The 2017 Whitney Biennial Is a Pitch-Perfect Survey of Art Today
“Irony, be gone,” said the Whitney’s director Adam Weinberg this morning, as he inaugurated the 2017 Whitney Biennial—the first to take place in its Meatpacking District location.
The phrase was uttered softly, without emphasis, but the words can be seen to summarize the 78th edition of the biennial, curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks. The duo’s show is direct and unapologetically concerned with the state of American society and the individual lives of American citizens, without being drawn into sentimentality or ever becoming too noisy or polemical to lose its impact.
A vivid example of that earnest, poignant engagement with the country’s socio-economics and identity politics can be found at the show’s very entrance, in the ground floor’s John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Gallery.
L.A. artist Rafa Esparza’s Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field (2017), an adobe brick construction, has been installed within the dark gallery space. It evokes the rudimentary structures of agrarian civilizations, even a bare-bones, pre-modern space of worship, and it conveys both a sense of the hard realities faced by individuals of color in America, rooted in a complex, loaded history, as well as the possibility of transcendence.
Esparza created the structure collaboratively with “a group of Brown, queer-identified individuals” and with bricks and water transported from L.A.—a kind of reverse colonization from West to East, as the wall text notes.
In a gesture of community, he also invited other artists to place works within the installation. They include Beatriz Cortez, who installed a ritualistic heap of volcanic rock on the floor of the structure; Eamon Ore-Giron, whose site-specific painting on its inside wall, in gold, blue, and red, suggests a sun deity; a reconstructed artifact by Gala Porras-Kim that explores the fraught concept of cultural authenticity; and photographs from Dorian Ulises López Macías’s “Mexicano” series, large-scale, striking portraits of Mexican men, hung on the wall of the adobe. Hold your ear up to a gap in the bricks and you’ll hear a sound work by Joe Jiménez.
“Some of our bodies are always under attack” are the words I heard emanating from beyond the brick wall via a recorded male voice.
Esparza’s work achieves a particular pitch and tone—addressing our world head-on while also bringing poetry and transcendence to it—that carries throughout this Whitney Biennial, particularly on the sixth floor, where large-scale works by Henry Taylor and Deana Lawson share space in one of the standout galleries in the exhibition. Lawson continues her years-long project of photographing African-American individuals in intimate staged scenes that are complex, narrative, and confrontational, while Taylor renders, in monumental scale, ordinary black figures, including a man barbecuing on the side of a street.
It’s this “humanness,” a word that co-curator Mia Locks invoked in her introductory remarks, that cuts through the gut-punch of Taylor’s portrayal of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in 2016. No such humanness, on the other hand, is afforded biennial visitors that don Oculus headsets for Jordan Wolfson’s nausea-inducing VR work, which transplants you to a New York street where a scene of visceral, gratuitous violence ensues while an anonymous voice recites a Hebrew prayer. (It’s not for the faint-hearted, nor, in the opinion of this writer, for those who prefer to avoid a cheap trick.)
Another work on view in the biennial addresses violence with just as much potency, but with the greater force of subtlety. Miniature-scale wall installations by the artist known as Puppies Puppies show what appear to be intricate metal hinges. You might find yourself leaning in, as I did, to admire their careful crafting and smooth surfaces—only to discover they are the trigger devices from dismantled guns.
There is a quiet, deeply unsettling eroticism to the readymades. Perhaps due to the associative power of Tala Madani’s nearby animation in which God gives a pornographic lesson in sex ed, the gun mechanisms appear all the more like the exposed, raw anatomy of a killing device: tiny, sensual objects of deadly intent.
This blurred line between human and object resurfaces in the work of Asad Raza to lighter, more tender effect. The artist has filled an entire gallery with young trees that are scattered with leftover items from human stewards who engage with viewers to provide information about the trees and the objects at their bases. In one instance, a medical device used to measure lung capacity sits in the dirt; as a docent explains, he once fell off a building and broke nine ribs, causing him to use the device to retrain his breathing. (It’s unclear if he’s relaying the truth or a fabrication.) Likewise, the idiosyncrasies of Jessi Reaves’s and Kaari Upson’s anthropomorphic furnishings suggest the nuanced fabric of human personalities.
Our current moment, a seemingly relentless onslaught of global political tumult and offense, is one that requires these instances of reprieve or poetry—or an opportunity to delve into another world altogether, as in Sky Hopinka’s video exploration of the remote island of St. Paul, off the coast of Alaska, or Samara Golden’s extraordinarily transporting upside-down universe, a kaleidoscopic doll’s house installed in the Whitney’s windows that face out to the Hudson River.
Golden’s stratified underworld is admittedly one in which there are still troubles afoot: Miniature homeless individuals appear to sleep along the edges of the Whitney’s windows, while a room resembling a laboratory or operating room includes toilets overflowing with waste—an environment seemingly neglected or abandoned in a hurry. This is a world that reflects our own hubris, but one that allows us the bird’s-eye distance to see it from the outside.
Golden’s work punctuates the fifth floor of the Whitney, which is generally noisier and more angry than the biennial’s sixth. Occupy Museums, given prominent placement at the center of the floor, anchors the space with a quote from Blackrock CEO and Trump adviser Larry Fink running along the top of its wall-scale installation, leaving no ambiguity about the organization’s concerns: “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art [...and] apartments in Manhattan.”
A projector on another wall shows a figure of over $43 million representing the total current debt owed by artists, while screens beneath invite you to complete a questionnaire about your experience and perspective on the art world economy and the 99 percent. Nearby, Jon Kessler’s whirring, shifting kinetic sculptures made of flat screen TVs, tchotchkes, cell phones, and mannequins are disorienting meditations on climate change and mass migration; and the collective Postcommodity places viewers in the midst of footage along the U.S.-Mexico border, which spins around you to dizzying effect.
All the while, the stomach-turning scent of Pope.L’s installation wafts across much of the floor. It includes almost 3000 slices of baloney, each imprinted with a portrait of “a purported Jewish person pasted at its center” and pinned to the inner and outer walls of a box-like environment. Within its chamber, a note typed by the artist in irregular font and scrawled over with a pen bemoans the racial and ethnic categorization of humans, “as if we are simply sets in a math problem.”
Our current moment also demands a radical rethinking of our society, a shake-up of everything we think we know—and Lew and Locks have not shied from including works that offer a vigorous challenge to viewpoints traditionally espoused by the left (and thus the majority of the Whitney Biennial’s audience). Take, for example, Frances Stark’s Ian F. Svenonius’s “Censorship Now” for the 2017 Whitney Biennial (2017), for which she’s hand-painted an essay by the punk musician Svenonius, “Censorship Now!!” Throwing a wrench in all that liberal creatives hold dear—namely the right to freedom of speech—Svenonius argues in favor of censoring one’s opponents.
“When the state, like a rampaging mob boss, systematically destroys its opponents (MLK, Malcolm X…), how are we to interpret their patronizing embrace of ‘the arts’?” he writes. The cultural realm has been neutered, Svenonius says, even made complicit, in the dark operations of the state.
Stark’s piece is nonetheless a reminder of art’s ability to challenge what you know and invite you to write the world anew—a summons that echoes in Park McArthur’s empty, brown highway signage, which hangs over the Whitney’s reception desk and in the gallery behind Wolfson’s work: a blank slate for viewers to complete. It’s this kind of openness, free of dogma, that gives the viewer welcome mental space and makes the exhibition one that’s well-suited to our times.
Cover image: Installation view of Raúl De Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016, at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Collection of the artist; courtesy Company Gallery, New York. Photograph by Matthew Carasella, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.