All Those People

John Haber
in New York City

The 2017 Whitney Biennial

Half an hour into the 2017 Whitney Biennial, I had had my fill of people. No, not the crowds, for the first biennial ever in the Whitney's new home, with enough room for them and an often dazzling display. No, I mean the people in the art, only I grew almost to love them.

They fill painting after painting and video after video—dancing, working, dying, or just hanging out. They descend from the ceiling and ascend a rope in the stairwell. They take over less palpable museums by networks and financing schemes. They are also relentlessly politically correct. Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator (Whitney Museum, 2015)So I sought relief in some elements of landscape that had somehow found their way indoors. Only they, too, are human interventions, and they illuminate the tensions that make the biennial interesting after all.

Landscaping a biennial

The landscaping begins in the lobby, as it happens, before the people get started. Two paintings in a uniform dark brown hang over the front desk, by Park McArthur, like guides to the museum with their text effaced. With their pronounced frames and rounded corners, they could also be billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—right where the BQE cuts off neighborhoods from the waterfront, mass transit, or one another. The lobby gallery has more landscaping, in a cylindrical fortification like Castle Williams on Governor's Island or Castle Clinton in Battery Park. What looks like piled stone, however, is clay mixed with hay, horse dung, and Los Angeles River water. Rafa Esparza and others think of themselves as reversing the process of colonization by transporting native American materials to New York.

They cannot help evoking the dark side of that process all the same. Faces in large photos stand out most of all for their anonymity. A page from eBay and a "certificate of authenticity" for their "reconstructed southwest artifact" attest that anything and everything these days is for sale. Upstairs McArthur has more brown billboards, while photographs by An-My Lê present Louisiana as contested territory—flooded by storms, bearing a monument to a Confederate general, and serving as the set for a film about a Confederate Army deserter. On video, Sky Hopinka captures an island in the Bering Sea as home to the world's largest Aleut population, seabirds, and seals. In its very starkness, though, it no longer speaks a native language.

A video panorama of the Mexican border, by Postcommodity, spins past on three sides, at once a drive-by and encompassing. It practically demands, "Which side are you on?" Samara Golden invites one onto a railing overlooking the Hudson River, with sounds like surf, as The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes. Yet she, too, makes the majestic view disorienting, with mirrors, computers from an overworked office, and that scary title. Asad Raza offers more unalloyed hope, with a room of twenty-six trees opening onto the museum terrace. Even there, though, the slim branches and the reduction of trees to potted plants convey a fragile comedy.

Each artist dares visitors to enter an empty landscape, and each urges them not to forget those that have left it deserted. That sounds depressing, but the artists are just finding their way around along with you and celebrating those others. Landscape paintings in bright colors, by Shara Hughes, are downright cheerful—while a video by Anicka Yi, about a "flavor chemist" along the Amazon, is downright sappy. Either way, though, the Biennial is all about people, even when they are nowhere to be seen. For the Whitney, it is about "the formation of self and the individual's place in a turbulent society." It sounds political, not to mention jargon ridden, and it is, but also urgent.

This is not, though, a reprise of the notorious political biennial of some twenty years ago, in 1993, or "We Wanted a Revolution" in Brooklyn. It prefers affirmations of identity to confrontation. Slides of the LBGT community, by Lyle Ashton Harris, could almost be the anti-Nan Goldin. Reference to specific controversies and events, beyond Postcommodity and the border wars, are rare. Cameron Rowland got the Whitney to invest in a Social Impact Bond to "reduce the rate of adult incarceration," and who could object to that? You may go home dazzled, impressed, or annoyed at the whole thing, but you will not feel angry or excluded.

You will definitely leave delighted with the Whitney's new home in the Meatpacking District. The biennial skipped a year, so that all involved could get to know the building, and strong shows of Frank Stella, Stuart Davis, Carmen Herrera, and immersive media have already put it through its paces. Along with the lobby, this biennial occupies the two largest floors, a conference room, a utility closet, and the actual billboard across the street. It has just over sixty artists, but more space than ever before. That gives it the flexibility to isolate installations or video, to dwell on individual artists, or to let them encounter one another. With a room apart, painters like Hughes or Carrie Moyer get the equivalent of a gallery.

Art as a dance marathon

What, though, about all those people? You have already met more than a few. To get to know them, you must first meet the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, both Chinese Americans in their mid-thirties. These are people who can start a catalog essay with Bob the Drag Queen rather than art. You know right away that the Whitney is hoping to reinvent the ritual of a biennial for today. You know, too, that it will place the accent on identity and diversity, much like its rehanging of the collection upstairs as "Where We Are."

That diversity extends to geography, because this is not business as usual in New York. Artists work more often in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, LA, or online. Porpentine Charity Heartscape, for one, will have you clicking through physical and mental landscapes that are far more confining and dangerous than first appears. They have roots as far away as Iran and Vietnam, and they run to artist collectives with names like post-punk bands. They have much in common, too, with the emerging artists of "Greater New York" at MoMA PS1—all the more so since its last version went back in time to the AIDS epidemic.

