There was no shortage of controversy at this year’s Whitney Biennial, nor of art lambasting the art world, with Pedro Vélez leading the charge. The Puerto Rican upstart was among vocal advocates of The Yams Collective’s very public withdrawal from participation, in protest against sharing a space with one Donelle Woolford (aka Joe Scanlan)—a white, male artist-professor who creates artworks under the assumed identity of a black, female artist—a deeply problematic endeavour, by any standard. The issues at stake in the collective’s protest strike a chord with those at the heart of Vélez’s practice, whose artworks, with titles like Neoliberal Fire and Critics Are the Public’s Pubes, don’t beat around the bush.
Whiteness, privilege, the art market and role of the critic—these are the targets in Vélez’s world of vitriolic tweets emblazoned over handmade posters and banners, and sketchy, cartoonish acrylic paintings on raw canvas pinned to the wall. Vélez frequently overlays quotations from art critics onto images of figures and art world sites, including, displayed at the biennial, an image of the new Whitney building itself and a poster of Walter Robinson that reads: “We don’t have art movements anymore, we have market movements.”
Vélez unleashes his polemical punch at his solo exhibition “Pedro Vélez: Morally Reprehensible,” currently on view at 101/exhibit. In Seated Critic (2014), Vélez takes aim at the art critic, depicting a white female, her head omitted, seated comfortably in bikini bottoms and vest, suggesting the social and political passivity and privilege of arts professionals; while in #Stefansimchowitz presents (2014), he alludes to the backroom dealing and market manipulation of high-profile collectors—such is the charge that has been leveled at one Stefan Simchowitz by Jerry Saltz. Whatever your views are on the art world and all of it’s trappings and flaws, Vélez offers a noisy, incisive critique—channeling the thorny issues that afflict it—which, at the very least, can’t be ignored.