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Monday, June 28, 2004

Arts & Letters

A Buzz of Intentions: The 2004 Whitney Biennial - Part 2

In a Pluralistic Age




Given the internationalization of so much of contemporary art, as confirmed by the many biennials and triennials taking place all over the world, the question may be asked whether it even makes sense to hold a geographically limited exhibition such as the Whitney biennial (March 11- May 30). Doesn’t it make more sense, especially in a city as international as New York, to emphasize contemporary art’s global nature, so much of which reflects a non-national current of energy? In such a world, whose artistic output is characterized by strategies and techniques that might have originated in New York avant-garde art of the Sixties and Seventies but which are now used by progressive artists everywhere, it seems almost quaint to give a reading of American art per se. Indeed, there was very little in the Whitney biennial that spoke to a specifically American sensibility, a situation which undermined the exhibit’s cohesiveness and underscored the fact that its many artists had little in common, which in itself revealed just how pluralized the art world has become. Yet, if that is the reality, it seems fair to expect a show of the biennial’s magnitude to reflect it accurately — which, in fact, it more or less did. Fulfilling obligations, however, does not necessarily mean that the exhibition was a success. It seems to me that there are two ways of approaching the daunting project of covering America as a single art entity: one can report on the current art situation without paying attention to whether the art is successful; or one can choose to choose — that is, decide preferentially which art is most successful as art and consequently exhibit it in a genuine attempt to present a successful show. There are, of course, arguments for both sides; a relatively impartial, objective presentation of all kinds of art better reflects the reality of work currently being made, while a more juried show has the benefit of filtering out bad art from good. It is true that the categories of what is acceptable as art have been widened, to the point where discussion of achievement almost seems academic; yet, to me, it seems necessary that we attempt some form of judgment, without which absolutely anything goes. The discourse surrounding contemporary art is so highly politicized, however, that one hesitates to say such a thing, as it seems to suggest a conservative agenda to many. Yet, one can support the political implications of contemporary artwork without necessarily judging it a success. Indeed, so much new work is best explained through its context, as opposed to its actual physical being, that we can often separate the object from its symbolic or political implications.

As a result, the formal appraisal of contemporary art has become, like the artwork itself, controversial in its suggestion of social awareness or change. What is now needed is an objectivity that can evaluate the often well-intended, indeed politically necessary, content the object offers its viewers. If we can remain slightly distanced, one might even say alienated, from the artwork’s intimations of change — what Arthur C. Danto calls the “political sublime” — perhaps we can separate out what is being implied from what is being said, in large part because so much of contemporary art’s politics are intimated rather than directly spoken. While most of the biennial wasn’t political per se, it suggested an attitude deeply critical of the dominant culture — hence the curators’ pairing of new work with that of artists who made their reputations in the Seventies and Eighties, a decision that betokened a belief in the similarity of purpose for both the new and the older artists being shown. But the fact remains that most of the art in the biennial addressed politics only in the most oblique fashion; the social content of the work in the show was, at best, merely suggestive of a rebellious stance. This happened in part because the sense of rebellion was so estheticized or subtle as to lose its public nature. The remarkable drawings of Julie Mehretu do not, at first glance, look as though they are political: they evoke architectural drawings gone wild, with as many as six layers of marks on the canvas. Represented in her drawings are “architectural plans, newspaper clippings, mall escalators, cartoon fragments, maps, and graffiti” (p. 212); the artist creates vastly complicated scenarios, dense with color and form. Yet the public representation of these structures seems implicitly linked to a politicized reading of architecture, in which the corridors of power are exposed for what they are. Mehretu’s work is a good example of art that does not directly suggest public issues, but nevertheless incorporates a critique of postmodern public life, and is as intelligent and demanding as it is formally accomplished. Yet, even so, we must acknowledge the oblique thrust of the social critique, which is at several removes from the surface tension and brilliance of the artist’s formally realized work.

