The 73rd edition of The Whitney Biennial is currently running at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and, as writer Laura Feinstein tells us, the show is a difficult one to sum up in short form:
“It would be impossible to fully encapsulate the scope of the Whitney Biennial in a simple sentence. Made up of artists young and old at various stages of their careers (even careening into the posthumous), the Biennial is meant to be a celebration of a diverse range of work, often overlooked by the general public. While reviewers have been quick to fawn over their favorites (if you read enough reviews you could even start to believe the Biennial is only composed of about five artists), the key to judging its success is by the impression it leaves on you.”
Read and see more from The Whitney Biennial 2012 on the following page.
By Laura Feinstein
Founded in 1931 as a way to showcase the newest developments in modern art, the Whitney Biennial is often called “the show everyone loves to hate,” and it thrives somewhat on the controversy it consistently creates. How the art and artists who participate are selected is the closest thing this world gets to the draft picks.
It would be impossible to fully encapsulate the scope of the Whitney Biennial in a simple sentence. Made up of artists young and old at various stages of their careers (even careening into the posthumous), the Biennial is meant to be a celebration of a diverse range of work, often overlooked by the general public. While reviewers have been quick to fawn over their favorites (if you read enough reviews you could even start to believe the Biennial is only composed of about five artists), the key to judging its success is by the impression it leaves on you.
This year, a viewer could be left with the feeling of visiting an art school during finals and senior thesis season: cramped and cubicled studios; packed rooms with pieces wafting from the ceilings; and general mess and disorder prevail. Walking through the maze of sculpture, sound, and art installations, without an easily recognizable cognitive thread tying the pieces together, the overall effect is jarring and disjointed. However, this isn’t to say that it isn’t effective in an oddly poignant way that makes you feel both incredibly anxious and immediately intrigued. To be fair, consistency is never something the Whitney Biennial has striven for. As a bi-yearly institution, it’s supposed to be providing “a look at the current state of art in America,” in which case it’s entirely on-point. American art has never had so many narrative threads running at once.
On one end of spectrum is Dawn Kasper‘s interactive piece “This Could Be Something If I Let It.” A native of Los Angeles who has set up camp inside the Whitney for the duration of the show in order to bring visitors in on her artistic process, someone more cynical might say Kasper’s work is almost like the human embodiment of the current boomerang generation—forced to move back home or into over-populated and dilapidated city apartments because of their own limited means. If Kasper hoped to capture the zeitgeist of our times she certainly succeeded, but if she was going for originality, the performance artists of the 70’s not only beat her to it but did it with an irony-free sense of sincerity and pretenses not entirely evident in the work.
On the opposite side of the generational divide comes the delicately touching works of Forrest Bess, a semi-reclusive visionary from the gulf of Mexico, known for his haunting portraits and artistically-driven genital mutilations (the later of which is being displayed for the first time in a gallery setting). Though shocking and far less feel-good than Kasper’s piece, it certainly holds just as rightful a place inside the show.
The combined effort of independent curator Jay Sanders along with Elisabeth Sussman (with the generous and ever brilliant help from Light Industry’s Thomas Beard and Ed Halter) this year’s Biennial certainly had its high points. With works by Mike Kelley, Brooklyn artist and feminist collective/ LTTR founder K8 Hardy, and Werner Herzog taking up much of the (well-deserved) attention, it would be easy to overlook some of the less prominent stars of the show.
As anyone who looked at Levi’s recent Go Forth campaign with a queasy stomach can appreciate, the photographic work of Latoya Ruby Frazier, who hopes to uncover some of the miss-truths represented by the mega-brands “outreach program” into Braddock, PA. For those not familiar with the campaign, in 2009 Levi’s unveiled a series of faux-naive ads supposedly featuring the residents of Braddock PA, and their plans to rebuild the town to its former glory. Featuring Ryan McGuinley-esque film and photography, and short films with soft-spoken voice-over monologues set to a slide show of contrived rural settings, the campaign produced a collective eye-roll from much of the media community. Through her stunning work, Frazier hopes to shine a light on the ways in which the government and the jeans giant have failed this small faltering town, and continue to do so. Haunting portraits of a rust-belt city left to whither by both its own leaders and the outside world add a much-needed dimension to the show: immediacy.
Though the Biennial is certainly a prerequisite view for anyone even claiming to be interested in contemporary art, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to like the work. While all those chosen to participate have been deemed intelligent, talented and driven enough by the curators, the show itself shouldn’t be beyond the realm of criticism. Just like with a good baseball game, sometimes it’s okay to boo the weaker links and give a cheer for the clear winners.