Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Slogging Through the Whitney Biennial 2006

When I visited the new Whitney Biennial on March 8th, I started on the fourth floor and worked my way down. Almost immediately I found it hard to focus because of the crowded display and the crowd of visitors. The problem got worse as the hours wore on. I will comment on the works that caught my attention. The first piece I liked was Nari Ward’s sculpture “Glory Road.” This is a tanning bed (as in a tanning salon) with an exterior crafted from an oil barrel and an interior featuring an image screen that would burn a U.S. flag on the flesh. The piece has been dismissed as “agitprop,” but looking into the florescent lights behind the translucent flag, I had the creepy feeling of looking into a zealot’s mind. Nearby was a huge collage painting by Mark Bradford, which seemed to evoke a city at night as seen from the air. It was well done but it seemed scaled to impress in a 1980s manner. Yuri Masnyj showed an appealing assemblage in a corner that seemed to deconstruct Constructivism. In Deva Graf’s display, I was intrigued by her “mirror photocopy” pieces. A comment on narcissism? (Try making one yourself.) I think Gedi Sibony is talented, but his installation didn’t seem to jell. The torn black plastic bag was elegantly pathetic, though. Peter Doig seemed to be doing Gauguin, not to satisfying effect. Kenneth Anger’s installation was tedious; better to try his films that will be shown later. The Steven Parrino room felt like a memorial (he died last year). It was meditative and cleansing. The Urs Fischer installation was great, with a momento mori sculpture that dripped circles of candle wax, plus large holes roughly cut out of two walls with an effect of liberation rather than violation. The gigantic Rudolf Stingel painting worked well in that room, with its male figure lost in thought.

On the third floor, Dorothy Iannone’s head appeared in a vintage B&W video looking out from a tall painted box. She was masturbating, and her orgasm looked like a soprano's climactic reach in Richard Strauss's Elektra. In a side room, Rodney Graham’s high-definition film of a chandelier that spins was mysteriously compelling. Taylor Mead contributed a crudely drawn but funny fairy tale. Marilyn Minter’s photo-realist (photo-expressionist?) paintings looked smashing, as expected. In the darkened room for Paul Chan’s projection, I was distracted by the bright red EXIT sign in the corner. Carter’s drawings of male heads seemed to cancel themselves out with sameness. He has done better on other occasions. Mark Grotjahn contributed well-made paintings. The elaborate Sturtevant installation left me wondering why she does what she does. A dead-on reproduction of a deadpan Duchamp artwork is about as arid as it gets—and there was a roomful of them. Florian Maier-Aichen’s highly detailed landscape photographs were manipulated to be strange in a good way. Likewise Monica Majoli’s large watercolors of figures in BDSM heaven or hell. Adam McEwen's obituaries of living celebrities are terrific in concept and execution. They use classic obituary style to examine the trajectory of fame and, at least at some level, to pop the celebrity bubble.

On the second floor, I didn’t have time to take in Ryan Trecartin’s 41-minute video. In the part I saw, the psyches of the characters seemed to be fracturing or dissolving. It could be really good, or not. The placement—a monitor next to busy elevators—was an annoying curatorial lapse. The Francesco Vezzoli imitation film trailer turned out to be over-hyped. Parodies work best when done to a T. This one had awkward cutting and an inconsistent photographic look. The acting was bad-bad, not good-bad. (But Adrianna Asti and Helen Mirren knew what to do). I hadn’t expected Ed Paschke to be a highlight, but his three paintings, with their radioactive yellow/green palette, looked authoritative amid so much fuzzy work. The Anthony Burdin room was like a Halloween experience crafted in someone’s garage—actually it would have been better in a garage than in a pristine gallery space. There was a scary video, a scary cabin, and other objects. I liked the video best. Photographs by Angela Strassheim stopped many people in their tracks. They would look uncanny even if you didn’t know the subjects were members of her born-again Christian family in Illinois.

On the lobby floor there is a good Marilyn Minter. In a large room at the back was a Pierre Huyghe video that is superbly made and riveting, but it seemed to evaporate afterwards. After seeing that, I went up to the Mezzanine for the “Down by Law” sub-show. This was another mixed bag, but I liked Ed Ruscha’s gunpowder drawing, Sergej Jensen’s U.S. flag with the stars missing, Karl Haendel’s large drawing of George W. Bush’s head leaning in a corner (as if knocked off its perch), Jules de Balincourt’s painting on panel, Fred Tomaselli’s drug drawing, Robert Mapplethorp’s photo of himself posed with a whip handle in his ass (in a small format that emphasized its, well, classicism), and David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud-mask photos. In this room there were several of Jonathan Horowitz’s small portraits of the 9/11 hijacker suspects—nineteen of which are scattered throughout the museum in unlikely places.

I did not photograph the Biennial because I was told that photographs were forbidden. (Grrrrr!) The Whitney itself does not provide good online documentation of the exhibition. (Grrrrr!) The photo above shows my own attempt to photocopy a mirror. I will let it represent all the photographs I am unable to include here.


Cedric Caspesyan said...

Yes, shame on the catalogue and the way the biennial is archived.

But I found this by chance and wanted to comment on Surtevant.

1) this work is old. Unless these are new versions she did it in the 60's.

2) Her point is simple: she is replicating by hand readymades that Duchamps simply found on the street during his time. It's more about craftmanship than authorship.
How authorship erased the craftmanship. Or something like that.


Cedric Caspesyan

Bob said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm aware of descriptions of Sturtevant's practice, including comments by the artist herself. I feel there is a nugget of intellectual value in her act of replicating selected work by other artists. But it's as if Rauschenberg, after doing the famous "Erased de Kooning Drawing", proceeded to erase drawings by a whole series of contemporary artists. The practice becomes an inert form of shtick. And it is framed as offering such conceptual austerity and depth that the effect is a kind of ultra-rarified Kitsch. So she's perfect for Paris, n'est pas?