Raymond Pettibon, born in 1957, was featured as part of a rebellious older generation. Pettibon has always worked with images and words, the latter expanding the impact of his pictures by referencing larger issues than the images alone seem to address. As the catalogue points out, Pettibon’s references are highly literary, but cover both high and low influences: the Bible, William Blake, and Mickey Spillane, among others. Pettibon has also been involved with punk-rock culture, creating album covers for Black Flag, the Los Angeles heavy-metal group. What is interesting about Pettibon is his willingness to create a collage of language and image in the hope of getting the entire work to say more than it does on the surface. In No Title (Liz stepped out) (2002), a drawing that consists of overlapping black whorls of ink, curving grids emanate from quiet circles on the left and right. The word, “Hollywood,” appears in the composition’s top center; completely in capitals, it is a copy of the word sculpture seen on the hills above Hollywood, referencing the notion that Hollywood is not only a physical place but also a literary phenomenon. Pettibon’s general path of rebellion is quirky and ambitiously literary, but nonetheless represents a fighting attitude. As time has gone on, his themes have become increasingly specific, that is, referring to actual events. His work seemed to serve as a mentoring process for the younger artists in the show in the sense that he led the way for indirect political action in art.

Some of the more traditional young artists (traditional in the sense of making paintings that suggest a dialogue with painting’s history) set out to portray a very personal reality, far from intimations of public or political responsibility. Los Angeles-based Laura Owens, born in 1970, paints idiosyncratic landscapes, whose eccentric portrayal of trees, water, and animals nonetheless establishes a connection with the history of painting. In one untitled work from 2002, several trees dominate the scene, with an array of animals (a rabbit, a bear, an owl, and monkeys) seemingly enjoying the green-blue stream on their small patch of land. The composition’s forms are somewhat stylized, but that does not prevent them from being well-defined as particular examples of the artist’s sensibility. Elizabeth Peyton’s fashionable imagery is also very personal, if not quirky; her paintings commemorate relationships between friends and lovers, or portray historical figures such as Napoleon and Ludwig II. While there is no irony in Peyton’s work, as the catalogue essay points out, her sense of personal involvement is so intense as to border on decadence: there seems to be nothing beyond psychological intimacies in her art. Exploring a topic that is also marked by what can only be called intensely private issues, Chloe Piene, a young artist living in New York, has done a series of women masturbating. Her figures, though often fragmented and thrown into relief by odd poses, are clearly concerned with private pleasure. Piene’s line and erotic postures seem close to Egon Schiele (1890-1918), and place her work in the long debate regarding the legitimacy of overtly expressed sexual feeling in art. The problem, it seems to me, is not the actual expression of desire, but the way in which it is done. Eroticism and pornography are not necessarily one and the same, and Piene’s drawings seem ambiguous, unsure about the category to which they belong. Sometimes, as in the case of Fred Tomaselli’s art, the relationship between nature and culture is highly theatrical. Tomaselli’s use of drugs, including marijuana leaves, in the psychedelic, involved patterns that make up his works has resulted in notoriety. But his art, while it owes a great deal to the counterculture of the 1970s, is more about the interaction between the artificial and the real as it relates to contemporary culture; the highly stylized rows, laid out in resin, of common medicines and prescriptive pharmaceuticals pay homage to an America that overuses drugs at much risk to its collective health. As Tomaselli himself comments in the catalogue, there is danger in the construction of an artificial paradise: “The history of the American landscape was the imposition of utopian belief on nature and the perception of nature is always deformed by ideology” (p. 245). Here is a classic example of politics by implication: Tomaselli’s highly selective use of materials comments on American reliance on drugs, no matter if they are hallucinogenic or not. The paintings do not effect a direct equation between drugs and vision, but rather wittily — and also disturbingly — cite drug use as a panacea for social pressures. Tomaselli is, in many cases, an inspired artist, and it is easy to see why the biennial curators included him in a show devoted to oblique resistance and rebellion.

The brilliant and influential filmmaker Stan Brakhage (who died last year in Victoria, British Columbia) was also included in the biennial. According to the catalogue, Brakhage became more and more involved in abstraction in films made without the use of a camera. One group of works, Persian Series 13-18 (2001), consists of hand-painted films “of somber tonality and mood” (p. 158). Colors evolve and merge with each other, completing forms highly reminiscent of those seen in action painting. The 11-minute film is composed of many colors; the densely painted work in Part 13 includes dark hues, but the succeeding parts are painted in a lighter color. The effect is marvelous: a poetic expression of swiftly moving, swiftly changing colors in a medium that heightens speed and transformation over time. Sandra Gibson, a young artist living in New York, also uses film as a painting medium, directly working on the film itself so that individual frames become distinct canvases for her art. In her five-minute, silent Outline (2003), the forms, resembling an underwater sea environment, proceed like paintings in motion, highlighting both the artist’s painterly ability and her filmic awareness. One of the standout installations in the exhibition was Rob Fischer’s accumulation of different materials — chairs, window frames, other architectural items — within a dumpster with transparent walls. Entitled Ten Yards (2003), the work is too large to be considered a sculpture and too small to be regarded as architecture. As such, it can best be described as an environmental installation constructed by Fischer’s own hand. So much of contemporary art falls between categories, and Ten Yards is no exception, with the result being that one hesitates to comment on its net effect. Because it is hard to know how to experience the medium, some of the work’s anxiety is displaced onto the viewer, who must proceed as though he or she is looking at something understandable on its own terms. Fischer thus puts his audience in a place of confusion, in which concerns about the medium affect the way the entire composition is viewed.

