Whitney Biennial 2022 “Quiet as It’s Kept”

Installation view of Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 6-September 5, 2022). From left to right: Alex Da Corte, ROY G BIV, 2022; Leidy Churchman, Mountains Walking, 2022. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Whitney Biennial 2022 “Quiet as It’s Kept”

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Through September 5, 2022

Written by Mario Vasquez
The 2022 Whitney Biennial “Quiet as It’s Kept” co-curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards and currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the first biennial of art that was conceived during the pandemic, and during the racial and political turmoil of the last three years. Between the previous in 2019 and the current biennial, time has allowed the curators to cultivate and present works that address the current social and political realities. While there are problems with the curation, this is the best biennial since 2017. The artists and their work carry the exhibition in substance and in weight.  

Placed primarily on the 5th and 6th floors of the museum, this biennial is a cornucopia of strong work. Each work in the exhibition explores aspects of contemporary discourse. Painting makes a strong showing in this biennial. Abstraction with a few figurative works is one of the overwhelming arcs of the biennial. On the 5th floor, Lisa Alvarado’s colorful abstractions explore both indigenous and post-colonial sensibilities in colors and forms that reflect immigrant experience. James Little and Puerto Rican artist Awilda Sterling-Duprey both connect the idea of abstraction to freedom and improvisation. Sterling Duprey’s paintings are both performative and abstract as they make the connection with jazz and John Coltrane. Abstraction makes a statement about mass incarceration with the two paintings by the late artist Denyse Thomasos. Thomasos’ two paintings “Jail” and “Displaced Burial/Burial at Goress” both made in 1993, welcomes the viewer to the 6th floor by giving a feel of a Dante-like entrance into a dark maze. The paintings reference Piranesi’s “Carceral” works of the 18th century by exploring the idea and feeling of prison. It is Thomasos’ paintings that set the tone of the 6th floor from the moment one exits the elevator.  It is a feeling in stark contrast to the 5th floor.

On the 5th floor, two painters capture the feel of the lockdown during the height of the pandemic. Adam Gordon’s singular work ‘She Throws the Children into the World” (2022) depicts an empty living room and couch with a disco ball hanging in the corner. The scene is what each of us experienced while trying to connect with Zoom parties and social media when in-person human interaction was impossible. Harold Ancart’s painting “The Guiding Light” (2021) is a night landscape showing a glowing moon upon an ocean view. Ancart’s painting is a sublime view connecting the viewer with what many did during the lockdown: fled the cities and re-discovered the natural world. The night and the reflection of the moon offers remnants of something both gained and lost during the lockdown. It is a sublime view that brings the viewer a sense of loneliness and loss. Nearby are outstanding paintings by Jane Dickson whose neon signs of businesses indicate another aspect of the lockdown, the closing of businesses and economic despair, which soon followed. Painting is still able to simulate our feelings and link us to experiences that are relational to what happened during the pandemic.   

While painting is strong in this biennial, photography, video, and video installation dominates and assists in forming a narrative, which the curators use quite well. Alex Da Corte explores Marcel Duchamp, and his alter ego Rrose Sélavy offering a humorous look into the history of modern art. Da Corte’s video within his 2022 installation “ROY G BIV” explores the gendered aspect of modern art encapsulated by Duchamp. Lucy Raven’s “Demolition of a Wall (Album 1)” 2022 is an examination of the environmental myths and history of the American West. A view of the desert is suddenly interrupted by an explosion that disrupts the peace. The site in the New Mexican desert is located at a military ordinance test site not too far from where the first nuclear explosion occurred in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

