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Friday, May 28, 2004

Arts & Letters

A Buzz of Intentions: The 2004 Whitney Biennial - Part 1

Cultural Noise

The Whitney biennial, the Old Faithful of contemporary art exhibitions, is back again, and it is fair to say that this version of the American dream in art is a bit of a standoff, being neither a grand fiasco nor a great triumph. Instead, it does, perhaps, what it is supposed to do: give a reading of the contemporary scene as it currently stands. Interestingly, the three Whitney curators responsible for the show — Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin, and Debra Singer — have included not only the inevitable 20-somethings, but also mid-career and mature artists, including Robert Longo, the bad boy of the 1980s who now makes pictures, in black and white, of gigantic surfer waves; the elegant minimalist Robert Mangold, whose curling, intertwining lines against single blocks of color seem to be not quite relevant, given the strongly political bent of the catalogue essays and the staid indifference of much of the exhibition’s art; and even the arch-hedonist and technically blinding David Hockney, whose California art unfortunately looks rather staid and comfortable here, despite his brilliant use of colors.

Middle-aged as I am, I acknowledge a deep-seated wariness in seeing veterans of the New York art scene included in an exhibition whose mandate is really to seek out and display the talents of a younger generation; the inclusion of the artists mentioned above gives a bit of historical context to a show noted both for its lack of continuity and powerful recognition of the momentary. Because this biennial is neither an outright failure nor a major success, its structure as a window onto the present is rather more transparent than at other biennials. This means that the show’s content, increasingly politicized over the last few decades, is offered as a negotiated territory exquisitely aware of its boundaries, that is, of its limitations as social expression. While very little of the work is expressly or openly political, the curators’ interpretation of the art insists on its acting as a register of profound discontent, not to mention suspicion, in regard to such matters as identity and technology. Given society’s complexity, as well as the intricate movements of an art intent on charting that complexity, it proves nearly impossible, in realistic terms, to gauge the subject matter exposed to us. Instead, what we have is a series of propositions, sometimes tentative, sometimes not, which attempt to read the culture in the same disquieting fashion that culture has attempted to read us — another standoff resulting in the neutralization of theme.

Part of the dilemma stems from a certain sameness of subject matter: the rebellion implied here is similar to the rebellion of a generation ago. The issues, primarily about the perception of self in a world networked to the point of utter redundancy, seem intensified without being necessarily new. While it might differ in its presentation of self, this biennial’s art moves toward a much more diffident appraisal of what is possible in a social realm, as if raw experience has been traded for a hypertechnology in which the means of communication itself is its own value. This results in a desperate revision, or rather inversion, of value, because the problems of post-modernity are so well-known to us that we cannot behave as if they were new (and consequently compelling); there is, by now, a hierarchy of expression based on an archeology of knowledge: we know what the problems are. The past, both decades ago and more recent, threatens to become its own theme in a facsimile of engagement whose primary meaningfulness is the presence of hopeful insight into a political situation that threatens to undermine our best intentions.

Art is useful in a contemporary context, or as a contemporary text, only if it subsumes the past within a language that is inherently new. The problem with much of the art seen in the last decade is that it repeats the doubts of a progressive generation without transcending the terms surrounding it. The situation is serious: we are in need of an idiom that, in concert with the past, pushes forward a fearless, as yet unknown mythology, in which the struggles of the self abandon themselves to what is not yet conceived. This is a path in which the future is primary; the essays in the biennial catalogue actually do a better job of portraying this position than do the images in the present show. This is not because the show is inherently weak, nor because the intellectual concepts binding it together are radiantly alive; rather, it happens that words are simply more effective in extrapolating the foggy ambience surrounding our efforts in the cultural marketplace. Phrases delineate ideas that images can only hint at, there being kinds of reality linked to certain adequacies of media. Language, then, mediates an intellectualized imagery whose consequences are rather vague — at least insofar as this show presents them.

What is it, then, about the image’s failure to conceive of a realism that does justice to the language describing it? What makes the need for clarity so powerful at this moment? The problem in new art is essentially formal: we have been unable to do justice to a reality that is as tenuous, or should we say as invasive, as it is all-encompassing. The achievement of the highly self-aware, often rebellious, essays in the catalogue, which strangely (and somewhat decadently) include a brief treatise on drug use by Anaïs Nin, is to fashion a political vernacular that takes as its bias the inchoate intentions of an art that remains unaware of its origins: it does not know what it means to say. But neither are its implications those of a stifled cry; we must remember that the art in this show is intended to represent an instant in American culture, a pan-American instant whose motives are clearly in favor of recognitions that define rather than hide discomfort. It is my belief that the outline of such discomfort is more effectively negotiated through words: the image cannot explain the idea, it can merely illustrate it. And the sense of unreality, the experience that we are no longer within ourselves, is so strong that artists feel it necessary to stick to a script that limits as much as frees them.

