Whitney Biennial

Last week, along with other alumni of my graduate school, I got to visit the Whitney Biennial and hear from three of the artists.  This survey of American art takes place every two years (there’s a 3 year gap since the last one due to the Whitney’s move).  This year’s show featured the work of  63 artists and collectives, covering a wide variety of media from painting to video.  Many of the works reflected on current issues – the environment, migration, economics, race, gender – often with a political tone. Like all shows of this nature, it was uneven – some very good works, some good works, and some others.  Here are my highlights.

Untitled photos, Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, and Cairn, Beatriz Cortez

On the first floor, off to the right you’ll find Rafa Esparza’s round room, an adobe structure fashioned of approximately 3,100 bricks he made in Los Angeles (he learned brick laying from his father).  Called Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field it is meant to upend the white square gallery space that art is often forced to inhabit.  Esparza then invited other artists to show their work in his space.  Along one part of the wall were 5 large color photographic portraits of young men by Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, from his  series, Mexicano.   In the center of the the room was Beatriz Cortez’ Cairn, made form igneous volcanic rock.

Infinite Regress XX, Eamon Ore-Giron, vinyl paint on adobe

Opposite was Eamon Ore-Giron’s Infinite Regress XX, vinyl paint on adobe.

Exodus, John Kessler, multi-media, figurines, wood, steamer trunk, i-phone, monitor, motor

On the 5th floor, John Kessler had two pieces, which both addressed climate change.  Exodus specifically looks at the issue of refugees who will be forced to leave their homelands because of rising seas levels (already happening in Bangladesh and parts of Asia-Pacific).  A white steamer trunk serves as a pedestal for  a rotating platform populated by figurines of (weary) travelers the artist sourced on E-bay.  A live i-phone camera facing a monitor, causes a video feedback, creating the impression of a Sisyphean parade of refugees. 

La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, Aliza Nisenbaum, oil on linen

Brooklyn-based artist Aliza Nisenbaum is the daughter of Russian refugees who settled in Mexico.  She started the paintings that were in the Biennial five years ago while working at Tania B’s  space in Corona, Queens (artist helping immigrants without papers), where she taught English through Art History. Over time Nisenbaum got to know her students and their families, many of whom are undocumented, and began painting them.  For Nisenbaum, this is an embodiment of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who said that ethics comes from face-to-face encounters; for Nisenbaum, sitting with someone is a mutual witnessing.  In her portraits she inserts an image (tiles, the Virgin Mary) from the sitter’s home country. 

Noah Fischer is part of the collective Occupy Museums, which grew out of a manifesto he wrote at the beginning of  Occupy Wall Street, connecting Wall Street and art.  He saw the same problems in both worlds, especially that of conflicts of interest in the boards of directors, and the issue of debt. Fisher pointed out that art school is now very expensive ($60K/yr at Columbia) meaning that fewer and fewer people can afford to take classes, and many have a hard time paying off their debt.   For Occupy Museum‘s installation Debtfair, artists were invited  to participate, but only if they agreed to talk about their relationship to debt – certainly not something comfortable for most people – nonetheless, about 500 artists answered the call to talk about their financial situation (which is not always dire).  The total amount of debt in the Debtfair is $55,552,069.84.

detail from DebtFair, Occupy Museums

One part of Debtfair  is inside a wall, where the works of 30 artists are embedded in a graph organized into 3 specific conditions:  artists connected to Puerto Rico and hence to Puerto Rico’s debt, which is related to colonialism; artists who owe $75K or more to Navient (Sallie Mae’s successor); and artists in default on their Chase credit cards (often because they have to pay for the installation of their own gallery shows). 

The graph is a vivid illustration of the link between artists’ debts, and the profits they generate for many members of museum boards:  one line shows the growth of the increasing trade in debts, and the other plots the growth of the ultra luxury asset market for contemporary art …..

This was a group show, with most of the works either projected against one wall or being shown on a computer.  It’s a very impressive work, and raises some important questions.

Handler, John Riepenhoff with Untitled, Michelle Grabner, papier-mache, fiberglass, wood, wire, fabric and shoes

John Riepenhoff is an artist and gallerist in Milwaukee, whose series Handler is an homage to many of the unseen workers who make the art world possible.  Each work is mounted on a papier-mâché sculpture of a pair of legs, modeled on his own, supporting the work of another artist.

Ivan F. Svenonius’ “Censorship Now” (spread 2 of 8) for the Whitney Biennial, Frances Stark, oil, gold leaf, ink and gesso on canvas

Frances Stark has hand-painted pages from the title essay by punk musician, cult figure, and author Ian F. Svenonius’ 2015 book Censorship Now!! While the text is strident, by recreating it on such a large scale (2 pages on a canvas about 6ft X 9ft) and underscoring certain portions of it, Stark highlights the relevant questions: when everything is art, what is art? can it have power? is it now irrelevant?  Give it a read.

Abandoned Painting E, John Divola, inkjet print

John Divola’s series Abandoned Paintings was inspired by the artist’s discovery of discarded student paintings in a dumpster near the University of California, Riverside, where he teaches. Divola hung these paintings, often unfinished, on the walls of abandoned buildings, which he then photographed to create ambivalent settings, some of which are very haunting.

Glimmer Glass, Carrie Moyer, acrylic with glitter on canvas

Carrie Moyer’s large scale paintings of poured acrylic and collage, glitter and flat paint, and the resulting bold, layered, colorful shapes often have an architectural feel, but are nonetheless joyous.  Her use of “pedestrian” and “feminine” materials are a great push-back against the masculine history of abstract painting.

Rug (gato chico), Ulrike Muller, wool

Tucked away in a corridor you’ll find this tapestry by Ulrike Müller, one of the rare pieces of fiber art in this show.

detail from stained glass windows, Raul de Nieves, paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets

Raúl de Nieves had one of the largest installations, a site-specific “stained glass” floor to ceiling window of 18 panels made of paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets.  You’ll notice that many of the windows have a fly, which for the artist symbolizes death and waste.  However, for de Nieves, death is metaphor for the possibility of spectacular transformation and rebirth.  I liked his use of color, and his play on ancient iconic images.

The longer I slip into a crack the shorter my nose becomes, Raul De Nieves, Yarn, dress, glue, beads, cardboard, found apple, taxidermic bird and mannequin.

In front of this “window” you’ll find several beaded sculptures, as well as elaborately crafted costumes which the artist has worn in his performances.

This is a very small selection of the works on view, and I encourage you to get to the Whitney to see the Biennial before it closes on June 11th.

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