It is on the 6th floor where video and video installation lead the look and mood of the biennial. On the 6th floor, Kandis Williams’ “Death of A” (2022) offers an alternative and updated take on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and the Black experience. Looking at Miller’s play, Williams intersects the Willy Loman character with Black writers and poets and changes the play as an allegory to the failure of the American dream and the Black experience. The ending produces a terrifying result. The best video installation is “06.01.2020 18.39,” (2022) by Alfredo Jaar, whose work takes us to a terrifying moment during the George Floyd protest on June 1, 2020. Jaar depicts the standoff in Washington D.C. between protestors and police. Suddenly the police begin firing rubber bullets and teargas at the crowd. Soon after, a helicopter flies overhead and begins bearing down upon the protestors. As the blades bear down, a fan within the room begins to blow faster and faster. Jaar effectively puts you there and shares the experience as brutality is met from above. Jaar forces the viewer to both see and feel the moment of both rage and fear. Jaar’s piece is a frightening portrayal of a nation descending a dark path and culminating with the election turmoil and the riot of January 6th.  Daniel J. Martinez, whose famous work at the 1993 Whitney Biennial stirred controversy, has a photographic installation where he depicts himself as various monsters created by a media culture. In “Three Critiques* #3 The Post-Human Manifesto for the Future…” (2022), Martinez explores the post-human moment when humans begin a process of self-destruction in a post human world. The mediation of us through the lens of culture is presented by Martinez as a progression between human and the eventual non-human with the redefinition of what it is to be a human. A very powerful installation and one of the best in this biennial.

This biennial is ripe with strong works that leave the viewer with a range of emotions and impressions. Despite this, the curation is problematic. The biennial is mainly spread over two floors of the Whitney, and depending on how you start the viewing, one can either partake in a Dante-like journey from hell to heaven or be condemned from heaven to hell. The curators decided that the best way to explore the current contemporary situation and tell the story of the last three years is to create an installation of extremes between the 5th floor on one end and the 6th floor on the other. The exhibition design of the 5th floor is filled with light and the work is situated in islands covering the floor of the museum space. There’s an art fair feeling to the exhibition with works addressing the environment, identity, gender, history, art-itself, incarceration, race and the pandemic’s isolation and lockdown. The atmosphere and approach of the 5th floor is airy with moments of humor and contemplation like the works of Alex Da Corte’s Rrose Sélavy, Eric Wesley’s “North American Buff Tit” or Andrew Roberts’ Amazon zombies. The biennial takes on a whole different tone when entering the 6th floor. As the elevator opens, the biennial goes dark. The viewer is welcomed by the wonderful abstraction paintings of Denyse Thomasos. There is a room straight ahead where on the left is a vial containing the last breath of Thomas Edison and on the right a sound installation by Raven Chacon where native chants pronounce a resistance and an assertion of survival. The biennial gets real dark and gothic from that point on. The walls and entire floor are painted black filled to the brim with death, despair, and destruction. From Rebecca Belmore’s haunting installation of a shrouded figure in a sleeping bag surrounded by bullet casings to the interactive installation of Alfredo Jaar’s protest and subsequent police brutality and Kandis Williams’ video installation about the failure of the American Dream,  to Daniel J. Martinez’s contemplation of the end of humans as we know it, the viewer either leaves with a sense of dread and despair after the 6th floor or filled with a sense of light and airiness  when leaving the 5th floor. This is the whiplash change from one floor to the next experienced by every visitor.

The curators wanted to make a point about both the last three years and the present.  However, it is uncertain whether the design of this biennial was necessary. After the events of the last three years, there is doubt whether someone would want to relive the traumatic experiences that have engaged both the nation and the world. The works themselves could have relayed the horror, uncertainty and trauma without the theatrics that separate the two floors. On the other hand, maybe this is the biennial that we need. The experience from the 5th to the 6th floor and back can be an act of catharsis. The 2022 Whitney Biennial is not just an exhibition of the current zeitgeist of the American contemporary art, it is a reflection. It has a binary disposition of light and dark. This biennial will not be an easy one for the visitor to digest. The exhibition reads like a medieval morality play where the protagonist is supposed to find either salvation or damnation at the end of the journey. It will leave people questioning the experience. The exhibition is supported by strong works which are affective and quite compelling. In the end, this Biennial is the most effective because it leaves the viewer with uncertainty and that defines both the exhibition and the state of this nation since 2020.      

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