A young photographer with a rapidly growing following, Katy Grannan has been photographing strangers, many of them contacted through advertisements in local papers, since the late 1990s. The respondents often pose nude in the midst of nature — in a stream or beside a tree, for example. In her latest work, entitled Sugar Camp Road (2003), the protagonists in her photos demonstrate some sort of disturbance; in Mike, private property, New Paltz, NY, a naked man lies against a tree trunk, against a background of a pond, an open field, and more trees. His left arm swings across his stomach to the right side of his body, while his phallus rests on his right thigh. One can see his clothes in a bundle, on the other side of the tree. Ostensibly a study in nature, there is something disturbing about the image, perhaps brought on by the incongruous figure of the naked man in the midst of the landscape. Mike’s expression is impartial to the point of vacuity, and what seems at first to be a mixture of genres — landscape photography and nude portraiture — suddenly reveals itself as something deeply troubling, despite the scene’s apparent innocence.

Jim Hodges, an artist living in New York, offered a remarkable glass sculpture entitled a view from in here (2003), which consists of a bird’s nest perched on branches that stick out from a wall. At once exquisitely elegant and hopelessly artificial, a view from in here toys with our notion of the made and the real. In some ways, it reminds one of Roxy Paine’s artificial tree, done in small scale and composed of metal, seen in the last Whitney biennial. The object’s beauty overwhelms its open embrace of artificial materials, and while the composition comes close to kitsch, its ersatz realization of nature is not without a very sophisticated humor. Flowers bud from one of the branches, and the nest holds baby-blue shells, lending an air of idyllic peace to a sculpture devoted to verisimilitude. The real point of the sculpture, however, is the recognition of the unreal that underlies the copying of nature: this work is as much a cultural construction as it is a natural one. Perhaps the most spectacular exhibit in the show was Yayoi Kusama’s installation, Fireflies on the Water (2002). The room consists of mirrors placed on walls, ceiling, and floor, with a pool in the space’s center and 150 small lights that hang from the ceiling. The lights are reflected and multiplied by the mirrors and water, creating an environment that is extraordinarily beautiful and at the same time hallucinatory; unlike the Infinity Mirror Room (1965), for which Kusama covered the floor with her signature phallic forms, however, Fireflies on the Water offers a much more spiritual experience. Viewers stood on a small step, the door closed behind them, taking in the exquisite intricacies of the lights repeated infinitely in Kusama’s hall of mirrors. The work was very popular, with viewers waiting in line to see it. Kusama, who moved back to Tokyo in the early 1970s after living in New York, is really an international artist rather than an American one, but she was included in the biennial, perhaps, as way of referencing her presence in New York in the 1960s, when she first became known. She embodies a spirit of innovation and conceptual intelligence that the curators of this biennial were at pains to represent.

Yet this exhibition’s overall effect, unfortunately, was a bit obtuse and did not reflect the political intentions of those who chose the artists; too often, we questioned the motivation of the artists, whose work appeared to be highly schematic and whose message, therefore, remained obscure. Perhaps the main problem in assessing the show has to do with our expectations: Can one exhibition in one museum really do justice to the immense variety and complexity of today’s art world? The task undertaken by the Whitney seems to be a mammoth one, beyond its — or any institution’s — capabilities. As such, it seems much more realistic to see the show as reflecting, as best it can, highly diverse artworks that are best understood as representing individual artists rather than trends. A more politicized reading of the art might be important to the artists, curators, and audience; however, such an interpretation may be asking too much of work that only indirectly expresses its dissatisfaction with American culture. I think that the show and its viewers are better off accepting the innate limitations of what is being shown, rather than judging the exhibits for what they are not. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to judge the Whitney biennial unfavorably: it cannot be all things to all people. While this biennial might have been a disappointment in terms of fulfilling its stated goals, it becomes more interesting as a show when we see the works for what they are: individual efforts in a deeply pluralistic age.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to greekworks.com.
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