Art Review: 2008 Whitney Biennial
How will I know if it’s really art?
It would be fabulous if we could ask Aretha Franklin what she knows about these things. But I’m afraid, with contemporary art, we’re on our own a lot of the time. Most people, no doubt, fear the relational free‑fall into which contemporary art can send the viewer. The trick is to pay close attention to your initial reaction, and then talk yourself through the rest of the experience. Now, this takes some time and patience, and, dare I say…effort on the part of the viewer. There’s a general attitude that art should be effortless to observe. It’s nice when it’s this way and the art is good, but it doesn’t always have to be this way, and if we maintained a more trusting attitude toward our artists‑‑as a society, we exaggerate a fear of the artists our culture produces, obviously by projecting insecurities about our beliefs and lifestyles‑‑it would be easier to open ourselves to art that invites a more explicitly engaged and interactive experience. It certainly would have made life much easier for you at this year’s Whitney Biennial, which offered a lot of engaging experiences, some what the fuck is this supposed to be moments, and displayed a notable conflict between art that carries on the tradition of Koons‑derived slickness, polish and cool, and a more recent resurgence of art where the materials are presented with little disguise, seemingly tapping into a hipster‑chic infatuation with unkemptness, detritus, and pre‑finished complacency.
Yes, the big story at The Biennial, which begins dismantling this week, was the abundance of art that is made out of garbage or raw construction supplies.
Phoebe Washburn’s “soda shop,” a makeshift commercial environment made with framing wood, housed various dioramaic arrangements of Gatorade (in dehydrated and liquid forms), narcissus bulbs and golf balls arranged in fish tanks, and folded hand‑towels. The whole look suggests something incomplete, something that doesn’t work or function but retains a kind of necessary and meticulous logic. It’s inviting, if, ultimately perplexing.
Two‑by‑fours made a strong showing overall. The best example came from Heather Rowe, whose playful “Something crossed the mind (embellished three times)” offered a physically fractured experience. Approaching her structure lengthwise, you can make out two sort of hallways through which you have a straight shot, but approached from the side, segments of mirror, molding and dry wall are wedged between plywood boards, making it difficult to tell where entry points are. And as you walk through the sculpture, your peripheral vision is constantly challenged by textural tricks of space, white, and reflection.
William Cordova’s installation of a framed floor plan was attractive as an idea of suggestion, but maudlin touches of collage diminished the vaster impact of the architecture, and overall didn’t have as strong of an aesthetic pinch as Ms. Rowe’s piece.
Mika Rottenberg’s “Cheese” appeared more haphazardly built, looking like a dilapidated chicken coop, and housing an installation of monitors that showed films of prairie women washing their long swaths of hair, milking goats, sleeping, or engaging in some sort of ritual around a block of lard or cheese. Sounds of chickens clucking surround you. The work is strong in the way it manifests a unique universe, one that you get to experience through voyeurism and immersion. Overhearing one of the Biennial tour guides speaking about the piece, I gather that there is supposed to be some comment here on the woman’s body as currency. But for me, in light of the recent FLDS happening in Texas, this work resonated more as a comment on American fundamentalism, which naturally includes strictures on the roles of women in society, particularly as property. The United States has a strong element of living colonial primitivism that is both at odds with liberal secularism and the dominant, capitalistic Christian conservatism that passes for common sense Christianity.
The choices of the Biennial curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, seemed prescient in light of the recent death of Robert Rauschenberg. I wandered to the fifth floor (searching for the exhibition of Mapplethorpe polaroids, which I’ll get to later), when I came upon three Rauschenberg pieces (“Yoiks” and two others). All three pieces display a similar dirtiness–paint on fabrics and feathers; some muddy coloring; garbage objects like aluminum cans and boards–while also demonstrating Rauschenberg’s precision and ability to create rough, yet complete objects.
Much of the art on display celebrated this spirit. Ry Rocklen’s “Refuge,” a naked box spring on top of which lay a thin screen with hundreds of nails slipped through its holes, was simultaneously glitter and gutter.
Patrick Hill set various fabrics into cement molds, evoking a quality of “wrongness,” repulsive, but on second consideration, poetic.
Los Angeles artist, Ruben Ochoa’s impressive sculpture, “An Ideal Disjuncture,” could easily pass for a huge piece of shit. But the energy of the structure is sweeping. Two concrete masts supported by rebar anchor a sail of chain link fencing, all of it resting on pallets arranged helter-skelter. The work has great motion and resonates with our culture of constant development and redevelopment. It looks like a piece of wreckage. Having lived in Southern California, I can attest to the number of blighted lots and areas, particularly along the railroad lines, that make up so much of the Los Angeles landscape.
