This was our first time at the Whitney Biennial, or any biennial for that matter. Touted as the best in years, it includes 108 of America’s hottest artists. The three curators—Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin, and Debra Singer—spent the last two years mining the art scene for artists who represent the current cultural climate. The curators note in the catalogue introduction that a “significant sea change in contemporary art may be under way” as a result of the economic and political events of the ’90s. As biennial virgins it was difficult to gauge if this is really true. Overall, we were extremely impressed with the range of mediums, originality of approaches, and the curatorial vision.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the show is the attention to materiality and visible traces of the artist’s hand. Painting and drawing dominate most of the show. Barnaby Furnas’s “Hamburger Hill” creates tension between serenity and bloodshed with a violent battle scene set against a light blue backdrop of sea and sky. The whimsical, moonlit world by everyone’s favorite, Laura Owens, demonstrates her incredible talent and for some is the highlight of the show. Typically reluctant to talk about her work, the L.A.-based artist refused to let the curators view her new work prior to installation. Other notable painters are Cecily Brown, Fred Tomaselli, Amy Cutler, Julie Mehretu, and Laylah Ali. Some disappointments are the California cool, uninspired interiors and portraits by David Hockney and the much talked about portraits by Elizabeth Peyton.
Carefully rendered drawings are in full force this year. The ink drawings by Ernesto Caivano remind the viewer of the sensationalist possibilities of superb craftsmanship. The bizarre skyscapes intricately depict birds and trees, but are removed from any recognizable world. Headless, masturbating women are the subject of Chloe Piene’s charcoal drawings. The roughly outlined figures are at once confrontational and self-absorbed. Two large charcoal drawings by Robert Longo dominate the small gallery they occupy. In his typical fashion, they are well crafted and wonderfully attentive, yet just that. Other highlights include Zak Smith’s tiny obsessive illustrations and Robyn O’Neil’s sparsely populated, flattened landscape. On the weaker side are the drawings by Sam Durant that recapture the tumultuous atmosphere of the 1960s.
The installation work at the Whitney Biennial is flashy, both literally and conceptually, and ranges from overwhelming to visually absent. The psychedelic gesamtkunstwerke by Assume Vivid Astro Focus overloads the senses with floor to ceiling pop-inspired images, flashing lights, and electronic beats. In the same vein is the mirrored environment of Yayoi Kusama. Initial interest is peaked by the long line of people waiting to be let into the room while a guard mans the door and dictates the time each viewer spends inside. Once inside, the enveloping reflective space disorients the viewer, as hanging colored lights and a three-sided, shallow pool of water isolate and immobilize. Another all-encompassing, yet less effective, installation is Virgil Marti’s distorting “Grow Room.” Medium-sized mirrors placed in tile-like fashion and painted with floral patterns create an overtly decorative version of a typical grow room. Fans of Maurizio Cattelan will laugh at his literally invisible work, which remains buried somewhere on the second floor. Katie Grinnan’s “Dream Catcher” rounds out the must-see sculptural installations.
Two of the most memorable works from the show are the video pieces by Chloe Piene and Eve Sussman. Situated so that the crowd was forced to go through it, “Black Mouth” by Piene is confrontational and hypnotic. Shown in complete darkness, the giant screen shows a muddy, teenage girl frontally lit in a nocturnal environment. In slow motion she thrashes — her hair and limbs flying around — accompanied by the roaring of a lion. The tension builds as the viewer tries to decipher the emotional motivation of her actions. Is she laughing? Is she hurt? Is she pantomiming a lion? The filmatic interpretation of “Las Meninas” by Sussman imagines the events leading up to, including and immediately following the infamous scene captured by Velasquez. Cinemat-ically beautiful and intellectually intriguing, “89 Seconds at Alcázar” does not answer any questions about the relational dynamics, but offers a fantastic painting in motion. Although her photographs are typically multi-layered, Sharon Lockhart’s projected film “No” is boring and seemingly uninspired. Aïda Ruilova’s choppy videos are irritatingly aggressive.
The ven diagram model proposed by the curatorial team succeeded in illuminating the overlapping themes and issues raised in contemporary art. One problem was the overwhelming presence of the two cultural capitals. Of the 108 artists, 80 are based in New York or Los Angeles, leaving only one-fourth of the artists to represent the rest of the country. This throws into question the current status of the art world. Can one be a celebrated, contemporary artist and not work in New York or L.A.? How can one find out what is happening in other parts of the country? Despite this criticism, this year’s Whitney Biennial is a fantastic collection of work displaying the current and vibrant artistic activity.