Downsizing: 2010 at The Whitney
I overheard someone at the preview say this year’s Whitney Biennial—the 75th edition of the prestigious show—was sculpturally deficient. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to say it was “fun,” and to be honest I think both observations are kind of missing the point. 2010, this year’s Biennial—co-curated by Francesco Bonami, former senior curator at MCA Chicago and director of the International Art Exhibition at the 50th Venice Biennale, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, a young senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney—is largely focused on grandeur, and their two competing points of view make for a broad dialogue about the contemporary American moment as it stands now.
Using multiple organizers isn’t a new practice for the Whitney Biennial. Anywhere between four and six curators were used throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and the number has fallen to only two or three since 2004. This year, that’s not the only figure to get downsized: there are fewer artists in the Biennial than ever before—55 to be exact—and there are fewer men than women, a Whitney Biennial first. (Represent, ladies.) It almost feels culturally appropriate to think smaller this year, especially when the recession is still quite present for most of the country, but what 2010 lacks in numbers (and curatorial cohesion) it makes up for in talent.
The first video in the show, Detroit (2009), by Ari Marcopoulos, is wholeheartedly current and it brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the show. In a brightly-colored room designed for a small child, two middle-school-aged boys toy with sound among dozens of distortion and loop pedals, twisting knobs and tweaking the shrill sound bleeding from the amps nearby. It is noise personified, with no guitar in sight. Kids don’t make punk rock these days, they do this, and the title—revealing the site of the candid video’s making—invites viewers to question the place of traditional rock-and-roll within new musical practices.
Rashaad Newsome’s Untitled (New Way Study) (2009), is a marvel and one of the best (and simplest) videos here. In a tiny white studio, a thin black dancer vogues for the camera, popping and locking with an elegance and grace usually reserved for ballet dancers. While his moves look completely spontaneous, they are the result of editing footage of several vogue dancers to choreograph a new dance, performed here. Jesse Aron Green’s performance video, Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik (2008), is also centered on gyrating male protagonists, wherein 16 male models perform stretches and 45 exercises according to an 1858 book by a German physician. A 360-degree tracking shot and some long underwear makes this video look much better than it sounds.
Highly noticeable this year is the attention paid to new and exciting practices in painting. Even Pae White’s enormous, wall-sized cotton and polyester tapestry, Smoke Knows (2009), is intensely painterly. Tauba Auerbach’s large-scale works, which feature rich, implied textures on monochromatic surfaces, are made by folding raw canvases and using an industrial paint gun to cover the surfaces with synthetic polymer. When unfolded and stretched, the canvas still appears crumpled and the resulting tension between three-dimensionality and flatness is staggering. Sarah Crowner’s gouache on sewn canvas works, which feature fields of large black-and-white three-sided shapes, make for an interesting use of materials but fall flat in Auerbach’s company.
R.H. Quaytman’s work is an optical mind-fuck, running the gamut from glittery diamond dust & gesso fields of cream to the visual static of tightly collected black-and-white lines on panel. Following suit is Scott Short, whose giant Untitled (white) (2008) is the product of both man and machine. Short begins with a piece of colored construction paper and photocopies it again and again as it becomes increasingly tonally abstract from copy to copy. He then selects a copy, photographs it, projects the image onto a primed canvas and paints it. Both a reproduction and an original, Short’s vastly textured work breeches the limitations of painting while exploring abstraction and representation.
While Lesley Vance’s dark and lustrous oil on linen works are the most refreshing take on still-life painting in recent memory, the exhibition includes some terribly stale painting as well. The oil on panel works of Maureen Gallace, which depict humble summer houses on or around the Cape, are startlingly safe and a total “what-the-fuck” moment. If one felt obligated to include New England landscape painting, it seems odd not to feature something, well, new. Instead this choice is only memorable for its overwhelming forgettable-ness.
A far more unsettling inclusion in this year’s exhibition, however, is Marianne Vitale, who participated in the peripheral events of the 2008 Biennial, but not the show itself. Her video, Patron (2009), features the artist reciting a prosy, comically loaded rant to the camera. The piece is poorly edited (iMovie?) and includes a filmic score. “Everyone’s gonna take this medicine ‘cause I’m spooning it to ya,” she says loudly, amid a cacophony of indulgent and tersely uttered polemics, and unfortunately it takes much more than a teaspoon of sugar to digest what she’s serving. Vitale’s loud, cantankerous perspective is emblematic of the Biennial’s longstanding penchant for angry young work, and its placement—in a small, secluded corner with unrelated work—should be a clear indication of its merit.
While some were quick to call this year’s Biennial more cheery, the undertone is still quite grim. Nina Berman’s photos introduce us to a man whose face is no longer recognizable after dozens of surgeries following an Iraqi suicide bomb attack. Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair’s images of Afghani victims of self-immolation will sear themselves into the memories of all who see them. Bruce High Quality Foundation is a group of anonymous artists simultaneously hosting their own group exhibition of hot American talent, Brucennial 2010: Miseducation. A video is projected onto the windshield of a hearse from inside the vehicle, effectively making the broken glass panel a monitor. The installation feels dark: a single headlight shines against an empty corner wall; the twin towers appear in video footage as the hearse itself drives across the Manhattan bridge; and a grainy security video clip reveals a baby carriage rolling over the edge of a subway platform and invariably run over by an incoming train. So, while “fun” might be an accurate adjective to describe the act of going to see the Whitney Biennial, it doesn’t do much to describe the work within it.
2010 is paired this year with Collecting Biennials, an exhibition of works from the museum’s permanent collection, including Matthew Barney, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Julian Schnabel, Cy Twombly and several other artists from previous Annuals and Biennials. It’s worth going if only to see Richard Prince’s Spiritual America (1983), the controversial photograph of a naked (oiled-up?) ten-year-old Brooke Shields, originally shot by Gary Gross. The piece made headlines in September 2009 after the Tate Modern removed the photograph from a forthcoming exhibition after a visit from police. Take a moment to consider that the Whitney is proud to feature this photograph—practically bragging about it in the first room of the show—and, more importantly, that this is probably the most important thing Brooke Shields will ever be a part of. Or at least let’s hope so.
Evan J. Garza is Editor-at-Large for New American Paintings and Curator at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a contributing writer and critic for Art Lies and ART PAPERS and he recently joined New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) as an independent curator. His first reviews were published by Glasstire in 2007.