The result of all this positioning, as well as the sheer weight of empire, is cultural noise. We can no longer hear ourselves think; we drown in a buzz of intentions. Even experience has no consequence: the history paintings and graphic suicides of gifted artist Barnaby Furnas reduce violence to the level of an absorbing videogame. This is nothing new, although we are, perhaps for the first time, growing tired of our ambition to incorporate and also transcend technology, with its ability to change both society and culture. Our fatigue is present in our inability to comprehend the isolation of our place in the world (in both the individual and broadly grouped sense of isolation). The art celebrated by the biennial pays homage to Internet speed, even as it stumbles over its non-historical motivation; we manufacture a present on demand, which serves as speed for the masses. One hesitates to paint so negative a portrait, but the truth is that our stance is currently a mockery of motive — we make fun of, even dismiss, our own beliefs, as if they could survive the indignity of the ride. Somewhere, somehow, artists must find within themselves the wherewithal to resist the collectivization of experience and put forth the individual self’s dignity as understood within a historical context. This is, to steal the rhetoric of our leaders, the only way we can engage in a politics of hope, without which we deny absolutely the very values we deny in jest.

The biennial’s art, then, is a promise that remains unexplained and unexplainable. No amount of Internet hype will define the problem, because it is its own problem: velocity by itself is not a moral issue, but a technological one. In the absence of shared belief, we install a rhetoric that fails on the deepest level; rebellion becomes a pleasure, an engineered manner of life that does no justice to the real damage so many of us sustain on a daily basis. The whole notion of form, by itself a protocol of joy, loses out to a mistrust of its effectiveness, for we in fact know that formal issues often suggest an objectivity that is too often seen as privileged, biased, and even contemptuous of anything but itself. But form is a plan, not an attack, and it should be regarded as a means to an end. As such, it can remind us of an eroticism we debase by insisting on its literal meaning; there is, indeed, far too much literalization and failed symbolism in this exhibit — some of it deliberate — and it keeps us from the humanity of which we are capable.

What do the artists really think? It is hard to say. There is a large discrepancy between the politicized texts of the catalogue and the artwork, which tends to be diffuse and ill-focused. The British-born painter Cecily Brown, now living and working in New York, presented several examples from her series, Black Painting; owing much to the New York school, these works manage not only to reference Goya, but also, at the same time, the anticipation and expression of sex. While there is something admirable in Brown’s works of mental and physical abandon, there is also the feeling of a willed redundancy: much of what Brown references seems to be linked to the luscious paint applications of de Kooning’s career (a remarkable overview of which is now on exhibit at Gagosian Gallery in New York). It’s not that the paintings look old hat; only that they imply the eroticism of action painting, which has been primarily a historical movement for some time now. The subtle monsters that gaze out at you from the broad swathes of black paint that form the background of Black Painting #2 (2002) look very much like a contemporary reading of Goya; the nude figure in white, resting on a bed, might easily be a succubus, so closely aligned is the erotic spirit with death in this composition. The painting is a strong affirmation of sexuality and unreason, tying the two together in a portrait that nonetheless feels like a historical referent rather than a new expression.

There is nothing wrong with a nod to history, but it complicates an exhibition that intends to be of utterly contemporary interest; moreover, it undermines much of the art’s willful assertion that it function in a vacuum, namely, that it reference nothing outside or beyond itself. The Los Angeles-based artist Liz Craft offers (on the first floor of the Whitney, right beside the entrance to the galleries) a bronze Death Rider (Virgo) (2002), which presents the bemused viewer with an oddly fashioned icon of American resistance: a skeleton drives the bike, which has a huge pine cone for a gas tank, while a headless girl sits behind the deathly arrangement of bones. The finish of the piece is oddly, deliberately, amateurish, as if to underscore the improvisatory nature of rebellion. Here, the popular history to which the sculpture refers is essentially eventless — one is caught up in the long, ongoing moment of freedom achieved at any cost, even death. On another level, however, there is a kind of sentimentality in the image, a re-referral to rebellion that makes the piece appear as a travesty of an attitude. As mentioned above, Barnaby Furnas makes paintings that pixilate an all-American violence; in Hamburger Hill (2002), he paints a firefight, complete with explosions of bodies and blood. There is a graphic effectiveness to the scene, which relates the anarchy and raw experience of battle. This work and other Furnas paintings were among the most compelling pieces in the show, proving that the category of history painting can indeed be updated, even if at the expense of atmospheric anarchy.

