February 25 – May 30, 2010
Once avant-garde, the Whitney Biennial has become a perennial disappointment for audiences who look to it as a cultural barometer or beacon of innovation. The 75th edition, titled 2010, is no exception. Curator Francesco Bonami and co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari set out to sample the country’s motley emotional pluralism. In the end, the 55 artists they selected more accurately describe a newly risk-averse art world. Despite their sincere attempt, which accounts for a handsome exhibition design, studded with remarkable works of art, the overall result is estranged from the world outside the institution. As incomplete as the times are uncertain, the exhibition resonates but without thunder.
From the cartoonish forms in George Condo’s otherwise abstract expressionistic painting, to Daniel McDonald’s depiction of a penniless Uncle Sam, the Biennial brims with cultural icons. “The First and the Last of the Modernists” (2010) by Lorraine O’Grady defines our era through corresponding portraits of Charles Baudelaire and Michael Jackson. Comparing their physical beauty as well as their cultural contributions, O’Grady’s approach to celebrity is intimate, romantic, and egalitarian.
The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s installation, “We Like America and America Likes Us”, hinges on the effectiveness of pop culture to mediate our collective memory and brand our national identity. With a tawdry yet tragic video montage playing upon the windshield of a duel-purposed ambulance / hearse, the work references Joseph Beuys’s seminal performance with a coyote, but is more reminiscent of Otabenga Jones & Associates’ police car installation at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Like watching a car crash, the imagery and heart-broken monologue about America triggers both introspection and a perverse compulsion to gawk.
The likability of American kitsch is reinforced throughout the show, notably in Aurel Schmidt’s drawing “Master of the Universe / Flex Master 3000” (2010), which reveals a virile Minotaur to be made out of cigarette butts, worms, stars, and roses.
As in Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ sculpture, “Couch For a Long Time” (2009), cultural icons are also used to demonstrate the synthesis of our public and private lives. Resting anthropomorphic, dowdy-looking ceramics on a couch plastered with Obama news clippings, the artist lifts a mirror to America’s familial relationship with news and celebrity.
In general, the exhibition presents popular culture as a welcomed, innocent indulgence. Replete with fast food logos and military propaganda, only Josephine Meckseper’s portentously scored, heavy-handed footage of the Mall of America depicts consumer culture as truly ominous.
Photographs of mutilated bodies make an explicit and disquieting statement about the personal and often violent consequences of politics. A series by the photojournalist Nina Berman, questions the demands of patriotism by documenting a grotesquely disfigured Marine as he returns to civilian life. And through arresting images of Afghani women receiving treatment for severe, self-inflicted burns, Stephanie Sinclair further suggests that cultures are rife with harmful mores.
The performances featured in several videos come the closest to conveying a sense of agitation and urgency. In one enclosed space, Kate Gilmore kicks her way out of a self-imposed confine. In another, Rashaad Newsome films solitary dancers solemnly “vogue-ing” without music or companions. Both actions seem determined to achieve physical liberation.
A provocative video installation by Sharon Hayes examines personal and collective stands on gender and sexuality by following a mysteriously mute protagonist as she records protest speeches. Although the physical design of the installation is awkward (and in my mind, superfluous) her deployment of language and silence is nuanced and emotionally engaging. Alex Hubbard’s ultimately destructive adornment of a Ford Tempo and Ari Marcopoulos’ bedroom recording of a Detroit pre-teen noise band similarly encapsulate the absurd necessity and political utility of expression.
Many pieces in the Biennial reference other artwork or indirectly recall previous art movements. The painting series, “Distracting Distance, Chapter 16”(2010) by R. H. Quaytman, includes a screen-printed image of the artist K8 Hardy gazing out the Whitney Museum’s iconic Breuer window in imitation of Edward Hopper’s “A Woman in the Sun” (1961). Her Op Art aesthetic of rainy hues awakened by primary colors and diamond dust lend entertaining optics to an already clever trope of site-specificity.
In monochromatic paintings, rippling with trompe l’oeil creases and shadows, Tauba Auerbach pays homage to Minimalism and Modernist color field painting. Lesley Vance’s compositions of richly-colored ribbons, streaked and severed by a palette knife, accordingly recall the Golden Age of Spanish still-lifes.
Other attempts to engage with art history flop, most oddly the slightly redesigned recreation of Babette Mangolte’s 1978 photo-installation, “How To Look…,” which, despite the inclusion of a video made in 2009, appears as if it woke up and wandered into the wrong exhibition.
So much space dedicated to (as the wall text states) “underscore the idea of time” and “demonstrate the influence of the past,” resulted in a show that looks mature but drags its feet. Rather than tapping into the frustration, invention, eroticism and speed of the world around us, 2010 gives undue attention to works that deal with bygone issues such as the idealization or perversion of American mythos.
Moreover, the “cross section of contemporary art production,” excludes significant art practices, specifically those that directly engage with new technologies. The selection of installation art is non-immersive, the photography is conventional, and though performance art is currently experiencing a resurgence, the roster of participants in the Biennial’s two live performance series (organized by Theaster Gates and Martin Kersels) is quite meager.
Undoubtedly, America’s temperature runs too hot and cold for pollsters, let alone curators, to get an accurate read. Although Bonami and Carrion-Murayari’s Biennial is a great improvement on past attempts, it still misconstrues the spirit of our time. Their error was in promoting the average, rather than braving the untested extremities of contemporary art. As such, the Biennial represents only the political and aesthetic cowardice of 2010. It touches prevailing art practices and social concerns, but delicately, as if not really wanting to wake the beast.