by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Whitney Biennial 2014
curators Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms & Michelle Grabner
There is an overwhelming number of penises in the Whitney Biennial. In order to deal with them properly lest the sensation of mass phallus overtake you, it is prudent to rename those cocks "jimmy-jammies." You will find this expression goes much more smoothly in your art-based convos e.g., "did you see the macaroon at the end of that guy's jimmy-jammy?" (Macaroon is a Yiddish expression that refers to the tip of a jimmy-jammy, or alternately a sweet, fluffy after-dinner treat.)
The worst part of the exhibition itself is undoubtedly the pron room, or as it is technically referred to, Bjarne Melgaard: Intimate Transparencies. There, among greasy couches and oversized models of vaguely erotic resemblances, you have a "reaction" to the jimmy-jammies. Light satire is the opiate of the masses. Artists and media types are ironically the most prudish among thinking peoples, mostly because their consumption of culture prevents them from focusing entirely on the practice of sex as a moral imperative. The Biennial itself, despite all the macaroons and full frontals, is as Puritan as the Mayflower.
As the exhibition notes detail, "Melgaard intends for his installation to communicate the effects of what some scientists call the Anthropocene, a new geological age created by human activity, especially through global warming. He proposes that our collective psyches have been abused and damaged in much the same way the environment has, resulting in sadism and an utter disregard for humanity." Global warming did this, you guys.
Using three different curators for this year's event, the last to take place in the museum's Madison Avenue location before the Met takes it over as storage space for its lesser paintings, was a bold move. A bold move is what you call something when it doesn't quite come together the way you want it to, like The Lone Ranger or the Munich Pact.
I attended the event with a local painter, a woman who goes by the nom de plume of Medium Rosenstein. She made several observations about the Biennial that I jotted down so that you can get an idea of how a working artist perceives such an occasion:
- "I just heard someone say a sculpture was rococo. It sounded like the way you would describe a roof."
- "This is an eight minute video. It easily could have been on YouTube."
- in reference to spooky music and creepy stuffed animals prominently featured in the staircases between floors: "It's harder than you would think to confuse high art with like, a really good Halloween party."
- "The guy wearing the tutu has a massive jimmy-jammy. When I was a kid I thought the word penis ended in a vowel."
- "I find it difficult to take seriously any exhibition with space for Gary Indiana."
- "I just saw two girls crying at the David Foster Wallace exhibit." I asked whether she attempted to console them. "No, I just told them the mock-science video about the guy with HIV was pretty good."
- "I've heard Susan Howe is a bit of a prost."
- "If I see another flaccid JJ, I'll scream."
- "Carol Jackson is a genius":
Eroticism has always been an important part of art, but none of that was terribly present at the Biennial. There was only evidence of the exertion required not to get turned on by something that would ordinarily be stimulating to the senses. It is something like going to a rodeo and being upset when a rider is bucked off a horse.
Many of the pieces included by all three curators were collaborations, or re-imaginings of artwork produced but never officially displayed as intended. Such works rarely cohered, like the photographs and artwork commemorating the relationship of a couple in which each party was changing gender in the opposite direction. It all seemed like a slice of something real rather than the actual thing.
Work by Jackson, Ken Okiishi, Dashiell Manley and Joseph Grigley's hilarious tribute to the dead critic and painter Gregory Battcock were the clear highlights. The modest number of paintings seem to recede into the background, taken over by the most extensive installations, and the arrangement of Battcock's papers as a series of clues to the mystery of his murder made for the best room in the building.
The fact that so many of the artists were either deceased or being reinterpreted really should not matter, but an event like the Biennial always feels like a hodgepodge, and implicating the dead seems like a distraction from the purpose. I really hate to be harsh, but Medium Rosenstein agrees with me: It's a bit morbid to only have buildings full of art by people who can no longer enjoy or profit from any of the admiration the work engenders. It is even stranger to make this part of what is supposed to be a modern, contemporary exhibit. David Foster Wallace's notebooks might be worth a laugh, but they surely don't belong in a glass case to go untouched by human hands. They were meant for somebody.
All told it took just over two hours to cover the Biennial and trifling permanent exhibit of the Whitney. The latter element contained a variety of mediocre Jasper Johns and Georgia O'Keeffe paintings, and who ever thought those artists would ever be thought of as entirely sincere? If they knew introducing satire in the context of visual art constituted an irreversible change, I doubt they ever would have been so glib.
The Whitney generally has a thing about not showing off the best parts of their substantial collection. It is the reason they are moving their base of operations to a location in the meat-packing district, where they will have ample room to fete a wife-beater like Edward Hopper more lavishly. Again I am being overly unkind — the presentation of paintings in their respective rooms has long been far more pleasant at the Whitney than at the cramped Met or overly spacious MoMA. You would not think it would be so hard to know how much of one thing to pour into something else, but it is.
Afterwards, I bought Medium some Jane Austen temporary tattoos from a nearby gift shop, and I applied the one relating most closely to Mr. Darcy to the inside of my left thigh. We talked over a malt what the very best of the exhibit was. "I liked the stuff by the woman in her 90s," Rosenstein informed me, swallowing the edge of a Pop Tart she had been housing in her purse in order to keep her blood sugar up. She was referring to the Beirut-born Etel Adnan. "It felt like she was putting everything into it, holding nothing back for later. If she had an idea, it was there, even if it did not fit just right." I nodded and stroked my tattoo with a plastic fork. It itched.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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