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National Treasure


Although this will be the 75th Biennial put on by the Whitney Museum of American Art, I hardly know any person who is fond of the museum’s contemporary cross-section. If they are fond, they are fond only because it is an excellent platform for casting judgment against the new and seemingly vulnerable works that will be showcased. There seems to be something of a bitter taste for this particular art event indeed, but I have begun to wonder if this is just our own distaste for the present, or our distaste for the lack of cohesion in contemporary art.

These artists are not in any sort of historical canon (from which we could draw comfort or assurance of their work’s value), but in fact are flux both in their individual careers and in their literal placement in the museum. They are defined only by a curatorial duo, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, and the space in which they are given to show their work. There is no underlying theme to this show except this: "let us take a strata sample of the American art scene over the last two years and present to you what we've sifted and gleaned from the present culture."

"What am I getting myself into?" I wondered as I approached the Whitney’s inverted facade. Having read a mixture of reviews of the show, some scathing and some packed with praise, I felt nervous. This was my first Biennial. Usually the shows I frequent center on a certain theme, context, time period, or artist. Here, though, I would only be seeing the “now” of the art world. Oh boy. I expected to feel lost or dizzied by what I'd soon encounter, but walking around those familiar concrete floors I felt more like an explorer. Like Indiana Jones, but instead of looking for an arc or treasure, I was looking for an unforgettable work - something to zero in on and have an experience.

I had kept Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life in mind as a sort of lens by which to read what would be assembled to represent these last two years. I know that might seem like an irrelevant source, being published in 1863 and all, but I was soon to find out that one of the works shown was making similar use of Baudelaire’s modernity. Lorraine O’Grady’s The First and the Last of the Modernists is a series of diptychs consisting of paired photographs of Michael Jackson and Charles Baudelaire at similar ages and points in their careers. O’Grady series of paired portraits aims to guide us through each cultural figure’s journey, the height of their innovations in relation to modern culture, and the cost of these things on their personal lives. The champion of modernity was side by side with the king of pop and the feeling this gave me was quite an unsettling one.

This feeling continued, as near by one is confronted by Cadillac Miller-Meteor hearse playing a film through it's front windshield. A crowd of people faced the hearse and took in the calm narration, a scene that the Bruce High Quality Foundation (responsible for this installation) would have no doubt chuckled over. The installation, partially inspired by Joseph Beuy’s performance I Like America, and America Likes Me (1973), aims to both revive and lay to rest much of American (art) culture and myth.

Moving along I soon encounter Marianne Vitale’s Patron, a video installation that preaches the future of "Neutralism." Assertive, authoritarian, and surreal, this work permeates the exhibition and partially addresses my unease at formulating any sort of coherent opinion on just what exactly I am experiencing there in the museum. Vitale stares into the camera shouting orders and commands, effectively forcing us into her neutralist mentality. I find the experience of being berated by Vitale similar to certain passages of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there's an unrelenting madness that jars your place in the present reality. Adjacent to Vitale’s video one is confronted further with the surreal in Storm Tharp’s inky portraits.

These visions are created through a process of contour drawing on paper using water, followed by the application of mineral ink to create intense gradients of light and color. After further manipulation through erasure or drawing, the resulting portraits are incredibly saturated investigations of human identity and personal narrative.

Throughout the show I became increasingly aware of a trend towards new mediums and processes, including a revival of classical mediums, as is the case with Jim Lutes’ egg temperas. Though his paintings begin as portraits Lutes feels that to paint a likeness is to “paint in opposition to the form, which is both the failure and pleasure of painting.” His works are luminous and filled with depth, allowing the viewer to search throughout the fluid layers of colorful paint. Another traditional medium I was pleasantly surprised to see was Pae White’s incredibly intricate tapestry. From a distance we can see the swirling plumes of smoke as a whole, but up close a whole other feeling of depth and texture overwhelms. Gorgeous pale purple, aqua, and deep blue cotton fibers were woven together to create this ethereal fixed vision of a ephemeral phenomenon.

Another work of considerable patience and detail is Scott Short’s large scale black and white abstract painting. What at first seems like a series of random marks, resembling a giant flock of birds perhaps or tv static, is later revealed to be a painstaking recreation of a (get this) copy of a copy of a copy of a piece of paper. To prepare for his canvases, the artist makes photocopies of a pieces of construction paper, and then makes photocopies of the photocopies, repeating the process until he reaches his desired abstraction.

