Every two years an event takes place in New York that some viewers approach with absurdly high expectations only for them to be dashed by the time they leave; heads spinning a little after seeing over seventy top artists vie for attention. Responding to a show like this can be bewildering and it’s easy to take the low road – formulating, what you hope, are devastatingly critical observations with the economical brevity of a haiku. This may feel cool for a moment or two, but misses the point – the purpose of the exhibition is to create debate, to open conversations rather than close them, but my experience has been most typically (and disappointingly) the recipient of single line summations…it’s all about anxiety…politics, Trump, diversity, gentrification…we struggle to deal with it. Since its inception in 1973 the Whitney Biennial has taken on the challenge of presenting a perspective on current artistic trends, building on its annual exhibition program which started as early as 1932. In modern times it has become more than just an exhibition where the art of our moment is evaluated, now it has broadened in scope willingly or unwillingly to consider such topics as museum philanthropy, demographic representation and even what it really means to be an American.
The last few events have contained mini drama’s that blew up in the media and this current one is no exception. A member of the board was found to be an owner of a tear gas company and as a result there were mass complaints from both the staff and the artists. One withdrew his participation from the event, either a genuine moral choice or strategic move towards infamy; in the spirit of not naming perpetrators of mass shootings I went to lengths not to learn his name or Google his artistic practice. During the previous Biennial the victim was the white artist Dana Schutz who made a painting of the tragic death of the black teenager Emmett Till. Essentially we learnt that Schutz wanted to express the horror that she felt was owned by our entire society while some in the black community claimed that it wasn’t her history and had no right to paint it. The logic opens many questions; Did Richard Attenborough have the right to make a film about Gandhi and the Indian suffering at the hands of the British? Once you start going down this rabbit hole it becomes an endless series of tunnels all of which end in nothing but artistic repression. You might detect cynicism in my view of protests around this event. As this is billed as a microcosm of society, protest is inevitable…but it is also an opportunist’s megaphone to broadcast your discontents loudly (and self-servingly) inside this already narrow comfortable community.
The 2019 version goes to lengths to show artists who represent the sociological make up of America with all boxes ticked. But as a result of this (there are normally about 70 – 80 artists chosen) there is unlikely to be any dominant movement or focused set of idea’s, despite or because of the admirable social inclusiveness, there is no guarantee that a good show will arise from the mix. In theory, this is a group of artists chosen for the quality of their work as opposed to its commerciality. We can already assess the value of the handful of well selling artists; there is a tool box for this thanks to the transparency of the auction houses, art fairs and galleries in New York. In one way it is refreshing to be free of monetary concerns, we know that the critical and the commercial art world stars are lovers, frequently hand in hand (yes sometimes they have a fight and separate for a time and sometimes they drift apart and never meet again) most often they have a long term relationship. For those who are not currently selling artists, being invited to participate can represent a Cinderella moment; it is more than a notch on a critical belt, riches tends to follow quickly.
As I walked down the west side highway on a warm Saturday afternoon I felt unaccountably happy approaching Renzo Piano’s museum, owing its external design inspiration I conclude to the suburban box; Wall Mart and Target come to mind, its architectural intent is not to please those looking at it but for those inside looking out. Not only is art given space and light, it also allows the visitor to step away for a moment to gaze down through the large windows at the tourists on the high line, the irregular unplanned roofing, the uneven, unkind, multifarious architecture of the meat packing district. Also the cyclists going down the west side highway, always a good sign for a healthy livable city, some breaking out from the pack – others lagging behind and it is this irrational sudden movement, the bright colors of the clothes, the glinting of sun against chrome and the sparkle of the water than makes you think momentarily of a shoal of fish.
Also a little fishy is my approach to the show because with one noticeable exception, I decided not to read anything about the exhibition before I saw it For something that aspires to alert us to the state of the world as seen through the eyes of its most promising artists, we should ask ourselves not just what to expect but how we view the problems ourselves. Also I try to imagine being in the shoes of the two curators for no other reason other than to create an atmosphere of tension and internal provocation arguing for both prosecution and defense. If you ask the question – what is at the core of your deepest concerns or hopefulness the answer will depend entirely on privilege. One of my most pressing fears is that we have been overtaken by the speed of personal technology and have yet to adapt either on a political level or behavioral one. From the political we have found the ease to which misinformation is successfully passed around to those who thirst for conformation of their already strongly held paranoia’s. This now seems to be the new normal and education of some kind is needed to recognize truth and propaganda. But also on a micro level, walking into a restaurant or bar seeing customers or all ages distracted by their smart phones, not engaging with each other, is disheartening. Somehow you hope there is an alternative, optimistic promise of technology but you will be disappointed if you expect to see it in art galleries or at this show. My concerns of course come from a comfortable place, gender, race, physical mobility, location are all on my side and so we must let in the idea’s and urgent voices of those fighting still against societies historical preferences. Most of us will not be beaten up or denied work because of sexual orientations, nor wake up every day fearful of deportation or meet the day from under a tarpaulin. Light doesn’t filter through a hole in the roof nor do we worry about money to any great degree. Global warming, gentrification, anti-social smart phone behavior and Facebook frauds pale in comparison.
