On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept
April 6 – September 5, 2022
You either start in darkness, or you start in the light. One is not better than the other, but the choice is the first one that affects your experience of the Whitney Biennial. The show spreads out across multiple floors, but it mainly takes place on two: one is designed like a labyrinth, the other as an open field. It’s a dramatic shift. In the labyrinth your eyes can’t travel far; in the open field there is almost nothing to stop them. How this influences the experience of the artwork is both subtle and significant, because the relationship between your body and the architecture of the gallery sets the tone for engagement. The difference is basic but fundamental, like a whisper to a shout.
I began in the darkness, where curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards placed the lion’s share of screen-based art. Many pieces were provided their own room, like a series of micro-theaters dotting a central corridor. The mood was generally somber, mournful even. Isolated figures are featured prominently, where there are figures at all. In Raven Chacon’s work, Three Songs (2021), a native woman sings songs of resistance as she beats a snare drum in unpeopled places, always as the sun is setting. “To heaven we will go” the singer says, hopefully, woefully. Nearby, Coco Fusco’s video, Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word (2021) centers on the artist as she rows a small boat near Hart Island, the location of New York City’s public cemetery. Fusco narrates the piece in a calm, steady voice, commemorating the loss of life caused by COVID. She says, “When death comes it will have your eyes,” and recounts a childhood memory of not wanting to touch her father at his wake. “I walked away to breathe,” she says, “breathing meant I was alive.” And after a moment of listening only to her oars push river water Fusco tells us that, “breathing meant something different now.” It’s an unsettling tribute: beautiful, sad, and remarkably poignant.
There is much to listen to in the labyrinth. The sounds of wind, song, breath, and voice commingle throughout. Of the narrations that take place, Kandis Williams’s multiscreen piece, Death of A, (2022) gripped me like a vice. The work portrays the mental anguish and spiritual exhaustion of Willy Loman, the insecure protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Loman is played by a Black actor who spends much of his performance by himself in a white room without walls. On an adjacent screen Williams plays a montage of clips from popular cinema. It’s one man’s psychological deterioration alongside endless scenes of entertainment, and as they play out the condition of being deceived by false perceptions and phony beliefs becomes increasingly ominous. Later, on the third floor, I encountered Williams’s Cassandra Press, a community-oriented enterprise whose principle concern is to educate and pass knowledge through DIY materials like zines. The spirit of her effort felt like an antidote to the existential rot described in Death of A, and harkens to the installation that commemorates Steve Cannon and his organization, A Gathering of the Tribes, back in the labyrinth.
Amidst so many works that grieve and highlight isolation, the tribute to Cannon is a celebration of community and togetherness. The walls are pasted with posters for poetry readings and art exhibitions; a selection of his library books is viewable on low shelves; a guest book sits under glass; Cannon’s legendary, brimming ashtray rests on a table beside the black couch that was the center of his apartment, which is where many of these events took place. Most affecting is the Introduce Yourself Flag (undated) that hangs across the postered wall. It’s a mere set of placards strung together like prayer flags, each one reading “Introduce yourself,” but it works powerfully. To promote inclusion—essentially without condition—is a radically open gesture. It’s also worth noting that Cannon was blind, so while his invitation was open to all, the impetus to engage was the obligation of his visitor. There is an interview that Cannon gave to Penny Arcade in February of 2001 that plays on an old tv monitor. It’s a little hard to hear, but at one point Arcade asks why Cannon moved to New York, leaving a stable academic position in London. He grins as he answers her, “the joy of being around people.”
One of those people he enjoyed being around was David Hammons, whose work was a lodestar for the curators as they organized this biennial. They single out Hammons, Toni Morrison, and Max Roach for how their work invokes the title of the show, Quiet as It’s Kept, a colloquial expression, spoken before sharing something that shouldn’t be shared further. In Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), the phrase precedes a tragic story of violence, infertility, and the barrenness of the land. That manifold of relationships between body, land, and trauma resonates with much of the work in the exhibition.
The stairwell between the two floors is a tricky place to install artwork, but the curators succeed here with a pair of text works from Rayyane Tabet’s 100 Civics Questions. Tabet’s source material is the US naturalization test, and in the passage between the two floors, where a large window looks out onto the Hudson River, it can seem like the understory of this biennial is the experience of immigration, of reckoning with forced relocation, and by extension, the brutal history of this country. And so I found it incisive and appropriate to emerge from the stairwell onto the fifth floor, where no wall reaches the ceiling but a set of curtains—like a massive tent—houses an installation for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who emigrated to the United States as a child in the sixties and died tragically here in 1982 in an act of extreme violence. She’s not formally recognized as an artist the curators considered a guide, but it’s quickly clear, watching her films and spending time with her performance photographs and language-based works, that her artistic ambitions align with those of the biennial.
For many people I’ve spoken to, the openness of the fifth floor was problematic. They felt overwhelmed, unsure where to go. I loved it. To encourage wandering is one of the most generous curatorial decisions I can imagine. Without direction, I happily drifted one way then another, my peripheral vision so stimulated I couldn’t hold on to just one thing for very long. I didn’t mind. The curators said they considered the reversed parenthesis “)(“ from an N.H. Pritchard poem to be a sign of openness, and they claim it as a symbol of the show. I found the poem. It’s one page, and the poet pays no heed to traditional margins. Instead words populate the rectangle at spacious intervals. Honestly, it seems like the curators could have based the fifth-floor layout on a concrete poem.
In the wide open, light-soaked gallery, sculpture, painting, and photography commingle. Much of it is wonderfully sensual, some of it is even funny. Woody De Othello’s ceramic sculptures of bulbous figures and Sable Elyse Smith’s little black Ferris wheel that slowly turns are charming and a little silly. Buck Ellison’s staged photographs of a happy young war criminal (Erik Prince) are goofy and ironic. And there is undeniable humor in Charles Ray’s larger than life bronze man, drunk and listing on stack of Budweiser cases; same for his magnificent sculpture of a big man on a stool eating a burger. More than one of these artists noted that their work was motivated in some part by the effects of the pandemic, the relentless negativity and combativeness in the news media, and with that in mind the job of humor to be a bulwark against oppression feels necessary. It’s the kind of humor that works to heal a worn out and wounded psyche.
I chuckled when I saw the wooden paws supporting Leidy Churchman’s massive three panel painting Mountains Walking (2022). When in a room that mimics a field for its openness, a freestanding triptych seems supremely at home. That Churchman’s composition reads simultaneously as a landscape and an abstraction gives it a sense of visual movement. The subject matter includes lily pads and a grid, but neither holds its form as Churchman’s brushwork loosens. I’d been looking for the polyrhythmic sensibility of Max Roach, one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, and here, I felt, I’d found it. At the root of what these artists share is a sense of time, and how it’s manipulated. You’re reminded that the aspects of porousness, of shifting and transforming that are the quality of clouds are also the quality of mountains. The experience of time’s compression and expansion—its malleability—was one thing Roach gave his listeners, and that gift has grown in force as it’s been passed along in this show.