Amid Controversy, the Whitney Biennial Plays It Safe

Scott Indrisek
May 14, 2019 5:28PM

John Edmonds, The Villain, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Company, New York; and the Whitney Biennial.

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 Nicole Eisenman called Procession (2019). A parade of migratory humanoids is caught mid-journey, possibly in the process of transporting a series of modernist-looking metal sculptures on plinths.

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 Robert Rauschenberg hangs heavy over work by Eric Mack, Troy Michie, and Tomashi Jackson: photo transfers, quilt-like collages of material, and evocative detritus (other artist’s press releases, political buttons, deconstructed bits of clothing).

Installation view of Nicole Eisenman, Procession, 2019.

Across the board, there’s too much found-object assemblage. Wangechi Mutu’s 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 Bruce Nauman’s 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 Joe Minter—but the sheer volume of them gives the impression that contemporary artists are basically collectors and curators of things they have bought or found.

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 Nari Ward, a sense of symmetry and gravity give these sculptures a sense of ritual importance, despite their secular materials.

Eric N. Mack, (Easter) The Spring / The Holy Ground, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Morán Morán, Los Angeles; Simon Lee, London; and the Whitney Biennial.

Painting fares the worst of all in the Biennial, which seems to be asserting that the medium isn’t dead, just uninteresting. Kyle Thurman’s figurative depictions of men are a weak stab in the direction of Leon Golub; Eddie Arroyo’s paintings of shabby building facades in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami may be conceptually interesting, but they’re imminently forgettable as images. Calvin Marcus’s massive canvases are betting on the fact that size is what matters, even when the subject matter—an Ed Ruscha-esque view through a car windshield; a circle of donkeys; an upside down snowman—seems arbitrary at best.

There are a few bright spots to be found, including Janiva Ellis, a stand-out of the last New Museum Triennial. And Keegan Monaghan’s thickly painted renderings of boring things—a rotary telephone, a bit of wood fencing—have the funky, borderline kitschy feel of Red Grooms. Three works by Marlon Mullen are charming and unexpected—all based on the covers of popular trade magazines like Art in America, abstracted into color, pattern, and the text of marquee names, from Grant Wood to Elizabeth Murray.

An emphasis on photography at the Biennial enlivens things a bit, including a small room’s worth of work by Paul Mpagi Sepuya and his peers and collaborators—who are often credited with authoring certain images, eliciting a confusion that’s ultimately about how porous and fluid creative communities can be. The on-the-rise John Edmonds gets two side hallways for his sensual, elegant portraits of black men and women posing with African masks and sculptures. Curran Hatleberg, who has the third-floor gallery space essentially to himself, was a welcome discovery for this critic; his evocative, empathetic portraits and landscapes fall somewhere between Alec Soth and Gregory Crewdson.

Other highlights include Meriem Bennani’s 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 Diane Simpson has a series of sculptures that could be storefront displays or altars. Their forms, made with painted fiberboard, lurk on the edge of familiarity—is that a coffee grinder, a length of armor, a trio of folding chairs?—but never fully resemble any one thing. Olga Balema’s 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 Brian Belott’s installation of freezer units holding ephemeral frozen sculptures show a similar knack for funky, handmade invention, even if not every visitor was impressed. “Marc Quinn,” a jaded woman next to me said, referring to the British artist famous for making a bust of his head with his own frozen blood. “That’s the problem with ice—it’s been done!”

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 Josh Kline, which depict scenes, including the reception desk of Twitter, being slowly covered by rising water. Marcus Fischer presents a reel-to-reel machine playing the recorded thoughts of fellow artists prior to the 2017 inauguration, probing their “fears and reservations about the Trump presidency.” The results are a beat poem (“civil rights…discrimination…polar bears…fracking”) that’s only revelatory if you’ve been sleeping for the past few years.

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, Kota Ezawa’s 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 Christine Sun Kim, which remind us that the personal is always political. The artist, who is deaf, weighs in on various sources of her “deaf rage,” experienced in various settings (“while traveling,” or “in the art world”). The quasi-scientific diagrams pinpoint all the many ways in which a differently abled artist can be pushed to the brink. Kim isolates two instances of what she categorizes as merely “cute rage”: “Being offered a wheelchair at the arrival gate…and the braille menu at restaurants.”

Christine Sun Kim, Degrees of My Deaf Rage in The Art World, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; White Space, Beijing; and the Whitney Biennial.

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 Forensic Architecture. The hard-to-define, multidisciplinary collective chose to call out Whitney board vice chairman and Safariland CEO Warren Kanders for the sources of his wealth—namely tear-gas canisters used against migrants at our southern border, and bullets fired by the Israeli military.

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 Michael Rakowitz actually pulled out of the show in solidarity with this movement, but Forensic Architecture has done something more effective: remain, and bite the tear gas-grenade-wielding hand that feeds them. Their film manages a nice balance between the didactic and the poppy, concisely explaining a broader initiative to use machine-learning and artificial intelligence to identify online images of a specific teargas product made by Kanders’s company.

“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