Saturday, May 15, 2010

Welcome to the Whitney Biennial.

Every other year the Whitney brings together a collection of artists the museum feels define the art world's zeitgeist.  This year's crew features a surprising number of women: For the first time ever more than half the artists are women to which I say it's about time. But that doesn't mean this is a great show. In fact I found it messy with no themes or organizational structure.  Well, maybe I shouldn't say "no themes."  Here are a few of the themes I noticed at the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

Destroying stuff is hot in the art world like the video of a woman trashing her way out of dry-walled box.  Or axes, scissors, and other sharp objects imbedded directly into the walls.  There's plenty of destruction on hand.

Art made from junk is back in a big way.  Basquiat would be proud.

Dancing is hot in the performance art world, although it's not performed live but rather captured on video. And you don't really have to be a great dancer to make video art with dance. 

This brings me to my last theme. Video art is huge in art world right now.  In fact, there's one floor of the Biennial dedicated primarily to video that can best be described as the art world's answer to a bath house, with narrow hall ways that lead to dim rooms and people skulking in out to see if what's inside interests them.  Maybe the focus on video art is one of the reasons I was less than thrilled with the Biennial.  I find most video art tedious and made with such poor production values that it's difficult to watch. But maybe that's because I've spent too much time in the ultra-slick world of advertising.

That said, I'd hate to leave the impression that this show isn't worth a visit.  Because there's some interesting work.  Note on the photography featured in the post: The Whitney doesn't allow photography in the galleries other than in the entry spaces.  I've included photos from the Whitney's web site or other online resources where possible.  The last four photos of the post are mine.

Tauba Auerbach's series of massive fold paintings were subtle but just freaky enough to make your eyes hurt a little. This image is Untitled Fold XII (2009, synthetic polymer on canvas).

Lesley Vance's oil on linen series of abstracted still lifes are comprised of unrecognizable shapes and forms and yet still feel like still lifes that would be at home alongside the Dutch masters. Here is Untitled (12), (2009, oil on linen).

 One small gallery is dedicated to the works of R. H. Quaytman.  The grouping includes op-art inspired canvases that are optically anxious.  The abstract works are set against representational works that suggest the artist imagined what her works would look like inside the Whitmey museum.  It's an interesting play on perception and reality.  I particularly liked the works with diamond dust.

Roland Flexner took the art of marbled paper to a new level.  His sumi Ink drawings use ink floating on water to creating something other than the undulating patterns of traditional marbled papers.  His thirty drawings like Untitled, (2008-09, sumi ink on paper) create strange and alien landscapes.

The most disturbing works (and consequently possibly the most powerful) are the photographs of Stephanie Sinclair.  These images show women who engaged in self-immolation (setting oneself on fire for political reasons) in Afghanistan.  The women shown here survived the ordeal and are pictured in hospitals with severe burns.  The photos are powerful and remind us that even though half the women in this show are women, we've still got a long way to go when it comes to women's rights. Below: Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help, (2005, digital print).

My favorite work in the show may be Aurel Schmidt's Master of the Universe/Flexmaster 3000, (2010, graphite, colored pencil, synthetic polymer, beer, diret, and blood on panel). It takes a women to offer this much insight into the egos, fascinations, and wonders of men.  And the fact that it relies so much on the detritus of our culture only makes it more intriguing.

I have to point out the work of Michael Asher.  Tucked nearly out of sight behind the Art-o-mat machine in the Whitmey's basement are these two cards which inform us that, "Michael Asher's proposal for the Whitney Biennial is to have the exhibition open continuously to the public twenty-four hours for one week."  Below that is a card that states the Whitney was unable to complete the work due to budget and staffing considerations.  So they shortened the "art work" form seven days to three.  My response to the whole thing, "Huh?!?"

Finally, in the entry to the museum was Jeffrey Inaba's Soft Openings (2009, mixed media).  My initial response to these three massive hanging lanterns was ho hum.  But they got a lot more interesting when you looked up into them from below.

The Whitney Biennial is up through May 30.

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