Amid Controversy, the Whitney Biennial Plays It Safe
Maybe it’s not fair to expect an exhibition as popular and overly scrutinized as the Whitney Biennial to take huge risks—especially not after the last edition dissolved into a still-simmering debate over race and identity politics. And yet, there’s something undeniably flat about the 2019 show, co-curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley and opening to the public on May 17th.
There isn’t much here to quicken the pulse, with even the politically inflected works coming across as too polite for our current moment. And if one possible function of the biennial is to act as a kind of cross-section of American artistic practice, this exhibition makes some puzzling choices. An alien visitor to the biennial would be forgiven for thinking that most current painting is of the mildly inept, figurative variety, and that found-object assemblage is the way most humans choose to creatively communicate with each other.
But let’s start on a positive note: all the way up on the Whitney’s 6th-floor outdoor patio, lashed by wind and cold rain during Monday’s press preview. Here you’ll find one of the Whitney Biennial’s only true showstoppers, an epic sculpture by
Every element of this sprawling piece is a delight, from the lovingly sculpted cartoonish genitals to the puffs of steam randomly emitted from unexpected orifices. Procession recalls a heroic journey from millennia past, but idiosyncratic Easter eggs abound: a Kryptonite bike lock here, a pair of New York Giants socks there. The funny, complicated sculpture is comfortable juggling sophomoric fart humor with reflections on power, bondage, servitude, and the pomposity of religion—and art, for that matter. A bumper sticker on the back of the cart reads “How’s My Sculpting? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Procession’s very placement is a stroke of genius: just outside of the museum proper, as if the procession wasn’t quite able to make it to the halls of culture.
Inside, it’s warmer and drier, but also a little predictable. The ghost of
Across the board, there’s too much found-object assemblage. Poems by my great grandmother I (2017)—a construction of wood and cow horn and a dangling pencil that rotates, drawing a circle on its metal base—could be a small-scale homage to Carousel (Stainless steel version)(1988). Robert Bittenbender’s unwieldy wall sculptures, cages stuffed to bursting with metal cords and junk, seem like hyperbolic parodies of the magpie aesthetic. There are interesting things about some of these works—including large-scale sculptures by
One big exception here are inventive sculptures by Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos, who makes magic with palm tree trunks, beads, coconuts, soil, and other poetic objects. As with the best of
Painting fares the worst of all in the Biennial, which seems to be asserting that the medium isn’t dead, just uninteresting. figurative depictions of men are a weak stab in the direction of massive canvases are betting on the fact that size is what matters, even when the subject matter—an
There are a few bright spots to be found, including New Museum Triennial. And thickly painted renderings of boring things—a rotary telephone, a bit of wood fencing—have the funky, borderline kitschy feel of
An emphasis on photography at the Biennial enlivens things a bit, including a small room’s worth of work by
Other highlights include series of videos, housed here in a series of offbeat pavilions outdoors on the fifth floor balcony. Like much of her work, the new installation begins with a documentary subject—Moroccan teenagers, caught laughing, hanging out, and complaining about how Instagram won’t verify their accounts—but also detours into comedic special-effects absurdity. We see local architecture in Morocco’s capital city swaying and crooning R&B lyrics like “I’m a sexy house in Rabat.”
In the ground floor lobby gallery, the always incredible Chicago-based artist sculptures, meanwhile, have a somewhat similar approach to DIY abstraction, albeit messier; who knew one could cover so much ground with little more than carved styrofoam and tape? And installation of freezer units holding ephemeral frozen sculptures show a similar knack for funky, handmade invention, even if not every visitor was impressed. “
If there’s one area where the 2019 Whitney Biennial really stumbles, it’s with the outwardly political. Surely, part of the curatorial conversation must have involved the elephant in the room: Either engage with the oppressive shadow of Trumpism, or treat the show as a respite from the news cycle. This exhibition merely makes half-hearted gestures toward the topical. There’s a goofy series of wall-mounted photo sculptures by
Alexandra Bell’s biennial contribution is more substantive—annotated articles from the New York Daily News covering the overblown and racist rhetoric surrounding the wrongly accused “Central Park Five.” One piece includes a full-page newspaper ad, written and paid for by one Donald Trump, which calls for a return to the death penalty and no-holds-barred policing. Bell uses a yellow highlighter to isolate especially egregious language, and replaces all the photographs with black boxes. It’s an interesting exercise, but not as compelling as Bell’s better known series, which reworked pages of the New York Times to address racial bias surrounding the killing of Michael Brown. Meanwhile, film National Anthem (2018)—which animates the artist’s watercolors of NFL players taking a knee—is a political artwork that absolutely no one visiting the Whitney would be likely to be troubled by. It’s as well-meaning as it is toothless.
More successful are a set of drawings by
But there is a single instance of hypertopical critique that hits its target, and hard. The most thrilling and dangerous work in the otherwise tame Biennial comes courtesy of
While it’s not mentioned directly in the video, Kanders’s presence on the board has caused a swell of protest in the lead-up to the Whitney Biennial, mainly spearheaded by the collective Decolonize This Place. Fellow biennial artist
“While my company and the museum have distinct missions,” Kanders was quoted saying in a letter to Whitney staffers, “both are important contributors to our society.” Watch a few minutes of Forensic Architecture’s effective, rapidfire footage and you’ll likely disagree. Kudos to the curators for putting the film, Triple Chaser (2019), in the center of the sixth floor galleries, rather than relegating it to a less prominent corner of the museum. But what does it say about this Whitney Biennial that its most relevant moment is one that seems to call the whole enterprise into question?
Scott Indrisek is a contributing writer for Artsy.