Underlying all is of our fears of Trump-world, and the one review I did read in the New Yorker, laid most of the distress hovering over these artists at his feet. The artists themselves being too smart to have images of the individual in question or his damaging legacy, we should not expect anything didactic, but instead need to search for clues.
I read something in a Whitney catalogue recently which caught my eye:
“In this alienated and anxiety laden climate chaos breeds change and the fears and desires of the world come to life, leading to a breakdown of conventional distinctions…”
Interestingly it was from the 2004 Biennial, the inference is that the art world is generally a nervous place. There is a general disquiet around the fact that artists cannot maintain a standard of living in the most vital cultural centers; NY, LA, London and Berlin. We know that it is important for these communities exist, where ideas are shared and pushed forward, history informs us that this interchange is vital. One of the ironies of artists resilience and creativity is in finding new, cheaper places to live they are the now considered front runners of gentrification themselves. During a recent show also at the Whitney a painter called Laura Owens was protested by local residents of her LA neighborhood because they recognized the arrival of artists may mean they would be squeezed out.
Politics can be everywhere and nowhere, in this country the two hundred year plus debate over governments role is something that has long been settled in most other countries. We are allowed to own military rifles but not exceed 55 miles per hour, to not pay taxes if you are already rich enough but also not have any access to health care, its perplexing. In the last few weeks I travelled to Washington DC and Central America, Costa Rica and Guatemala. The trip to Washington started early one Wednesday morning, taking the Amtrak from Penn station, with the pale rose colored sky drowsily emerging behind us as we trundled southwards, the carriage already full of frighteningly pert, vacuous business discussions and jarring words like “stakeholder”, “business cases” and “focus groups”. The train pulls you southward, precariously along the eastern seaboard. There are moments where you cannot help gasp at the abrupt beauty of the natural world and how close the train gets to the watery inlets, the marshland and the Ocean itself. But it is also a horror show, and Amtrak seems to take delight in slowing the journey down and even stopping in the worst examples of urban decay, North Philadelphia and Baltimore. I feel we are watching a documentary of any other country, another society. It is impossible to imagine we are in North America when we all peer gloomily at the broken down houses, most totally abandoned for twenty or thirty years, just blocks from the train station, and apparently still no-go areas for most people who care for their lives. Exactly a week later I flew into Guatemala City and saw the endless acreage of impromptu shelters made from corrugated steel, exposed electricity, children playing in the garbage strewn streets. We were picked up by a cheery group of employee’s complaining about corruption everywhere and the next election cycle. When I eventually asked if this area, the industrial Cargo Zone, was dangerous they said of course not! However a few blocks later one of them ventured, well – perhaps you don’t want to go down that side street, and they all turned silently with some unspeakable knowledge. He was right, I didn’t want to go down that side street, I didn’t want to be in this city, it had nothing to redeem itself, and this from someone who modestly considers himself a connoisseur of urban underbellies.
You cannot reach any profound conclusions from these trips other than whatever political system you have to endure, decisions and attitudes filter downwards rapidly, but how to protest? Or should we protest at all….a paradox exists when financial success comes from socially depraved conditions and art is made from it. There are too many examples to mention of this opportunism but it was once morally conflicting to see a Richard Billingham photograph of his poor, drunken family in their dingy apartment on a rich patrons wall in South Kensington. But I am not objective, and bring my own prejudices which I presume will never now shift significantly. For example, I’m not a huge fan of assemblage – sculptures made from found material unless it is done very well, and painting generally, with a few exceptions, seems to me tired, seeking a way out from its quandry. This is best demonstrated by a young LA based painter Jeanette Mundt who had the neat idea of replicating stop motion images of gymnasts. It’s momentarily interesting as it offers a modest something to the long running conversation between painting and photography. You immediately see the reference to the nineteen century images of Muybridge and the resulting unease about the death of painting to which the cubists responded already and with much greater nuance and subtlety. Today it’s not enough to simply make a proficient painting responding to the technical skills of a photographer born almost 190 years ago, the work has to be seasoned with additional spices; in this instance racism and sexual abuse are thrown in the mix I think a little unconvincingly.
