At the Whitney Biennial, The Medium is Message by Etan Nechin

On the Wall: Occupy Museums, Stress, Fear, and Anxiety Bundle Front Right:Jone Kessler, Exodus

In the promo video to The Whiney Biennial, Adam Weinberg, The Whitney’s director, describes the exhibition as a “snapshot” of contemporary American art.

The Biennale—the first one to be held in the Whitney’s new Meatpacking location—features sixty-three artists and collectives from across the United States. The works vary from painting, VR, installation, 3D film; there is even a room covered in bologna. Regardless of the style, tradition, or technique in this Biennale, it seems that Christopher Lew and Mia Locks’ urge was to be outwardly political, to commission works that are political from artists who political art isn’t their bread and butter, overshadows the creative possibilities dealing with the contemporary American art scene.

In Lew’s interview included in the catalogue, he says that “[the artists] are attempting to overcome the challenges we’re facing today, and to return the agency to the individual.” Yes, the challenges are displayed in pieces of art and curatorial picks (half of the artists are women and people of color), but political art is a medium in itself, and many of the artists are not adept at using this pallet. Because of this, many of the works seem not to offer new gazes into the (troubling) political issues of our time, but simply regurgitate existing tropes. Thus, at times, the exhibition feels more like a sociological survey that an artistic one.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Biennial will be remembered by a controversy sparked merely after a week after its opening, Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” painting depicting Emmett Till. What will remain in the collective conscious is not the painting itself, but the picture of the activist blocking the audience’s view and artist Hannah Black’s petition to the Biennale urging them to take it down, on the grounds that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” (Although the artist stated that this work was not for sale.) This incident has created uproar in the art community, with artists grouping into “keep” or “drop” camps, and stirring a fierce debate. One of the most interesting comments so far has been from artist Kara Walker, who wrote a brief statement on her Instagram account, defending Schutz, writing “Painting – and a lot of art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage.” What she means by this is that when identity politics is taken literally, a “stay in your lane” attitude emerges, and important conversations get stifled.

Activist standing in front of Dana Shutz “Open casket”

This statement, along with the media coverage of the incident, reveals that in today’s American art world, the specific expectations and criteria of the artist herself are equally, if not more important, that what the piece of art is. The activist obscuring the gaze of the viewer in essence retains a status quo; there’s no possibility for problematizing race relation conventions, only repeating them in different variations.

Of course the politics has always been part and parcel of art, especially at The Whitney Biennale, known for stirring the political pot. And there are some magnificent works: Anicka Yi’s 3D film “The Flavor Genome” examines relations between the biologic and the synthetic, and is a meditation on how “visual, olfactory, gustatory and auditory smells” can form sense memories, and how those can be manipulated by consumerist global capital.

Maya Stovall offers a triptych of videos that stride the line between performance and ethnography. The video, shot in front of liquor store in the McDougall-Hunt area of Detroit, shows performs doing a choreography interspersed with interviews with local residents, in order to show life in so-called “abandoned Detroit.”

Deana Lawson’s continues her exploration of black bodies  and relationships. Her certain aesthetic bluntness offers new senses of intimacy. In the same gallery, there are paintings of Henry Taylor that focus on racial tensions and social depictions of African-American communities. Perhaps one of the most eloquent—and disturbing—pieces in the Biennale is The Times They Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough! in which Taylor depicts the shooting of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer. The vivid colors and flat composition takes the incident out of the documentary realm and turns it into a symbol.

It is telling that these artists share the same gallery: Perhaps it works as a macro shot of the depiction of black lives in America, but aesthetically they jar: Lawson’s sleek, staged photographs feel they were shot a million miles away from Taylor’s rough and raw paintings.

Henry Taylor, The Times They Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!

Another interesting piece is Frances Stark’s Ian F Svenonius Censorship Now!! (Ironically, the work is in the gallery adjacent to the one showing “Open Casket”, buffered by Kamasi Washington’s collaborative audio-visual suite called “Harmony of Difference”). Stark hand painted pages from the title essay of Svenonius 2015 book, appropriating his message, a censorship to curb fascistic, consumerist ideologies. As a reader and viewer of the work, it is interesting to examine how earnestness and satire can go hand in hand, especially in the framework of an art institution aiming to espouse (at least on its surface) free speech and pluralism.

Frances Stark, Ian F Svenonius Censorship Now!!

There is a nod to institutional critique: Occupy Museums, the art collective established during the Occupy era, created an installation featuring artists in debt. Artist Cameron Rowland asked The Whitney to invest $25000 in a Social Impact Bond, usually used to privatize social services in municipalities. He then framed the Non-Disclosure agreement to expose bureaucratic measures of austerity. These works, when looked at as a whole, feel like a recap of social, economical issues that have been in vogue in recent years Neither work offers a new understating of these violent bureaucracies. Rather, it merely takes a moralistic stance.

It’s not all politics though: Raúl de Nieves baroque piece shows of costumes and “stained glass”. Inspired by non-western Spiritual aesthetics, de Nieves puts forth a notion of life and death as a constant state of becoming. This baroque aesthetic becomes a means of mode of expression and as an aesthetic ideal. Through this, he creates a syncretic, polyphonic world, where binary (Western) categorizations found in modernity become null. The light throughout the day: it strengthens, then dims; it shines, then fades; it is majestic; it ceases to exist.

Raúl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end,

In another gallery, painter Jo Baer offers fractured landscapes; veteran artist Larry Bell Pacific Red II is displayed on the roof; and Jessi Reaves furniture pieces are dotted throughout the galleries.

There are plenty of other artists—too many to name—and unfortunately many of them do not get the attention they deserve due to odd curatorial choices. There is a sense that many of the works dealing with form and abstraction were put to the side in order to highlight the more social, political work.

Larry Bell, Pacific Red II

And so, perhaps Weinberg was right: the Biennial works as a kind of snapshot. A snapshot, after all, is a photo taken hurriedly, its emphasis is about the what’s happening now, on the surface; it isn’t meant to be analyzed deeply. Its focus is on a general feeling, not on composition or craft. Maybe it is too much to ask from works of art to offer new gazes and to overcome the challenges we face today. This snapshot a displays our confusion over many of issues, whether it’s race relations, the wealth gap, and the environment. These questions cannot be answered, these challenges cannot entirely overcomes, because perhaps they need to stay open, to create a space for empathic and honest dialogue.

The Whitney Biennale is running 17 March-June 11 2017

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