Whitney Biennial 2017
America loves firsts, and, following a hiatus of three years, the once-unruly Whitney Biennial, currently curating what’s hottest in American art in its sleek, shiny, grown-up, new space, fits the bill
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
17 March – 11 June 2017
by JILL SPALDING
The jumbled toss of a biennial, heretofore crammed into Marcel Breuer’s tight geometry, would not translate to the industrial spaces that Renzo Piano extended to commanding views and distracting terraces, but this transplant, rigorously curated by a youthful Christopher Y Lew (36) and Mia Locks (34), needs to breathe, and the Whitney Museum’s spacious new downtown building serves it well.
A full two floors and parts of others have been given over to a wide variety of accomplished presentations, some of high quality and none without interest. The show’s success, however, must be judged by how it meets the Whitney’s mission, which is to add to a biennial’s two cosmic questions, “What is art” and “What is art now?”, the one that defines it: “What is art in America now?”
Addressing the first two, this nation’s contemporary museum exhibitions have tracked art as defined by the western canon from when it distinguished painting and sculpture from the decorative arts, through the inclusion of collage (Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque); work built out from the wall (Jay DeFeo, Frank Stella); and floor-width installations (Richard Serra, Judy Chicago) constructed from fabricated and found elements. Such work was, and still is, selected for the clarity and strength of its subject (statement) and how well it is made (technique). Even as evolving ways of seeing – cubism, abstract expressionism, op art, pop art – pushed the dialogue into new territory, the field remained visual and the work spatially contained, presenting the visitor with a fairly clear idea of what constitutes art with a capital A.
Asking what art is now tracked a different model, as a combination of factors – Vietnam, economic equality, racial tensions, immigration and fast-moving technology – broke through the paradigm, opening subject and medium to free associate among concepts and tools that propelled virtually every idea of what we held to be art to an ever-morphing place that braves close definition. To the consternation of the classicist, art today is understood to be less a category than a condition, less an object than a pulse, less a given than an expectation.
A Whitney biennial poses the third question: what is art in America now? Scouting work made across the nation as recently as opening day, each iteration’s curators must winkle out the best and the boldest of what they judge most representative – the question being, of course, representative of what?
It is how all three of these questions are addressed that the Whitney Biennial 2017 should be judged. Beginning with its self-defined mission, Lew and Locks, both announced as non-white, have widened the definition of American to include artists not born but working in the US, and work that may address concerns beyond its borders.
Challenging the title of the new building’s opening show, America Is Hard to See, the work gathered here posits an America disturbingly easy to see. In brightly lit spaces constituting individual galleries, 63 artists (harshly whittled down from the 2014 biennial’s 103) present the overall state of the nation as hardened, burdened, squalid, frightened, violent and hurting. Cauleen Smith hangs the entrance with appliqued shields intended to subvert the ones proudly flagging pubs, castles and Swiss cantons with a fractured, burning and maimed heraldry of crushed bodies and hopes. John Divola captures failure with his photographs of abandoned student paintings rescued only to exhibit inside forsaken buildings. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer belies the white-picket-fence dream with clustered paintings of leering soldiers, a dinner set for one, a gay bar converted to a sports bar, alley-kids flashing angry tattoos, a family gathered forlornly by a sold sign on their lawn and, in a rare reference to the election (presumably because the show was put together well before it), a Trump rally attended by the Ku Klux Klan.
The expected redress of African American art went the way of this year’s Academy Awards – overly redemptive. The famed elevator moment (the Whitney’s “aha” equivalent of the Oscar envelope) opens on the sixth floor to a murky, mural-length painting by Henry Taylor, stronger on allegory than technique, but afforded pride of place to raise the veteran black artist to a level that holds up better in the nearby gallery given over largely to his work. More successful are Oto Gillen’s magnified video-slide show, which celebrates an ethnic cross-section of Manhattan’s 99% posed against glossy new skyscrapers they will never set foot in, and Once (Now) Again (2017), part of Lyle Ashton Harris’s ongoing Ektachrome Archive, which draws on photo-prints, slides and video diaries from the black male diaspora, which movingly narrate the fallout from Aids, drug abuse and the LGBTQ struggle. Redeeming the redemption by a double reversal, the irrepressible black artist William Pope.L salutes another diaspora in a free-standing room covered inside and out with 2,755 (I saw people counting them!) slices of rotting bologna, each fixed with a mugshot, torn from a newspaper, of a Jewish life that once mattered.
