Whitney Biennial 2019

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Janiva Ellis, Whitney Biennial 2019; Photo credit Mario Vasquez

Whitney Biennial 2019

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
May 17–Sep 22, 2019

Written by Mario Vasquez

Note: This review was written before the 8 artists withdrew their works. Some works mentioned may no longer be on view. 

Upon exiting the elevator on the 5th floor of the Whitney Museum, Kota Ezowa’s video piece “National Anthem (Buffalo Bills),” 2018 welcomes the visitor to the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The video mediates and animates Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling instead of standing for the National Anthem as a protest against police brutality. The piece is mesmerizing and quite compelling. However, Ezowa’s animation lessens the controversy and thus dissipates the rage that the moment created at the time. Going into the 2019 Whitney Biennial, there were a few expectations. The Whitney Biennial, since at least 1993, has been a barometer of the current state of nation as seen and mediated through American art. The Biennial has explored fundamental questions while being provocative, questioning and daring the audience to reconsider their beliefs and assumptions. The Biennial has a reputation, for better or worse, as being an exhibition that is never afraid to be confrontational. This year’s biennial is different, and yet retained its provocative nature.

Curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, this year’s biennial defied expectations. It’s a biennial that does not have an aggressive tone nor is it overly political. However, it is still very political. There are many contradictions. There are no depictions of the current occupant in the White House, but his presence is still felt. This year the biennial’s curators decided to focus on the big issues. To thoroughly understand the exhibition, one must go beyond the current political polarization or social condition. In the museum introductory text, the curators state that the biennial is “steeped in sociopolitical concerns, (yet) the cumulative effect is open ended and hopeful.” The curators recognized that long after Donald Trump is gone, the problems that pervade this nation will persist.

The 75 artists in this biennial present work that is deeply individual. The works explore prevalent issues like race, class and gender politics. Most refreshingly, the artists in this year’s biennial present works that explore the ideas of beauty and spirituality within the context of reconnecting with the past, present and future. The artists filter these issues through personal interpretations and new languages. The quality of the work in the Biennial range from the mediocre to the great. Here are some of the great and most compelling highlights of the 2019 Whitney Biennial.

In “I prayed to the wrong god for you,” Tiona Nokkia McClodden, who is an ordained Santeria priestess, explores the connections between objects as symbols of the various gods from Africa, and the spiritual exhaustion that plagues American society. McClodden sees her work as a way of repairing the spiritual crises that she sees in society. The objects displayed and the video above reference connections between African art, and the colonial past that brought both the two spiritual forces together. McClodden’s work addresses her path to Santeria as part of the post-colonial condition that has recently evolved. It serves as a reawaking of consciousness that once thought lost. McClodden seeks to re-establish that spirituality and consciousness.

Jeffrey Gibson’s garments are conduits to the plight of Native Americans, issues revolving around civil rights, and those marginalized by society. Gibson’s dresses are influenced by Native American Ghost Dance rituals as part of a continual resistance to white society. The paintings of Jeanette Mundt depict the women’s gymnastic competition in a fragmented and fractured lens. Each painting is riddled with fault-lines that interferes with the scene. Mundt revealed the corruption underlying the sport, which eventually emerged with the sex abuse scandal.

Alexandra Bell uses newspapers and magazine to reveal the failings of objective journalism. For the Whitney Biennial, Bell explores the hysteria that revolved around the New York jogger case from the 1980s where young black and Latino men were accused of rape or what the media referred to as “wilding.” By blocking and editing each newspaper, Bell exposes and connects certain structural and inherent bias that effected the publics perceptions of the case.

The room exhibiting the work of Eric Mack and Jennifer Packer focuses the intimate connections and the personal. Packer paints family and friends with gestures and thin washes that reveal a support system in the uncertain times. Eric Mack weaves cloth and fabric to recreate a zone of comfort and protection. Mack is using fabric and cloth as part of a personal journey that is both biographical and intimate.

One of the best rooms of the Biennial features works by Janiva Ellis, Simone Leigh, Heji Shin, and Keegan Monaghan. If there was an overarching theme to this room, it might be the artist and the external world that occupies it.

The monumental painting by Janiva Ellis, “Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet” is one of the best works in the Biennial. Set in an acid colored landscape, the large-scale work depicts a woman and child crossing a border fence while nearby a woman lays dying or dead. The facial gesture of the woman is that of fear and desperation. The painting is obviously about the migration crises that is occurring at the southern border. What is striking that the interpretive plaque gives no indication or mention of migration or the crisis of the southern border. Ellis is reflecting the human tragedy of an acidic world that is both desperate and hostile to the plight of those seeking refuge. The painting is a powerful statement of a contemporary condition that reflects desperation.

Reflecting on the contemporary condition and the links to the past, Simone Leigh is a black feminist artist whose work confronts a hostile society with a new visual language as a form of resistance. Leigh attempts to break conventional forms of production by creating links to her African American heritage and the feminine form. Leigh’s sculptures are large scale ceramic works steeped in form. Each reflect, contradict and compliment a continuity of form from Africa to America. Leigh asserts form as the revealer of a heritage as a black woman in America and a legacy that continues today.

