dumb cool/socially crucial divide. Rashaad Newsome offers an example of the dumb cool with his vigorously vogueing moves offered as an anthropological archive of the stylized moment. His video comes off as too studied since the earnestness with which he presents the form of the gay ballroom genre undoes his source material’s inherent evanescent joy. Sharon Hayes offers an example of the socially crucial yet visually tedious in her video re- presentations of pubic protest speech. Hers is a form of creative sterility at the service of political activism where neither the art nor the politics are intelligible. A large collaborative installation by the artists Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijine combined video, film and printed drawings in a box- like structure with similarly unintelligible intent. The political as aesthetic or art as sociological doctoral thesis is a form way past its bedtime. One wonderful exception to the overly dry presentations here was Marianne Vitale’s hilarious headshot rant entitled “Patron” in which she exhorts the viewer to challenge their own preconceptions of their spectator roles with breathlessly delivered staccato poetry. Her video recalled the parody of the authority voice ,utilized in the past by performance artist Karen Finley, in its visceral chanting rhythms.

There was one very vital room of painting in the show that included the large, deeply hued formal paintings of Susan Frecon, the sewn geometric images of Sarah Crowner and the crumpled illusionism of Tauba Aurebach’s large abstract canvases. The dialogue between these women’s work spoke both to modern painting’s lineage and its possible post -modern progeny.

One surprise was a large room full of relatively conservative flower paintings on paper by the conceptual sculptor Charles Ray. His work has been impressively quirky over the past two decades with weird takes on figurative sculpture and phenomenal mind /body experiments, but these attempts at “fleurs du mal” seem to indicate that this artist’s squinty- eyed view of Modernism’s gloomy beacon has gotten dimmer.

Speaking of Baudelaire, there is a silly conflation of photos of the poet of early art for art’s sake with the crown prince of pop, Michael Jackson. This installation by Lorraine O’Grady is entitled, The First and the Last of the Modernists. A neat package, but why not Poe and Hendrix?

One grouping of works could be entitled, “What if they gave a performance and none of the actors showed up?” Jessica Jackson Hutchins Couch for a Long Time, a newspaper-collaged sofa with pottery in place of couch potatoes, and Hannah Greeley’s Dual a re- creation of a woody noir tavern bar booth, both seemed like stage props waiting for a production. This art -as -situation trope was also evident in Martin Kersels’ stagey “song cycle” in the museums lobby gallery which presents an array of found items in what looked like a rock band stage/ built- in pool sculpture all held together by plexiglas and orange paint.

Here and there the Whitney Museum’s identity as a clearing house for American art culture became apparent. James Casebere’s hand -made and complex townscapes in vivid color photographs re- imagine Grant Wood’s regionalist imagery for the 21st century. The cartoonist/ artist Robert Williams reduces metaphysical rhetoric to depictions of Zap Comics Americana in his visually inventive and cynically humorous watercolors.

There is much more work that can’t be easily covered here. The fact that the curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, reduced their choices to fewer artists and expanded their scope to more international dimensions helps this Biennial seem more focused and relevant in its energy, even though it still is unmanageable, incongruent and insignificant taken as a whole. This is probably one of the more valiant efforts seen in a long time to make an inherently unworkable format gain critical coherence and meaning. The catalogue of the show contains a great mini-survey of Biennials past, but the essay by the curators is downright embarrassing in its cloying up- beat -ness about the current American scene.

The image at the top of this post is a 2009 view of James Casebere's Studio


thomas said...

nice review, thanks. Makes me want to go back and see it again.

Charles Kessler said...

What a great review! That is I agree with everything you said; everything except your take on Jessica Jackson Hutchins. I thought her Whitney piece and show at Derek Eller (615 W. 27th - until March 27th) was fresh and brilliant.

Right on re Marianne Vitale. Her staff sergeant harangue was hilarious, especially coming from probably the only born and bred New Yorker in the Biennial.