THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Michel Ségard
The Good News: 2019’s Whitney Biennial did not provoke political controversy as did the previous Biennial with its painting of Emmet Till. That is not to say that the show was devoid of such content. It’s just that, in this exhibition, the content was politically popular, at least within the pc liberal community. (Most artists in the show had a “cause” that they were promoting.) The issue for this viewer then became: did the work transcend the propaganda? Not always. And why must a work of art carry a political message to be taken seriously?
Starting with what this viewer considered “Best of Show,” the work by Diane Simpson rose far above the rest of the exhibition. Her sculptures are based on pieces of clothing worn by women. Enlarged to monumental proportions and reduced to strict geometric forms, the pieces have a solemn dignity. There is more than a little Asian influence in her forms that helps solidify that dignity. Yet, there is also a subtle feminist message in the choice of subject matter but it does not shout. It is like the chord progressions of a Baroque piece of music or a subtle spice in a dish that gives depth to the work.
Simpson was given an entire gallery on the first floor of the museum, basically treating her work as a one-person show. Particularly noteworthy were Window Dressing: Background 4, Apron VI from 2003/2007 and Lambrequin and Peplum from 2017. The latter, just over nine feet tall, sets the tone for her show-within-a-show by establishing her themes of clean geometry and monumental scale. But Window Dressing: Background 4, Apron VI dominates the gallery. Presented like a department store window, the 8 1/2 foot by 10 foot by 28 inch piece most captures the Japanese aesthetic in her work. Yet it also feels like an altar.
Tomashi Jackson is one of several artists whose work eclipses the political rationale described in the wall label. Hometown Buffet–Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise) rises above the writing about housing displacement in New York City and the history of Seneca Village. The piece is fundamentally a beautiful mixed media abstraction that does not need all that political rationale to be appreciated. Even as one becomes aware of the imagery and objects embedded in the piece that refer to that history, the viewer may or may not be further enlightened by that awareness. One is reminded of the position that Matisse took about decoration—that a work of art should have a decorative quality above and beyond its social content.
In Curran Hatleberg’s photographs, on the other hand, the social content is inescapable and paramount. Hatleberg was given the entire third floor display space, the lobby to the Laurie M. Tisch Education Center and the Susan and John Hess Family Theater. His 16 inkjet prints primarily depict poor white, semi-rural environments, but they do not have Kollwitz’s sense of despair or Weegee’s raw brutality, for example.
Rather, Hatleberg shows us a sense of acceptance and resignation. He uses his aesthetic to bring out the social content, rather than using social content to justify the art. In Untitled (Girl with Snake), a little girl sits amid the ruins of a building while playing with a snake, weaving a story of poverty, destruction and making do. Untitled (Hole) shows five men digging a hole in an auto junk yard, their stances in ambiguous positions, almost as if they were praying for the deceased before filling in a grave. The hole is clearly too small for a car, so what or whom are they burying?
Nicholas Galanin, of Tlingit/Aleut and non-Native ancestry, is another artist that successfully merges aesthetic and social content. His large tapestry White Noise, American Prayer Rug simulates the white noise from the screen of an old CRT-TV. It speaks to our devotion to mass media and its propensity to obliterate unique content. And (according to the artist) the work, along with its title, alludes to the dominance of white culture in the world and how it drowns out other points of view and cultures. Viewing Galanin’s carefully considered image combined with his biting but subtly portrayed social commentary makes for a rewarding art encounter.
Nearby Galanin’s piece was the work of Daniel Lind-Ramos. Once more, the aesthetics of the piece are so strong that it is not overwhelmed by the social content. His sculpture Maria-Maria is inspired by the 2017 hurricane Maria. But, as its title and form suggest, it also refers to the Virgin Mary. Partly made from bright blue tarps used by FEMA to cover damaged buildings, the work also contains a blender, multiple coconuts, and what look to be two large whale(?) ribs. The 90-inch tall piece hovers eerily between being an object of veneration and a memorial to a tragedy. The work inspires one to ask: are the U.S. government and the Catholic Church both guilty of colonialism and exploitation of the people of Puerto Rico? But one can also admire the work for its sheer beauty.
Ragen Moss is an artist and attorney who lives and works in Los Angeles. She creates torso-like shapes from transparent plastic that are suspended from above on wires so that they appear to float like balloons. The exhibition contains ten of these shapes. The pair that were particularly interesting were Romanettes (with double hearts), a kind of couple suggesting possible intimacy. Her work is not bogged down with any overt social or political message. She “just” explores the human condition—a centuries old pursuit—using contemporary modes and materials.
Ragen Moss, Romanettes (with double hearts), 2018. Acrylic, polyethylene, aluminum, and steel hardware. Two components, 24.5 x 15 x 8.5 in. each. Collection of the artist. Photo by M. Ségard.
Jennifer Packer follows a similar path, although using the traditional medium of oil on canvas. She uses her friends and family as models, and her sketchy style (with a Matisse-like flavor in this work, Untitled, from 2019) is intended to not reveal too much about her subject, preserving some sense of individual privacy. In this painting, the subject is asleep on a disheveled bed. We are witnessing her slumber but not intruding. Again, one can bask in the outright abstract beauty of the work, especially the colors of the curtains behind the bed and the shrewdly placed items below the bed.
Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019. Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in. Collection of the artist; courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo by M. Ségard.