This is not the art of museums—at least not the big institutional façade of the Whitney. Irena Haiduk indeed provides an alternative, inviting visitors to log into her Whitney Frauenbank, a network that welcomes women artists as members. In practice, visitors are more likely to gather around her box on the floor to watch its shifting video projections, but that is an alternative museum, too. So is Occupy Museums, with its more dogmatic centered on the art of Puerto Rico. Seasoned artists like Jo Baer are rare. Six red glass cubes by Larry Bell on a terrace outdoors look left over from some other show entirely.

Carrie Moyer's Canonical (Canada gallery, 2011)Abstract art is rare, too, and not entirely abstract. Moyer has her big, beautiful canvases, but with a naturalistic side that I had never noticed before. Baer appears not with her sign paintings, but with images of megaliths in Ireland akin to Stonehenge. They look happily suspended in space. Matt Browning chisels away at open wood grids, as exercises less in geometry than in whittling. The most abstract of all, on paper and steel by Ulrike Müller, is also the dullest—and even she insists that it refers to the human body.

Installations are rare as well, apart from the trees and a house covered with nearly three thousand slices of bologna, by William Pope.L. (He has his reasons, to do with bridging ethnic barriers, but baloney.) So is conceptual art, although Chemi Rosado-Seijo moves a classroom from the Lower East Side into the Whitney. Work from the museum, in turn, moves to the high school. Still, this is not art as a lecture. You may need to look hard to decipher its politics.

No, this is art as a dance marathon—only starting with Tala Madani, who opens one floor with Shitty Disco. Madani has something serious in mind, between the dark adjective and frenetic noun. Intense light breaking through the blackness evokes a "black sun" and a world "sexed by God." Just as often, though, girls and boys just want to have fun. Maya Stovall has her friends dancing outside a theater and liquor store. Kamasi Washington declares his music video's affinity to jazz and counterpoint, but it reaches comforting crescendos all the same.

The art of diversity

The tension between darkness and affirmation runs through nearly everything. Casey Gollan and Victoria Sobel apply blue to a window to embrace the sunlight, but also text from the 1968 student uprisings in Paris. Banners by Cauleen Smith declare that "I can't be fixed," "I am holding my breath," and "fear looks back at me." They also appear written in black and blood. Mannequins by Ajay Kurian climb the stairwell, but another hangs his head like the victim of a lynching, fatigue, or shame. Jessi Reaves supplies comfortable and creative seating throughout, but its materials still look creepy.

The tension is stronger still in traditional media, and so is the politics of diversity. People really start to crowd into painting, sculpture, and photography—up front and in your face. Painting makes its strongest impression right off the elevators, with Dana Schutz and Henry Taylor. Schutz's titanic bodies take painting back to Pablo Picasso and primitivism, but here they, too, have a political side, and Schutz as a white woman has every right to express it. They get into quite a fight in an elevator, and Emmett Till lies in his open casket. Taylor draws his brushwork from Alice Neel and his themes from the Black Lives Matter, but with time out for family and a front-yard grill.

Other painters come off as blander, but no question where their sympathies lie. Aliza Nisenbaum paints immigrants and prisoners as at home in the world, while Celeste Dupuy-Spencer just wants you to see Karl Marx or Trump supporters alike as real people. In photography, Oto Gillen reduces New York street life to an amateur fashion show. More effectively, Deana Lawson stages her reply to stereotypes of the black community. Less overtly political, John Divola treats abandoned paintings like abandoned people. They might have emerged from a video by Leigh Ledare, which sees the Moscow subways as the social nexus of an unreal city.

Puppies Puppies collects gun triggers, in a long twisted row on the walls. They might have pierced the seeming body bags by KAYA (aka Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers) in a larger-than-life procession. Torey Thornton tops the blade of a huge circular saw with stones. It might have cut right through the chambers of the heart and flayed skin that Kaari Upson fashions from discarded furniture. More determinedly upbeat, Raúl de Nieves covers his figures with beads and acetate, like the world's tackiest wedding party. More ambiguously, Harold Mendez covers a tree trunk with crushed insects like confetti.

How can work that so often misses the point add up to so challenging a biennial? When does work so extroverted become the equivalent of hitting you over the head? Jordan Wolfson does so all but literally, with dizzying virtual reality. An unnamed city spins upside-down and back, as if you yourself have fallen, and then one actor kicks and beats another past submission. After that, I had to see mannequins in scuba gear, from Jon Kessler, as wearing the same VR headset. They could stand the enhancement.

For that matter, should a biennial be competing for the youth vote with a New Museum triennial or "Greater New York"? Could that actually make it less representative of the present moment in art? Larry Bell may not fit well here, but another genre or generation might. Still, for once a distinct point of view comes across—and it comes across as a genuine diversity. You might want to fill it out with a stop at MoMA or the Met for their contemporary selections, or you might want to wait another two years, when the Whitney truly gets the hang of the building. It is already drawing a crowd.

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The 2017 Whitney Biennial ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through June 11, 2017. You might wish to look back to the 1993 Biennial, 1997 Biennial, 2000 Biennial, 2002 Biennial, 2004 Biennial, 2006 Biennial, 2008 Biennial, 2010 Biennial, 2012 Biennial, and 2014 Biennial. A related article looks at controversy over Dana Schutz and the Whitney Biennial.


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