The presence of older artists in the biennial may have been intended to historicize the younger artists; the implications in the catalogue essays is that there is a generational symmetry between the concerns of those born in the Sixties and Seventies with those born before. Robert Longo’s offering, a triad of ocean waves done in charcoal, is meant to link with his contorted figures in business attire from the late Seventies to early Eighties. The baroque forms of power, its ability to distort physical phenomena, both in people and nature, might be referred to as Longo’s primary interest; however, the sheer impersonality of the waves’ depiction is connected to an image of exquisite symmetry, as opposed to the twisted bodies in his drawings done a generation ago. Meanwhile, David Hockney’s art looks, sadly, like a pale comparison of earlier work; his L. A. Studio (2003), a tepid watercolor of an interior with carts and easel, seems very much as though Hockney were searching for thematic material. Robert Mangold’s undulating lines against a background of a single color appear beautiful, but outside the realm of discussion of new art; his is an older perception, one highly attractive and formally nuanced, which does not share an affinity with the younger artists. So it is hard to ascribe similarity to the two age groups, who inevitably are marked by different concerns.

Emily Jacir provides the most overt expression of politics. Born in 1970 in Houston, raised in Saudi Arabia, given a high-school education in Italy and a college and graduate education in the US, and having lived in France and Palestine before moving to New York in 1998, the artist has, as the catalogue says, “been crossing borders her entire life.” She has attempted to fulfill the requests of Palestinians in response to her question, “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” As the catalogue points out, many of those responding now live outside Palestine, having fallen victim to the changes accompanying the creation of Israel. Of those who answered Jacir, Iyad, who lives in Bethlehem, asked her to water a tree in his village of Dayr Rafat, which he can no longer enter; a man named George asked Jacir to walk the streets of Nazareth because he has been banned from the town; and Amal, now living in New York, asked the artist to bring clothes and gifts to her family in Khan Yunis, who she has been unable to see for five years. Interestingly, Jacir’s actions tend toward the poetic even as they underscore the politics of displaced Palestinians; her lyric undertakings highlight the kinds of behavior that bind people to their origins, despite the fact that those origins have been cut off for political reasons.

What is it about her work that causes caution in the viewer, however? What is it about the show itself that hinders the audience from participating fully in the art? My hunch is that Jacir’s activities mix genres and categorizations too easily; her art exists primarily in the realm of culture, without truly contributing to the politics she would like to engage in: the implications of her question speak to imaginative freedom as much as to a lack of physical constraint. This is, of course, what conceptual art is supposed to do, but the trappings of Jacir’s projects seem to exist for political reasons alone. The moral force of her art is, in fact, diluted by the poetic cast of its intention, because her instances of humanity only underscore the vulnerable isolation of her acts: they are stand-ins for a focus on the real politics at hand. As a result, her activities do justice neither to politics nor to art. I do not wish to be overly harsh — I think that Jacir’s intentions are completely noble — but I would also like to distinguish between art and morality, which over time have had difficulties subsuming each other. Jacir’s politics of desire are exactly that: a construction of possibility beyond the realm of actual achievement. The imagination is a place where anything can happen, and it seems to me that there is a naïveté on Jacir’s part when she enacts a freedom that is so profoundly symbolic and, consequently, unreal.

The art of this biennial underscores what many of us have suspected: namely, that art and morality are two separate spheres. They are tangent to each other and are close in their desire for a unified field of action; however, they finally fail to overlap in any symmetry of purpose. The highly professional, but also impersonal, readings of the curators contrast with the awkward lyricism of much of the art, which is primarily about itself more than it is about subject matter we might deem political. There is something confusing, and also confused, in the presentation of the art; formal questions are taken over by a sense of resistance to the implications of global capital. I am all for such resistance, but I think that a failure occurs in the show’s often naive attempt to meld historical presence with the unbounded spaces of what the contemporary imagination must face. Of course, in an idealized form, art and morals are meant to act as one impulse; but given our tenuousness in the current culture, the unification of the two categories seems to be beyond our means. Hence, the feeling that we have not been exposed to an idiom that can sustain us — and, therefore, the implication that the ideal, no matter how thoroughly moralized, remains beyond our grasp.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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