Charles Long’s works took the idea of garbage art to the most annoying terms. His spindly sculptures are really just bits of garbage congealed together with plaster. They are neither poetic nor scathing. Simply uninteresting.
Artists’s love affair with dirtiness even appeared in the paintings of Sheyney Thompson. The smallest of her three pieces was a detail of some folded, sullied flannel.
A sculpture by Jedediah Caesar summarized the resistance to prettiness and polish. It looks like a giant ugly block of melting wax, with streaking colors muddied together. But it is made out of resin dripped over polystyrene. As I walked around it, I suddenly noticed that I could smell the chemicals seeping out fo the resin. The work took on new substance as a new sense was engaged, challenging my impulse to evaluate everything purely in terms of the visual.
Some of the photography also displayed this kind of grungy aesthetic position.
Leslie Hewitt’s “Make It Plain” series does just that. Three digital prints nestled in simple frames sat on the floor, leaning against three respective walls of a gallery. The photographs depict awkward and spare arrangements of books, pieces of wood, frames, photographs and a penny, stacked against walls. A real book lay in the middle of the floor. The colors were plain, white and sandy. Visually the installation expanded the room, creating a kind of hyper (or double) environment.
And Walead Beshty’s photographs of the Iraqi embassy in what used to be East Berlin encompass several modes of destructive composition. The embassy itself is going to waste, cluttered with books and papers stacked pell-mell clogging the floors of hallways, and chairs inexplicably set atop desks, appearing as if the building had been gutted by a hurricane. The resolution of the photos are grainy and tinted different colors, a result of allowing the film to be run through security x-rays of shipping companies.
But slick art wasn’t overlooked at this show.
The strongest of these, and “Best In Show”, if I were to grant such an award, was Eduardo Sarabia’s “The Gift.” His meticulous, yet cartoonish installation, presents a fictive storage facility. Large crates labeled with “Maize”, “Avocado” and “Cloralex” fill-in large portions of very basic storage shelves. Between these, soft, colorful ceramic sculptures represent other kinds of contraband booty; dice with corners severed, horse ankles, money, machine guns, severed mermaids (busts on one shelf, fins on the other), busts of men with their hands in prayer. Most beautiful was a series of aquatic blue men in crouched position with the world’s atlas painted in red on the sides of their torsos. The whole thing evoked some kind of imaginary and hidden storage of wares of some drug lord, the softness, simplicity and vibrant colors belying the bloody and sordid means by which such riches are gained.
Sherrie Levine’s “Body Mask,” a series of six cast bronze molds of a pregnant woman’s belly and boobs, with holes punched out along the edges, suggest both a body and armor, polished and mirrored.
And Michael Queenland’s Deitch-ready installation of resin and fiberglass objects (monkey heads, balloons, eggs), was a cool, sharp example of the absurdity of opulence.
Now, there was a lot of talk about how this Biennial was “quiet.” I’m not sure what this could mean other than that there was virtually nothing sexually explicit. I can’t imagine that it’s a good idea to equate nudity with volume, as if the only thing that is truly edgy is a penis or a vagina, or that art that isn’t sexually explicit can’t possibly cause a stir or resonate as transgression. Although, I myself am disappointed in the overall prudishness of the Biennial (speaking strictly in terms of representations of sex)–I think it succumbs to a larger cultural trend of muting sexual realities–I wouldn’t couch the absence in terms of loudness or quietude. It’s more of an incompleteness due to modesty.
In fact the only explicit material I observed was found in the Mapplethorpe exhibit, which was not actually part of the Biennial proper. The photos are polaroid studies, portraits of friends and objects, as well as a few self portaits. It’s clearly a precursor to current trends in media self-absorption. Although a series of six images of Patti Smith strike one as beautifully earnest, not so much self-absorption, but more self-expression. And in contrast to the lack of sexual imagery in the Biennial, Mapplethorpe’s revolutionary spirit not only survives in tact, but also stands in stark contrast to today’s trend of highly editing self-representation. Today’s artists seem less willing to take art into the more morally “dirty” places of the human soul, letting, rather, naked materials stand in for human nakedness. Mapplethorpe, carrying on traditions of Dada, the nude, and portraiture, still managed to infuse undeniable subjective realism into his work. It endures for that.
Note: I didn’t see any of the films that were running. Feel free to throw tomatoes. My time was limited. That’s all.