Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017 Whitney Biennial

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, 2017. Photo: Susan Yung
The 2017 Whitney Biennial is the first edition to be held in the new building, which itself still feels more like news than the show itself. The museum's 2015 inaugural aspirational statement show on Gansevoort (America Is Hard to See) felt like a biennial, and probably helped to alleviate some of the pressure that builds up before each biennial. Mia Locks and Christopher Lew curated this edition, whose work was chosen prior to the 2016 election.

Biennials, by nature, are notoriously overstuffed. The most memorable works are often distinguished, for me, by scale or craft. The standouts in this show are the site-specific installations that make use of the vast window walls facing the Hudson River. Foremost among them are Samara Golden's Escheresque work, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, comprising scale models of the offices or residences of several occupants of a multi-story building. Tenants include a treatment room (of an unspecified medical, dental or vanity service), a restaurant, an office, and more, all with breathtaking river views. By using mirrored panels and securing some of the units upside-down, the effect evokes that of an infinity mirror. It's both realistic and completely disorienting. (Curator Locks is publishing a book on Golden's work this spring.)

Raύl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016. Photo: Susan Yung

Another work that takes cunning advantage of the glass and sunlight is beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end by Raύl de Nieves. Using mundane media, de Nieves has crafted an impressive faux stained glass composition on the windows, which backgrounds beaded, knobby, vaguely monstrous sculptures and costumes, some of which de Nieves wears in performances. It's not exactly water into wine, but he does create the feeling of ecclesiastical opulence with simple materials. It occupies the lounge area behind the partial wall that provides shade to the galleries, where people check their phones while resting on the tasteful leather sofas.

Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel, Reflections, 2017
In a similar vein, in Reflections, Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel adhered reverse cut-out vinyl text that appears in negative form on the adjacent wall. The text summons verbiage from the 1968 student strikes in Paris, which aimed to destabilize the university system.

In Root sequence. Mother tongue, Asad Raza arrayed 26 individually potted saplings in one of the galleries that leads to an outdoor exhibition space. The trees have been assigned personalities, scents, and/or traits. This indoor grove is clearly conducive to socializing, with groups of chatters standing amidst the installation as if the trees were guests at a cocktail party. 

Occupy Museums is an installation organizing the debts of 30 artists, with artifacts somewhat hokily embedded within the sheetrock walls of the galleries. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement from which it derives its name, it is meant to underscore economic disparity—in this case between debt-laden artists and the lending institutions which profit from the debt.  
Occupy Museums, Stress, Fear and Anxiety Bundle, 2015.
One of the oldest painters represented is Jo Baer (born 1929), whose unstretched, sparingly-marked canvases with a harmonious organic palette are a breath of fresh air. Other art world veterans include Lyle Ashton Harris, with an atmospheric video room installation, and Jon Kessler, who combines machinery and detritus into densely-packed sculptures. Of representational art and photography, the subject matter is predominantly, refreshingly, non-Caucasian. There are full rooms devoted to one artist's work; some puzzling, such as the grotesque, charred pastiches of KAYA; others check the pulse of painting, including Carrie Moyer Ulrike Müller, and Shara Hughes.

The fact that the work was made in a pre-Trump presidency time gives it an almost nostalgic feel, free from the overbearing story line that will most likely dominate work made in 2017 and after—the way 9/11 affected everything that came after. And there's no getting around the tension between the prominence of the disenfranchised in the subject matter and the expensive river views and surrounding glitz. Tis ever thus.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An Angel, Feet Planted Firmly

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks. Photo: Nir Arieli.
Since her 2014 retirement from New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan has kept consistently busy exploring genres outside of the genre of classical ballet, which made her a beloved star there for decades. One of the first projects she pursued was Restless Creature (2013), in which four male choreographers created pieces with her. It was intriguing, but she was still a Ballerina, for whom to design reverential and mostly careful movement. One of those was Brian Brooks, and the two perform Some of a Thousand Words at the Joyce, a five-part work plus musical interlude, with live music (by five composers) played by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

From the outset of the evening, it's clear that Brooks has worked extensively with Whelan on neutralizing her innately lyrical line and comportment, which were honed and developed expansively over her 30 years with NYCB. At the start, the two walk slowly downstage. Of a similar height, wearing tank tops and pants, and with Whelan's hair pulled back tightly, they almost look like mirror images. The movement becomes bigger—deep second positions, pivots, tilting torsos, slashing arms. The phrases form a kind of serialism reminiscent of choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Lucinda Childs. In the next section, the pace quickens and the dancing is more darting and pond-skimming. Whelan has a solo that is sinuous, fluid, organic, lifting a pointed foot and snaking her body. 
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks. Photo: Nir Arieli.
Brooks brings two chairs onstage. They each stand atop a chair, and Whelan slowly tips to the side while Brooks stealthily rushes to catch her atop his shoulders. It's a fancy trust fall, and the timing is impressively synchronized. They sit on the chairs and tip to one side, evoking a kneeplay from Einstein on the Beach (more Childs). Still seated, they perform a passage of arms and upper body moves and poses that recall Brooks' Bolero, in which his dancers perform the entire work with their feet planted, using only their upper bodies. Brooks has always explored movement ideas like a mad scientist, taking an idea to its physical limits and sometimes beyond. 

It's hard not to watch Whelan, whose luminous presence and clarity of line have always distinguished her onstage, but actually Brooks draws the eye equally. His everyman appearance and humble bearing don't demand our attention, but he has a lush muscularity and physical intelligence, and creates movement that complements these factors. The final section, which incorporates parts of his duet for Restless Creatures, feels as if it was made early in their working relationship, when reverence for her illustrious ballet career was at a high. She comes across as more fragile, a falling angel now in white (her body in a cruciform, no less) to catch softly on his back time and again. It's good to have seen in earlier sections that their partnership has brought her back down to earth and alongside a partner who is inspired by her, and vice versa, feet planted firmly on the ground.