The 2017 Whitney Biennial (Review)
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York City, New York
By Mario Vasquez
Through June 11th
Contemporary art has always asked the question, “What is now?” The Whitney Biennial always asks, “What is now in American Art?” Set in the new Renzo Piano designed building, located in the meat packing district of Manhattan, the 2017 Whitney Biennial attempts to define American Art in the context of the current political, economic, and social situation of the country. With the recent election of President Donald Trump, and the defeat of Hilary Clinton, I was interested in how this biennial would address the political and social aftermath of the 2016 election. President Trump is not in this biennial. However, the nation that he governs is in this biennial. The curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, attempt to create an almost state of the union where the condition and zeitgeist of America are explored by the artists that inhabit the new Whitney Museum. The curators wanted to strike a balance between portraying the sense of dread and fear with a sense of optimism that characterizes the American spirit. Overall, I believe that the curators were successful. Within the biennial, the curators’ choice of artists and their works are strong and compelling. The works in the biennial reflect the intentions and goals of the curators, despite a few works that are problematic.
The aims of the curators were tantamount so much so that they did not follow or subscribe to any kind of rejection or acceptance of a genre or practice that may be in vogue or “declared dead” by the art world. The prime example of this is the strong showing of painting in his biennial. Figurative painters such as Henry Taylor, Shana Hughes, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Dana Schutz, Aliza Nisenbaum, and even Frances Stark’s new text-based paintings based on the writings of Ian Svenonius, fulfill specific functions that fulfill a curatorial objective. Dana Schutz paints a world of tension and aggression by using an Expressionist approach to representation. Aliza Nisenbaum depicts the immigrant family and community life. Celeste Spencer-Dupuy paints the daily life of rural 21st century America. Shara Hughes creates colorful and magical landscapes, along with the color-field abstract paintings of Carrie Moyer, that are beautiful and optimistic. Los Angeles based artist Henry Taylor shows the daily life and heartbreak of Black America.
In this biennial, the African American experience is pivotal. Along with Henry Taylor, African American artists display the anger, frustrations, and the hopes of their community. On the 6th floor, the viewer is confronted with two works. The first is the work by Henry Taylor, “The Ancestors of Genghis Khan with Black Man on Horse,” and the second work is a video piece by Tommy Hartung called “The Lessor Key of Solomon.” Hartung’s video is a work that reflects the rage in contemporary African American life. With a speech by Leo Muhammad playing, Hartung’s video animates the racism and inequality that pervades the world. Taylor’s painting portrays a multicultural landscape of Blacks and Asians living in the community together within an accurate and changing America. Taylor’s other paintings portray the daily lives of those within the African American community and the outrage of the death of Philando Castile by a police officer. Displayed with Taylor’s paintings are the photographs of Deana Lawson, whose work seeks to subvert and upend the perceptions and stereotypes that are prevalent in media depictions. Lawson’s photographs show a positive and strong image of Black life. Along with the jazz of Los Angeles-based artist Kamasi Washington, whose uplifting music permeates the 5th floor, the curators manage to achieve a balance between rage and hope for the future within the Black community.
The artists in this year’s biennial also seek to explore the issues of immigration and the immigrant community. The moment you enter the lobby of the Whitney Museum, to the right of the stairs and elevator, is Rafa Esparza’s installation “Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field,” one of the best works in this year’s biennial. Esparza’s installation is a meeting place to reflect on the immigration experience in this country. Esparza has transferred adobe bricks from Los Angeles to New York, thus using the material and the works of 5 invited Los Angeles artists as a site of reflection and meditation about the Latino experience in Los Angeles and that of the rest of the United States. The use of adobe is important since it was the main building material that colonized the Spanish Southwest, which includes the States of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Thus, the transfer of material acts as a colonization process, and acts as a metaphor for a people who went from indigenous, to Spanish, to Mexican, and finally American. These transitions are sites for both conflict and reconciliation.
Postcommodity’s video piece “A Very Long Line” is a four-channel video installation showing the border wall as it exists today and how it is site for the contradiction and conflict between a nation that is supposed to welcome the immigrant, but tries very hard to keep the immigrant out. Aliza Nisenbaum’s paintings as mentioned earlier are works that depict an immigrant community, struggles and all, where families and people live and work. It is an optimistic view of immigration that rightfully states that those who come here are part of the fabric that makes this country an already great country. Along with other artists, Tuan Nguyen and Julien Nguyen add an Asian American dimension to the Biennial whose work reflect the refugee experience as part of both promise and tragedy. The immigrant artists are strong in this biennial, where the viewer gets both the fear, frustrations, and promise that behold every immigrant group that chooses this nation. It is the biennial at its best.