Visitors willing to give time to the global concerns addressed by three excellent high-definition and digital videos (one runs for 142 minutes) can follow the last-man-standing scenario created by Tuan Andrew Nguyen (The Island, 2017) at the Malaysian refugee camp where he was interned; track social breakdown in Leigh Ledare’s Voksal (2016), through human interaction along three rail platforms in Moscow that are split up among other works, but loop simultaneously; and immerse themselves in the collective Postcommodity’s four-video projection, A Very Long Line, which races at the speed of a galvanized border-crossing alongside the fences separating the US and Mexico.
Instructively, for a world overwhelmed by reality, the most moving political statement is oblique – an inkjet print of a Confederate army general looming behind a veil of lingering segregation composed by An-My Lê, an artist working in the deep south, but born in another of America’s killing fields, Vietnam.
More hopefully reflective of the American moment, there is a generous amount of painting, mostly figurative, and some of it strong. Shara Hughes parades vibrant landscapes that call on Hodgkin and Hockney, and Dana Schutz commands a wall with a gigantic battle with big insects, Fight in an Elevator (2015), whose skilled manipulation of line and volume rescues the aggressively collected artist from ongoing accusations of mining black pain for her adjacent open-coffin portrayal of a notorious child murder.
Much of the younger work, though, comes across as the effort of gifted students; figures not fully developed, brush strokes not exercised, colours not resolved and forms not worked through, which would indicate that the current practice is to let message dominate technique. How else to explain the inclusion of La Talaverita (2016), Aliza Nisenbaum’s thinly washed oil on linen that backdrops contented domesticity against a wall patterned with Islamic motifs and agrarian exploitation? It is unfortunate that the coincident showings of Alice Neel (at David Zwirner) and Marsden Hartley (at the Met Breuer) invite comparison with two masters. Or does it say something about a craft learned too quickly that the best painting here is by veteran artist Jo Baer?
I thought the efforts in mixed media more accomplished and, if you don’t get bogged down in counting the materials detailed in the wall labels, more stirring. Jessi Reaves threads the sixth floor with the domestic upheaval of found furniture wittily worked into functioning sculpture with plywood, silk, steel, nylon wire, glue, cotton cording, polyurethane foam, and (don’t you love it?) studio dust. Carrie Moyer works surfaces with glitter, vinyl and acrylic into overlapping forms that create portals to hidden worlds. Kaari Upson lurches biomorphic shapes composed of collapsed sofas towards what presents as the end of the world. Kaya (the duo comprising sculptor Debo Eilers and painter Kerstin Brätsch) plays a gleeful, multicolour-tiled locker room against a creepy decomposed bat cave of hangings worked from melted resin, urethane plastic tubing, perforated Mylar and leather-strapped hardware. Drawing humour from gravitas, part-time gallerist John Riepenhoff exhibits paintings by established artists on easels reproducing the lower half of his body with fibreglass, papier-mache, wood, wire and readymade shoes. Pulling irony from stone and steel, newcomer Torey Thornton’s wall piece titled Painting (2017) glues multicoloured rocks to a massive, shiny saw blade. Playing on fears of artificial intelligence, kinetic meister Jon Kessler’s elaborately wired performative robots power the same screens that activate them.
There are numerous political statements, varying from anguish to agitprop, but not all are impacting. The most sensitive is Debtfair, mounted by Occupy Museums (of Occupy Wall Street fame) to question the mission of a biennial sumptuously curated in a sleek and expensive new space that relies heavily on the largesse of the art-collecting 1%. Ripping into a wall, the installation addresses the other 99% by letting you purchase one of the attached 30 works towards a down payment on the student debt the struggling artists incurred from the financial giant BlackRock during the crisis of 2008, and are still paying off.
Of the surprisingly few other interactive works, the most enigmatic is the outdated Dell computer that Aaron Flint Jamison installed in a small, fourth-floor office, which adds data to the emails of consenting employees. The most elaborate is Irena Haiduk’s mirrored tower, which broadcasts the Whitney’s Frauenbank – a domain virtually reprising a woman’s bank opened in Berlin in 1910 and accessible only by mobile phone and from the museum, which allows applicants to the bank identifying as female to purchase land in perpetuity in the former Yugoslavia.
