Friday, March 7, 2014

The Biennial's Uptown Salvo

Carol Jackson, Slip, 2013
As important as it is, the Whitney Biennial is but one barometer of the state of the art world today—and I'm talking about just this week in New York. Coincidentally, along with several other art fairs, the Armory Show takes place—a better snapshot of the commerce-driven art market, although presumably this Biennial's curatorial choices have been made without regard to the market, perhaps even in spite of it. And then there's the age-old method of doing a gallery walking tour and seeing what's hanging, particularly during this time period. The Biennial feels a bit like a gallery stroll, assembling eclectic visions and voices.

Suzanne McClelland, Steve and John: Ideal
, detail.
Three curators, not based in New York (at least when they were chosen), were given one floor each: Michelle Graber (whose work is, incidentally on view at the Armory Show), Anthony Elms, and Stuart Comer. This approach is useful in that their curatorial approaches are distinct and show some ideas that better served the artists, many of who are not familiar names. For example, Carol Jackson's sculptures were interspersed throughout the second floor, drawing more attention with each encounter. She makes oddly shaped sculptures and then paints sections of epic landscapes on the sides; another work featured an ornately tooled leather frame from which hangs a thick hank of suede fringe. I'm not sure I would've paid so much attention had her work been clustered together, but her distinctive voice kept popping up mixed with other artists' work.
David Wojnarowicz, Calendar

Painting is well represented, notably by Louise Fishman, Suzanne McClelland, Phil Hanson, Dan Walsh, Dona Nelson, and Amy Sillman. Some smaller galleries are devoted to one artist, notably painting installations by Tony Greene, Keith Mayerson, and Etel Adnan. John Mason's geometric totems evoke nostalgia for timeless modern sculpture; Terry Adkins' suspended hubcap/sound installation (Aviarium) contemporized it. And Lisa Anne Auerbach's giant Megazine (complete with a pair of page turners during designated hours) and knit outfits with political undertones reminded me of the outré satire of the 90s.

Several installations acknowledged the influence of other artists, some in memoriam, such as Julie Ault's Afterlife: A Constellation. David Wojnarowicz pops up in two. His work, influential during his brief life, is a reminder not only of the tragedy of AIDS, but of the urgency it forced upon artists to focus and produce when faced with a drastically shortened lifespan. Charlemagne Palestine's series of stuffed animal/sound pieces in the stairwell were awkardly reminiscent of Mike Kelley (even though Palestine has long worked with plush animals), perhaps because of the scale and the guerrilla placement. 
Shio Kusaka, Dinosaur 2

Zoe Leonard created the haunting room installation 945 Madison Avenue, which consists of a camera obscura with a plate-sized "pinhole" capturing the view onto Madison Avenue from the iconic geometric window. The resulting ghostly image of the street view, cast onto the opposite wall, takes awhile to see as your eyes adjust to the dark. It is a poignant reminder that this is the last Biennial in the Breuer building before the Whitney moves to the Meatpacking District. (Meat for sale!) The window itself has become a storied witness/inspiration; only recently it provided much of the light during a section of Sarah Michelson's Devotion 4. No doubt it will continue serving the Met Museum when it moves in.

Peter Schuyff, Sans Papier
Video and film are of course present, including works by Jennifer Bornstein, Andrew Bujalski, Robert Ashley, Miljohn Ruperto, and Alexander Waterman, but I am sorry to say that this time-based genre is at odds with a tight schedule. Ken Okiishi twists the video genre by painting directly on flatscreen monitors, which play video. And obsessiveness is present: Semiotext(e)'s room of philosophical detritus neatly encased and bound, fetish-like, by thick black rope; Triple Canopy's Pointing Machines installation of Americana furniture and photos of olde paintings. A slate of performances and other events is also planned, including by choreographer Miguel Guttierrez.

In order to process a survey like this (and much of which is excluded here), I find myself grouping works together—more survival than intent. Notes:

  • Dinosaurs, as reminders of extinction, seen in Shio Kusaka's elegant ceramic vases and David Wojnarowicz's plesiosaur calendar
  • Writing desks, including Paul P's graceful Ming Dynasty inspired wooden set (to complement his extensive series of quiet ink wash portraits), and David Robbins' arts and crafts version
  • Sparkly and or rainbow hued things—Joel Otterson's amazing curtain of colored crystal gewgaws and chandeliers of gem-hued goblets; Sheila Hicks' infatuating Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, a cascade of colored yarn, and her textured fiber woven works; and Ken Lum's Midway Shopping Plaza, a suburban shopping mall directory doubling as a sociological and political commentary
  • Terry Adkins, Aviarium
  • Familiar names showing new forms—Peter Schuyff's vitrine of elaborately carved spiral pencils; David Foster Wallace's notebooks and scrawlings
I'm already in anticipation of the next Biennial, which will be in the new, much larger Whitney. We can only hope that the Highline will be commandeered so that even more genres can be accomodated, including installations on the Hudson and in New Jersey to be viewed by telescope or drone, and performances along the lines of Trisha Brown's rooftop event of a few years ago. Or perhaps it would make sense to just wave a wand and say that all galleries are participants and should open their doors collectively—a plein air biennial. Oh wait! That's called Chelsea.

Photos: Susan Yung

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