Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Whitney Biennial Spreads Its Wings

Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino in Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, Photo: Paula Court
Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer is essentially 90 minutes of six dancers (Nicole Mannarino and Eleanor Hullihan do the lion's share) walking backwards in circles, arms extended 90º most of the time. It's alternately awe-inspiring, like an act of penance—doing the Chartres maze backwards—mind-numbing, hypnotic, sublime, impenetrable, enlightening, and exhausting. The sound (by Michelson with James Lo) includes a constant metronome ticking, a building/diminishing chord, a starting dialogue between her and Richard Maxwell that repeats right away, and a closing monologue spoken by Michelson live. Dancers join, and later leave, Mannarino one by one, folding a wing down as they veer close to one another, scribing loop after loop, like invisibly crocheting in space, occasionally stopping in relevé, or posed in a line. Mannarino has drenched her longsleeved jumpsuit with sweat by the end of what is, undeniably, devotion, but with scant rewards for the viewer.

Michelson’s set/lighting/costume designs have always been meticulous, even meriting an  exhibition at the American Realness festival last January. A huge neon caricature portrait appears on the far wall, and on the dancers’ booties, adding to self-aggrandizing feel, ironic or not. (Devotion, at the Kitchen, featured Socialist Realist style oil paintings of Michelson and others.)

The prominence of dance at the Biennial—the stage takes up most of the entire fourth floor—is in part a response to the idea that performance art was steadily encroaching, so why not feature “serious choreography”? But when there are many serious dance presenters throughout the city, what responsibility does the Whitney Museum of American Art hold in giving over so much territory to dance by two British-born choreographers (Michael Clark will take up residency later on)? With the dedication of thousands of square feet to this stage, they are taking away rare major exhibition opportunities for visual artists. (It should be noted that performing arts presenters are similarly expanding their purview to include visual arts where possible—the Met Opera’s gallery, BAM’s art program, and the Kitchen’s gallery among them.)

Other time-based art to occupy the fourth floor includes a residency by Charles Atlas, and  Maxwell's company will hold open rehearsals. Performances by Georgia Sagri (integrated into her cozy own room installation on the mezzanine level) and Dawn Kasper (think Collyer Brothers), music performances, and film screenings will take place as well, including Werner Herzog's Hearsay of the Soul, and a video selection by George Kuchar.

The visual art appropriately, feels like a survey of the moment. Trends are elusive, although some outlined by the curatorial staff (Elisabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman, and Jay Sanders) are the acknowledgement of work by other artists, and the blurring of lines between media. Notes on some of the art: Sam Lewitt, who makes floor pieces with magnetic fluid that evoke some bubbling prehistoric swampground. Wu Tsang's atmospheric "green room" in a carved out niche on the fourth floor, next to Michelson's dressing room. Elaine Reichek, who has been a fixture on the New York scene for years, getting some well-deserved attention, with statements in needlework. K8 Hardy's wall of displaced feminine iconography. Cameron Crawford's handsome sculptures that straddle found-object abstraction and environmental activism. 

Joanne Malinowska's Duchampian bottle rack of horns, and other mixed media pieces with her elegant aesthetic. Oscar Tuazon's simultaneously solid and transparent Escheresque ground floor room installation of passages, stairs, and doors. Vincent Fecteau's intriguing colorful biomechanical sculptures. Nicole Eisenman's eye-popping painting and monotype installation, impressive for its abundance. And Forrest Bess' small, vibrant symbolic paintings that resonate with Andrew Masullo's playful, phosphorescent-colored canvases. The scale is generally speaking on the small side, in contrast to Michelson's grand (if opaque) ambition.

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