Already after an hour in the museum I feel a malaise, I’m a little cantankerous and irreverent thanks to an irritating docents high pitch and worse, her certainty, there are also too many people here and I resign myself to looking at the artists within my comfort zone, those that I already know something about. On the balcony of the top floor of the exhibition I find a sculpture by Nicole Eisenman a gay artist born in France, raised in New York City suburbia. Well known for her paintings, drawings and collage she has been on the scene for over 25 years and this is not the first Biennial she has participated in. This time showing outdoor sculptures of highly stylized, larger than life men in an ugly procession of sorts, making me think less of the normal cartoonish nature of her early work and increasingly of the heavy despair of the German expressionist movement and George Grosz in particular. Humor has always played a role and I remember one of her first New York commercial shows where we laughed out loud at a small drawing of two elderly ancient men, one mounting the other, entitled Jesus fucking Christ, provocative and offensive to some, containing an undeniable punkish spirit and motive.
I met her several years ago in a museum gift shop in upstate New York where we had a pleasant chat for a while and where I made the mistake of mentioning that we owned a small work by her, forgetting momentarily that we actually have two. The featherweight drawing was bought during a convivial event called “Post Cards from the Edge” all post card sized works. The fun is in identifying the artist and the catch is that you do not know who made the piece until after you have paid for it. Unfortunately when it came for me to describe the drawing at her insistence (it may have been the long drive, the tiring day, alcohol may have played a role – but it was more likely the piercing intelligent eyes and her handsome, formidable presence) I forgot the image entirely to her ironic bemusement and my uncomfortable remorse. It was hardly surprising that at the dinner after the event she didn’t come over to our table, which included one of the collectors lending the work, but instead remained within her safe set of reliable, dependable friends.
Also on the same floor is a set of photographs recording the moment of childbirth showing the new born’s heads emerging from the mother. They are by the Korean photographer Heji Shin who works both in commercial and art photography and whose practice is equally demanding in both spheres. I saw a show at Reena Spaulding last year which underwhelmed because of the crude images which might have once seemed outrageous for their sexual nature but now for its banality, male nudity and arousal is neither fresh nor intriguing territory. However the body of work shown here is engaging, these grotesque and alien pictures are extraordinary and beautiful once you have endured the first shock. It is a cheap shot to observe that the work is a book end of sorts to Courbet’s “Origin of the World” but you don’t need to search hard to catch some sense of classicism in the composition, the rich tonality which is partially due to the midwife or hospitals preferences, the jarring modernity of the photographs themselves, as confounding to us today as Courbet was in 1866.
I also very much like the work of two black gay photographers, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and John Edmonds, both of whom are rising stars and whose work I had seen before in curiously atypical places like Woodstock. In the case of the former the work is studio based and are normally compositions with mirrors and other devices with elements of portraiture and also self portraits lending an edge of narcissism. The camera itself is a frequent component and the notion of a formal “selfie” comes to mind reminding us that we are drawn afresh to photography because of its democracy; almost everyone is a photographer now thanks to cell phones. Paradoxically this mediums high brow profile now is increasing because this low brow reality. You sense a debate happening within this work and interestingly it was predicted some time ago; there are strong parallels with the work of Janice Guy, who is known to many as a gallerist but had been ploughing these same grounds as a student many years ago. The difference of course is the element of queer identity adding new weight and meaning to its courageously reflective complexity. The idea of self portraiture is hardly groundbreaking and lists can easily be made that must include Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman but in this case I think the presence of the camera, the recording device itself, is the key to the deliberations within the work.
Some of this is also true of John Edmonds, also a gay black photographer rapidly gaining stature. His work is also studio based but heavy in portraiture, he is known for several bodies of work focusing on headgear worn mainly by the black community, baseball caps turned backwards and other street fashions such as du-rags. There bravery in his practice, sometimes picking up his subjects on the subways or street, in a few their thuggish nature maintains some resilience under the studio lights, but in most cases a tenderness filters through and the resulting image, soft and tranquil. I say bravery as this weekend a rainbow flag was burned in front of a Harlem restaurant, and I imagine that he was rebuffed or much worse during this selection process. Interesting he rejects the digital world and he uses an old 4 X 5 film camera, the resulting images illustrate why the warmth and cast of this medium is so appealing to a younger group of artists. His photographs stood out for the seductive quality of their execution and the immediacy….you witness linkages to the tribal past which emerge slowly giving a sense of timelessness within, not to mention a nod to recent art history and the giant ghostly shadow of Mapplethorpe.
Finally conservatism and American decay. Curran Hatleberg is a young photographer who wanders around the USA and takes images in the documentary tradition. His photographs are startling because of the subject matter, often portraits of people and communities engaged with – and on the edge of – the natural world, a mans face covered in bees, a young girl holding a snake, an abandoned car serving as a bridge. I had seen this work at a small uptown gallery called Higher Pictures and had been impressed by the sinister vibrancy of the images, their empathy. Yet also a little despairing of the countries middle and southern states which seem so foreign and far away, and at last I think to myself, some politics.