Keegan Monaghan’s paintings portray the conflict between new and old technology. The tactile images of peepholes, and old rotary dialer phones seem to be reminders of a past no longer within the memory of the viewer. Monaghan’s paintings seem to be recollections of obsolescence and the eventuality of our current technological condition will be the future. With the future generation in mind, Heji Shin’s graphic and truthful photographs of birth gives an uncanny beauty to a natural act. Shin’s photographs are conveying both beauty and abjection. Within the gallery of Shin’s work, there seems to be a theme of life, death, tragedy and permanency.

The continuity of a queer aesthetic and awareness surrounds the photographs of Paul Mpagi Sapuya. Sapuya, which uses fragmentation as a way of revealing and concealing the body. The queer gaze is an ever-present force within the photographs of Sapuya. The use of friends and lovers gives the viewer an intimacy that both invites the viewer into the presence and at the same time cannot be fully disclosed. Fragmentation is a vehicle for Sapuya to give hints of the erotic and the personal while concealing the body.

In Todd Gray’s photo collages, fragmentation is used to reflect the identity crisis of “blackness” as it relates to fame, Africa, and an American identity. Gray was at one-point Michael Jackson’s photographer. Gray’s experience of travel gave impetus to a visuality that connects his experiences in both the United States and Africa. Images in Gray’s photographs are used to explore the myths and connections that transmit between various cultures from celebrity culture within American society to a global one. The illusion of safety within American society is the focus of the installation by Martine Syms. Syms’ installation explores the idea of “threat modeling” and the false sense of security that it provides. By using email, the internet, and technology, Syms is tapping into the current zeitgeist where the optimism of technology has given way to something more sinister.

The sinister side of American culture is the subject of Nicole Eisenman’s sculptural installation on the 6th floor terrace. In “Procession” Eisenman’s figures are downtrodden and warn. Suffering and disenfranchisement deform the figures in “Procession.” Eisenman uses traditional materials such as bronze and plaster with foam, sneakers, clothing, fog machines, and fountains to create figures that reflect a broken world. Eisenman’s installation is also one of the best of the Biennial. Her references and use of art history tropes intelligently present a dark mirror to society’s ills. Eisenman communicates a visual language that conveys a sense of the current condition.

Language and communication are prevalent themes with artists in the Biennial. The most interesting and compelling is the work of Gala Porras-Kim. The Los Angeles based artist uses an ancient Meso-American language and writing that is no longer translatable and allows the viewer to explore and draw their own conclusions of its meaning. The viewer is instructed to align their iPhone camera to view the characters of the stele. Porras-Kim uses contemporary technology as filter and create new interpretations that connect a pre and post-colonial world. Another Los Angeles based artist Ragen Moss uses form, transparency, and material to explore ideas of the body, text, and space. The layers of language and non-linear experiences creates new ways of communicating to the viewer. Taking cues from literature, law, and art, Moss is reimagining a dialogue through form. Moss uses form and material in a masterful way and is definitely one of the best of the Biennial.

Other honorable mentions in the Biennial, whose work was amazing and are worth the time to view, are Wangechi Mutu, Marlon Mullen, Ellie Ga, Ellie Perez, Steffani Jamison, Carissa Rodriguez, and Tamashi Jackson. The work that did not quite work out was the installation by Forensic Architects. The installation involved the recent controversy of Whitney Museum board member Warren B. Kanders, and his company, Safariland, who manufactures and distributes tear gas grenades used against protesters. The installation uses demonstrations of tear gas grenades and Safariland promotional videos as an attempt to condemn the Kanders and his company. The problem with the installation is that it feels incomplete and ineffective. The video and the installation are surprisingly neutral, and in this neutrality, the viewer can walk away either being against or in support. This probably was not the intention of the artists. The work is not terrible, but it does not make an effective case for why someone would support the ousting of Kanders as board member. It felt incomplete and presented a problem without suggesting a resolution.

The 2019 Biennial is definitely about the zeitgeist of the nation. The works in this Biennial are good overall. The viewer senses the temperature of the nation without feeling the heat. However, one can walk away after viewing the Biennial without any sense of the direction. The problem with the 2019 Whitney Biennial and with the Biennials in the future is one of identity. With the rise other regional Biennials here in the United States, and the emergence of Los Angeles as a cultural and art-world center (it is worth noting that out of the 75 artist chosen, only 8 were from Los Angeles), the Whitney Biennial needs to decide a direction and a new identity. This Biennial decided to emphasize youth, where a vast majority of the artists chosen are under 40. The emphasis on emerging artists could be a route that future Biennials would follow. This is a good Biennial and is definitely worth seeing.

Whitney Museum
99 Gansevoort St, New York, NY, 10014

Whitney Biennial 2019. Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo Credit Mario Vasquez

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