The best of this biennial was difficult to decide on, because there were so many artists and works to choose from. Based on the works and artists that were included, it was clear that Los Angeles is now the most dynamic and the center of gravity when it comes to the production of art in the United States. As mentioned above, Frances Stark, Henry Taylor, Kamasi Washington, and Rafa Esparza, along with veteran Light and Space artist Larry Bell, Harold Mendez, Julien Nguyen, John Divola, Kaari Upson, and Tala Madani produced works that were the most compelling and powerful, and all based in Los Angeles.
The best of this year’s biennial is a Los Angeles artist whose ingenious installation clearly stole the show. Samara Golden’s installation “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes” uses mirrors and models to portray an infinite stratum of class that as seen from the lower level as homeless sleep on the floor to upper levels of the installation portraying luxury and wealth. Golden’s use of an awkward space is effective in that it gives the viewer both a view and a space within the stratum; a reminder to the viewer of its privilege as it looks down on an office, a hospital, a prison, a middle class living room and looks above at the luxury penthouse. Golden’s work is a continuation of her 2015 solo show at Canada where the use of illusion and mirrors created a horror vacui filled with tables and chairs of a banquet hall from floor to ceiling. Golden in this installation has proven to be master of the use of space, illusion, and metaphor to give the viewer a sense of both disorientation and wonderment. Golden’s work is clearly the best of this biennial, because of the use of space and the narrative of America that is explored.
At the same time, there is a real conscientious statement of the class strata that exists in this nation. Along with the installation by Occupy Museums “Debtfair” on the disturbing relationship between debt and artists, and the paintings of Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, these artists portray the economic problems that still plague this nation since the 2008 recession and to this day influence their daily life…. even influencing the recent election.
While looking at the best of this Biennial, I must also look at the worst. The two worst works are by Jordan Wolfson and Pope L. aka William Pope L. William Pope L.’s installation consists of a room-sized installation called “Claim (Whitney Version)” The installation is a room, both inside and outside, covered floor to ceiling with slices of bologna. Each slice has a portrait as the smell of rotting food permeates the gallery. The explanatory text provided by the artist seeks to explain that, “each slice has a purported Jewish person pasted to its center.” The text mentions the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Conceptually this work is nonsensical in every way. I question the use of the Jews and the spoiled and rotting flesh that consumes the gallery. Without a clear understanding of the metaphor and what is being comprehended, the work can lead a viewer to some dark and disturbing conclusions. Does the artist have a hostility to the Jewish community? How does this work fit in and add to the curatorial objectives of this Biennial? None of these questions are answered in the statement or in the catalog. Instead I am given the explanation that the artist is merely exploring the false analogies that plague our society. If that was the case, why not explore the explosion of falsehoods that are prevalent on the internet. I really enjoyed Pope L.’s mid-career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. So, I am disappointed at Pope L.’s piece in this Biennial. Instead Pope L.’s reckless conceptual approach to this work becomes a disaster, and a work not worthy of the Biennial or the Whitney Museum as an institution.
Pope L.’s piece was not the only work that was unworthy. Jordan Wolfson is the worst artist of this Biennial. Wolfson’s piece, “Real Violence” is a virtual reality, high definition video, which goes from promise to horror. It starts with the Hanukah song of celebration as the blue sky opens to the viewer. The video then pans down on the sidewalk of the city where a man is on his knees, and then from behind another man begins to beat him to death with a bat. Blood, gore and brutality follow as the viewers are shown, which essentially is, a snuff film. First, what is the relationship between the Jewish iconography of the Hanukah song and the beating and death that is witnessed by the viewer? Why the Jews in this piece? And is this connected with the violence that follows? If this is nothing but a spectacle piece, that’s empty and vacuous, then I question the curators and the Whitney as an institution. Our culture does not need more spectacle. I think a critical look at Wolfson needs to be presented rather than focusing on a painter whose work portrays an important historical event and an event that helped galvanize the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Wolfson’s spectacle discredits the curatorial vision and intentions presented. Fortunately, the other works save the Biennial.
In conclusion, the curators, with some exceptions, succeeded in portraying the current state of the American psyche. Although the works and the curatorial concepts were formulated before the election, the election was well under way. The Biennial portrays the nation with all its beauty and warts. With a new building housing this exhibition, this Whitney Biennial was a success.