The resulting abstraction converted into a slide which is used to project the image onto the canvas, which Short then recreates by hand with acrylic paint. This investigation of texture, fiber, office supply abstraction, and raw materials absolutely delights me, as does standing in front of Short’s sublime depiction.

Tauba Auerbach is another artist included in the Biennial who enjoys investigating the very nature of her mode and materials. Her paintings are created through manipulating raw canvas physically (through rolling, folding, ect.), flattening it out, and finally spraying the manipulated canvas with an industrial strength paint gun. Auerbach effectively captures the three dimensional aspects of the canvas while the paintings themselves remain flat, creating a playful tromp l’oeil statement on the very limitations of painting itself. I was pleased and reassured to see how much painting the show contained, with artists showing everything from the mythological to the minimal on canvas.

There was also a notable amount of installation and sculpture, in particular a domineering work entitled Baby by Thomas Houseago. The work is imposing with its vacant eyes and somehow yet fragile and disrupted. Partially plaster, part wood, part wire, part animal, part human, half crawling, half walking, silent but foreboding, Baby put me in my place effectively. The straddling of sculpture and drawing, fragility and weight, monumentality and spontaneity by Houseago, I felt, was extremely successful. Another installation by David Adamo suggested a sort of movement or presence, as though a certain violence had passed and we the viewer were left in the quiet aftermath. Scissors and axes imbedded into museum walls, canes whittled away to almost nothing, Adamo’s installation investigates the suggestive nature of objects in relation to performance.

Video artist Kate Gilmore also confronts us with themes of action and destruction, as she plays the sole protagonist in her performative video installation. Gilmore’s struggle is one that is self made, and her performances revolve around overcoming these created obstacles. Gilmore’s performance consists of the artist herself escaping from a self constructed sheetrock structure that encases her. As she kicks and tears her way out of the claustrophobic space, we notice that the resulting structure (tears and all) is adjacent to the projected video. That one can physically stand next to this pillar of sheet rock further facilitates the fantasy about being in the same predicament as the artist, one which is equally about terror and conquest.

Video art is a genre that I find to be equally appealing and challenging. Our modern attention spans seem equipped to digest anything in video format, and at the same time when narrative is lacking one has a tendency to drift off or make the assumption that what is being shown is nonsense. Packed with video installations, the Whitney Biennial did not disappoint in either department. There were those installations that I loved, such as Josephine Meckseper’s eerie video homage to the Mall of America, and those that left me unsettled entirely, as was the case with Kelly Nipper’s interpretive dance piece. Kerry Tribe simulates amnesia by utilizing two projects to play one film documentary on a medical patient who, in the 1950s, underwent an experimental brain surgery to cure his epilepsy, and as a result can remember nothing after the surgery. The use of two projectors and one film reel creates a 20 second delay, in which the film repeats itself over itself continually, disrupting a linear sense of time and narrative.

Of course, there were a handful of works which centered around politics and war. Stephanie Sinclair’s photography in particular stood out to me, most notably because the attention she garnered through depiction of female Afghani self inflicted burn patients actually helped the women themselves. Because of her images and the awareness they generated a new special burn unit was built in Herat, where the women she photographed lived.

This was in contrast to Nina Berman’s series of photographs of veteran Ty Ziegel, who underwent fifty reconstructive surgeries after being severely disfigured during a suicide bomber attack while stationed in Iraq. Although this directly brings into the light the horror of war itself, there is another horror present in the continual objectification of this particular marine veteran. Although Ziegel allowed the photographs to be made, often at ease and with no real direction from the artist, there seems to be something off. Ziegel himself does not seem to blame his military or country, and as I leave the series of photographs I find myself only blaming the artist for what feels like a sort of shameless objectification of one man’s suffering. I could be missing it, but Ziegel has his life at least, as compared to the thousands of others who no longer do.

All in all the Biennial felt balanced and enjoyable; I was never overwhelmed but never feeling underwhelmed either. The show itself was rather egalitarian, consisting of half female and half male artists. Compared to the relatively male-dominated Collecting Biennials show that accompanied the selection of contemporary works, this was refreshing. With works on paper, collage, canvas, sculpture, photography, installation, fibers, video, and even conceptual pieces, the show was thoroughly engaging and provided insight to how each medium is being utilized at present. I sincerely enjoyed the experience of passing through this survey of the contemporary, of encountering new things and investigating them. I think that’s something of the point though, to go and explore. To see something new, to have an experience or get lost, to open up a dialogue between yourself and what is new.

Amanda McCleod is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Cy Twombly's sculptures.

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