Kyle Thurman has a style that is superficially similar to Packer’s in its sketchiness, although much tighter. What is compelling about Suggested Occupation 30 is the connection between the two individuals in the painting. Based on a news photo, one man holds another while seemingly reacting to some tragedy. This sense of human empathy and connectedness stands out and is not found in the work of any other painter in the show. (Time did not permit this writer to view the videos or performances where this kind of sensibility might have been included.) Most human subjects in the show stand in isolation. Is this a curatorial bias?
Wangechi Mutu’s female form, Sentinel I, evokes the impression of an earth goddess. But this is a contemporary interpretation that alludes to the tension between civilization and nature. One is superficially reminded of Deborah Butterfield and Magdalena Abakanowicz when viewing Mutu’s sculptures (there is a second one in the show, Sentinel II). Yet her work is in no way derivative. Mutu’s pieces are deeper and her content more complex. And the message does not overwhelm the work! It stands on its own as a finely conceived piece of sculpture and easily bears the weight of its social content.
As in most large group or survey shows, there were some misfires. One was the 20-piece suite by Alexandra Bell about the New York Daily News coverage of the 1989 Central Park Five case in which five African-American youths were wrongly convicted of the assault and rape of a white female jogger in Central Park. This is a powerful piece of political and social criticism in visual rather than verbal form. But it has nothing to do with art. This series simply does not transcend its message as does Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill poster, also from 1989.
The other work that, for me, was a miss was Agustina Woodgate’s room full of wall clocks. The Whitney Museum website describes this installation as follows:
"A single digital master clock sends power signals to a series of analog slave clocks, commanding synchronized measure across an entire institution. …In her work, the hands of the slave clocks have been outfitted with sandpaper. …the minute hands of the slave clocks scrape away the numerals on their faces until they are completely erased. Conditioned by the current state of labor and power, the slave clocks progressively erode their functional value, collectively reclaiming autonomy in the process of disintegration."
I found the concept trite and a waste of time.
John Edmonds got, perhaps, the least desirable space in the entire exhibition. His 17 inkjet prints were crammed into a corridor that leads to one of the building’s outdoor patios. There was no way to let individual pieces “breathe” and be contemplated on their own merits.
With so many “post-Stonewall” shows up at this time, it was inevitable that there would be overlaps and thematic duplications in the Biennial. For example, Elle Pérez’s inkjet print Bloom from 2019 shows the tattoo of a rose on a young man’s chest and echoes Stanley Stellar’s I got birds, too of a young man’s tattooed chest with two birds on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in their show “Art After Stonewall 1969–1989.”
Also, Peter Tomka’s photo, Friday, May 25, 2018 of nude men working in a photo studio repeats the theme of Joan Biren’s 1980 photo Photographers at the Ovular, a feminist photography workshop at Rootworks, Wolf Creek, Oregon that depicts nude women working in a photo studio. That piece is included in the exhibition “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art” on view in Chicago’s Wrightwood 659 gallery.
The other problem with this show is its ongoing bi-coastal provincialism. Hyperallergic gives a detailed analysis of where this year’s artists come from in their article, How Do Artists Get Into the Whitney Biennial? In summary, 49 of the 68 artists live on the Eastern seaboard and four more live on the West Coast. There are only seven artists who live in the United States and do not live on either coast. They live in Birmingham, Alabama, New Orleans, Louisiana, Pineville, Louisiana, Chicago, Illinois, Wilmette, Illinois (an upper-class suburb of Chicago), Detroit, Michigan, and Sitka, Alaska. The rest live and work outside the United States.
One must realize that these kinds of survey exhibitions do not reflect what is being sold or collected. Rather, they are a reflection of what the institution’s curators (in this case Whitney staff curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley) think is trending. The shows are colored by the personal preferences and biases of those curators and their institutions.
Nevertheless, they are a useful platform to inform the public about part of what is developing in the contemporary art world. In that sense, this Biennial is no worse or better than the 78 exhibitions that preceded it. The Art Institute of Chicago once held such a survey show called the Chicago and Vicinity show. That institution eventually found the exhibition so politically difficult that it stopped mounting it more than three decades ago after having assembled 80 shows between 1897 and 1984. So, the Whitney is to be lauded for having the courage to continue its Biennial even in the face of the art world’s increased politicization.
Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Diane Simpson, Window Dressing: Background 4, Apron VI, 2003/2007, Foam board, wood, enamel, wallpaper, marker, spunbond polyester, aluminum, and Mylar fabric. 104 x 120 x 28 in. Collection of the artist; courtesy Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; JTT, New York; and Herald St, London. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Tomashi Jackson, Hometown Buffet–Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise), 2019. Mixed media. 72 x 156 in. Collection of the artists. Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Top: Curran Hatleberg, Untitled (Girl with Snake), 2016. Inkjet print; image: 23.25 x 29.25 in. Collection of the artist; courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.
Bottom: Curran Hatleberg, Untitled (Hole), 2016. Inkjet print; image: 23.25 x 29.25 in. Collection of the artists; courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.
Daniel Lind-Ramos, Maria-Maria, 2019. Mixed media, 90 x 45 x 45 in. Collection of the artist; courtesy Embajada, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Kyle Thurman, Suggested Occupation 30, 2019. Charcoal, ink, and pastel on seamless paper with wood frame, 75 x 48 in. Collection of the artist; courtesy CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Wangechi Mutu, Sentinel I, 2018. Mixed media, 87.75 x 17.75 x 22 in. Collection of the artist; courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo by M. Ségard.
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