A Review of the 78th Whitney Biennial, New York
The 78th Whitney Biennial is a potluck of strangers. Their connections are about place rather than relationships. They all know the hosts, but not each other.
In the States, a “potluck” is a meal where everyone brings a dish to share. Whether it is a neighborhood picnic or a family funeral, a potluck is an undeniably easy way to assemble a meal with enough diversity to be potentially interesting and manageably cost effective. The food is traditionally homemade, often so-so; palatable, but usually undistinguished. While you can end up with a diverse feast given today’s more adventuresome cooks, more typically you end up with Jell-O molds, chopped salads (including the dreaded layered taco salad), and several variations of macaroni and cheese. This smorgasbord often ends with desserts like the All-American classic “dump-cake.” (The name describes the preparation, not the outcome.) There is a lot of mediocrity, some truly misguided adventures in taste and, invariably, there are a showoff or two, like the eccentric neighbor who took a modernist cooking class and brought a dairy-free soy lecithin foam. Unless the host offers guidance, you often end up with a lot of empty calories. When you leave, everyone has had an okay time. No one really complained or argued too much. Everyone has had some need fulfilled, high on carbohydrates.
The Whitney Museum’s wall texts and publicity - the potluck’s menu - suggest that this year’s “artists test the limits of time-worn structures and protocols, claim space for direct experience and personal agency, and create alternate zones or worlds. Some spotlight particular social issues, such as financial debt, violence, or access to equal opportunities, while others model imaginative ways of relating to history and place, or represent the importance of reverence for the land. Still others embolden the pleasure of contemplation or formal abstraction, inviting us to pause and pose questions in a tumultuous world.” Where you can understand the menu’s language—and this one’s written in Hohe Kunst Geplapper (high art babble)—you realize that this is the rhetoric of retrospective relevance. It is an after-the-fact justification for a lack of coherence and informed (expert) focus. It is rhetoric that ascribes value to artists’ works that were largely chosen out of step with day-to-day reality. In other words, it is more Jell-O molds and layered taco salads, with a few side dishes of what one very articulate gallerist termed “extreme tokenism.”
There are some artists whose work—in time—may enter the canon. Commercial success is far more unpredictable and probably uncertain. Henry Taylor’s depictions of African-American life are totally honest and fresh. You feel the work, almost the way you felt Kerry James Marshall’s paintings at his recent retrospective at The Met Breuer. But their differences are greater than their similarities. Deana Lawson’s photographs feel like sharp, staged versions of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s more natural social documentation of Braddock, Pennsylvania. An-My Le has already qualified herself as a sociologically-aware photographer. There is something Alfredo Jaar in her works, a desensitized representation of reality. Leigh Ledare moves from photography to film to again unmask discomforting social situations and taboos. He is an unrecognized genius.
Park McArthur has established herself as a legitimate disabilities advocate and a member of the new institutional critique. Whether this work adds significant depth to the critique is a valid question, but the perspective is good. The work is attractive in its understatement. That Matt Browning’s work made it into the Biennial is a surprise, a visual relief, and a cerebral delight. The curators assert that Browning “investigates both materiality and the potential reconciliation of traditional craft practices with Modernist abstraction.” Really, he makes fine art using handmade techniques, some of it originates in craft. Fine. Simplicity is sometimes the greatest beauty.
Larry Bell is still at it at 77 of age, making eye-candy sculptures reminiscent of his earliest glass cubes, which are now more Dan Graham in scale. Dana Schutz makes a good painting, although “Open Casket,” has become this Biennial’s protest lightening rod. (Never mind that the Whitney owns the open dual casket painting of Ben Shahn’s iconic “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” (1931-32).) Frances Stark is a smart artist, who uses language easily to gently poke our social and political consciousness.
There are other artists whose work questions curatorial capacity. A few examples suffice. Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers think of their collaborative, KAYA, “as a third consciousness, something encompassing and yet also beyond their individual practices.” It is like a set from B-grade horror film, which is an insult to B-grade horror films. If you want paintings of “ancient patriarchal divisions” that render “front projections of life” and “scatological ‘rear projections’,” that are simultaneously “ecstatic and nightmarish,” Tala Madani has them for you. Ajay Kurian has apparently made “enigmatic vignettes” about “mutual misunderstanding and bodily anxiety.” Jordon Wolfson is elbowing his way to be contemporary art’s new hi-tech, hi-cost, badass wannabe. (When you try to make art as violent as reality, you cannot win. Reality trumps.) Aaron Flint Jamison wins this year’s Lemony Snicket award for artistic nerdism, focusing on “a redundant institutional product.” There is no there, there.
Here is the problem with the Whitney’s potluck. There are a lot of contributors—too many—to the potluck, who were not advised about the reason for the feast (is this a party or a funeral?), the attendees and their menu preferences, and any dietary restrictions. The rhetoric of retrospective relevance is pervasive in the text and signage. (What is “personal agency?”) The curators seem to be trying to give meaning, contextualize the work, and justify the total exhibition after the fact. There is no cohesive perspective. More problematically, the Biennial looks and feels modern and contemporary art history was intentionally ignored in favour of social media “likes,” “favs,” and “friendships.” It would have been really smart to show some historical precedents in the Whitney’s collection to offset protest or provide meaningful context.
There is some good, but little great. There is some bad, but little awful. Overall there is an enormous amount of “meh,”“not so much,” and “whatever.” Despite an attempt to appear relevant, the Biennial most successfully underscores aesthetic chaos, uncertain direction, and curatorial uncertainty. Creativity exists—it abounds—in studios across the America. But it is outside the social media sphere where “liking” something is more about having a personal relationship (or a desire to have one), than having a real point of view and owning informed opinions.
Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.