The walls given over to conceptual work may speak to an ongoing practice but don’t garner enough viewer attention to warrant a space that might have accommodated more artists. Wondrous the patience with which Frances Stark hand-painted page after page of music icon Ian F Svenonius’s rant Censorship Now!!, but of those I filed by with, only one stopped to read the fine print, and that of only one document.
The work connects though, by the happenstance of physical proximity, to the question of self-censorship, raised here with the latest shockfest by bad-boy it-artist Jordan Wolfson. In-your-face work is expected of a statement show. Biennial groupies have been treated to gratuitous nudity, prurience, even violence. But just as there is an accepted red line in the social interaction called manners (you forget to attend a seated dinner, send flowers and move on, but you don’t borrow a car with a full tank of petrol and return it on empty), so has there been an unwritten code as to where the line stops in the visual arts. Let Vito Acconci masturbate below a gallery floor; let Paul McCarthy play out his sexual vulgarities in a staged sensorama, and let Tala Madani shine light from human orifices on her talent, but I can’t think of a graphic work portraying beheadings, child abuse, or an eye sliced through with a knife that’s called art.
Leave it to the Whitney to test this last boundary. Already bordering on unacceptable, its closing show in the Breuer building spilled parents with children out of their signature elevator on to Jeff Koons’s lurid enactment of intercourse with La Cicciolina. Now, with Real Violence (2017), I would argue that the line has been crossed. Wolfson’s indulgent exercise in fabricated nihilism hands you a headset and goggles, warns you to hold on to the handrail lest you faint, and subjects you to the seeming reality of the artist himself swinging a baseball bat in full view of traffic and uncaring passersby to beat another white guy to a pulp. It does nothing to alleviate your horror and nausea to learn that the bloodied victim is a brilliantly designed robot, but it does everything to absolve viewer guilt and nullify Wolfson’s rage to learn that he is represented by dealer of the 1%, David Zwirner.
Moving along to what the Whitney does best, three spectacular installations involve the building itself. A deserving crowd-pleaser commissioned from the very young and “joyfully overwhelmed” Raúl de Nieves, fully engages the showy panelled glass wall-on-the-Hudson with 18 lavish “stained-glass” windows pieced together from deliberately modest coloured acetate, tape, paper and glue to stage a luminous dialogue between Mexico’s celebratory defiance of death and the ceremonially robed and beaded figures walking alongside it.
A more complicated effort hijacking another industrial window, Samara Golden’s The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes (2017) revives the nearly exhausted infinity trope with a mirrored installation incorporating outside traffic into a sly palimpsest of the former meat-packing district that is now all but obscured by the ad infinitum reflections on class conflict bounced off miniature sets of a drawing room, office, prison and hospital.
And, repelling up and down the Whitney’s multi-floor stairwell, which I urge you to descend when you exit, Ajay Kurian’s heart-stopping sculptures of maimed and deformed children speak wordlessly to adult-induced conflict ranging from nuclear holocaust to abuse in the home.
Thankfully restorative, several commissions flag beauty as a once-again recognised intrinsic property of art. The sun rises and sets in Larry Bell’s cubed, raspberry-saturated, glass pyramids (Pacific Red ll) on the Whitney’s fifth floor terrace; Asad Raza’s suite of 26 exotic trees in various stages of bloom, together with 10 “caretakers” to water and prune them, soften a hard space into the conceit of a park. Anicka Yi’s gorgeous 3D, high-definition video, The Flavor Genome (2016), walks you from a lifeless laboratory into the fecund Brazilian rain forest in search of a mythical drug that might save a dying biosphere from the ravages of quick profit. Drawing on his ancestral ties to the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, Sky Hopinka’s lyrically filmed journey through an island in the Bering Sea moves soundlessly through landscapes of light and the interventions of Aleuts forced to relocate there in service of the Russian fur trade.
Only performance art is weakly represented, experienced on the eighth floor, on weekends, with an enactment by the pseudonymous artist Puppies Puppies, of the Statue of Liberty, whose foam crown can be purchased for pennies in the museum store.
Still, its mission accomplished, this biennial itself is a performance – at once a kaleidoscope and a beacon – whose thoughtful presentation holds up a flame to 63 ideas of what art is right here, right now, and at least through the show’s closing, on 11 June.