If art possesses a State of the Union, it is the Whitney Biennial. Every other year, the museum assembles an enormous collection of works – paintings, photography, films, installations, sound mixes, and the like – and retrofits its otherwise drab five-story exhibition space into a castle of self-reflective panache.
This year’s theme is, supposedly, politics. The curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, European-born but American-employed, state in the catalogue’s preface, “At a moment when world opinion of the United States is at its lowest ebb…there seemed a particular urgency to make a bold curatorial statement about the current zeitgeist.” They have also chosen to give the show a name, something it has never had before. Iles and Vergne have decided on “Day for Night”, using the title of a 1973 François Truffaut film that shot nighttime scenes during the day with a special darkening filter. Just like the show’s title, it blurs the line between reality and fiction, creation and existence, art and politics.
To help make their argument about illusionary identities, Iles and Vergne have drawn upon an unusually large amount of foreign-born artists who either work in the States or have been heavily influenced by its culture, which just about opens the floor to anybody.
So be it. With regard to America’s global influence, the curators start off with the laudable intention of showing that American art does not stand in isolation. As with our military and economic power, our culture is equally extended across the globe. We not only influence foreign artists, but foreign artists influence us too. The similarities in artistic form, from sculpture to installations to mixed media, will only drive home this point.
The problem, however, is that Iles and Vergne – and many of the show’s critics – don’t seem to grasp what the collective art community is saying. In the exhibit’s wall-etched blurbs and artwork commentaries the words “complex,” “complicated,” “contradictory” appear incessantly, stressing how confused the curators are about what the artist’s messages are.
True, every work of art is subject to interpretation. You call something bad, I call it good. You see a commentary on the depressed state of our dim-witted political leaders, I see a photograph of the Grand Canyon.
So given the relativism of art criticism, I want to rescue this year’s Biennial from the pessimistic pall the curators are trying to cast over it. No, I say, contemporary art is not overly-concerned with the war on terror or the view of America from abroad. And no, artists are not so confused or baffled by the increasingly interconnectedness of the world or the dizzying pace of technology. So what is it then? A look at a few of my favorite pieces may help in articulating an alternative interpretation.
Ed Paschke’s (1939-2004) most recent paintings, created well after September 11th, are of surrealist mask-like faces awash in neon greens, purples, reds, and yellows. Behind them are symmetrical patterns that sometimes resemble the lights of a Las Vegas billboard, and other times the designs on a Hindu prayer book. What I see here is a fascination with modern technology and man’s control over it. At times, he loses sight of his creation and becomes lost, hence the obscured eyes and generic facial feature. But he is also at the center of the painting, in full view. He dominates it.
Moreover, the mere artistry of the work presupposes a sort of technical supremacy over machinery; Paschke’s paintings are, after all, hand-crafted images that look as good, if not better, than computer generated facsimiles. While some of the artist’s works are of guns – hinting at the materialized state of the world – they make no clear judgments about them. Combined with the alluring bright palette, man’s command over his weapons expresses the seductiveness of physical power. But is this a good thing? Is it bad? Paschke doesn’t seem to tell us.
The Whitney’s heavy focus on newer artistic mediums – videos, light projections, and mixed media sculptures – also offers a more optimistic view of contemporary American art.
Rodney Graham presents a stunning video of a rotating crystal chandelier projected onto a black wall, within a completely darkened room. The chandelier, filmed on lush 35-millimeter, had me thinking about the simple pleasure of enjoying something I do not own. The chandelier did not exist in reality, but no matter.
The most idealistic piece belongs to Matthew Day Jackson. He retrofits an old Polish wagon with a canvas cover made from the flags of the fifty states. Inside of the cover, there are stars surrounding an owl placed in the center of the cart, which is tilted upward. Even the curator’s description of this piece cannot avoid a cheerful interpretation. Jackson’s piece, it says, recalls the pioneering, Western spirit that is an integral part of the American ethos. Recycling old American axioms, Jackson insists that our idealism is not dead, whatever the political environment, whatever its current shape.
To be sure, the Whitney has its fair share of down-beat art. But when it is gloomy, it is not admonishing, morally righteous or overtly political. It is simply sad, trying its best to convey emotions through art rather than offer grand political diatribes.
Take, for example, Angela Strassheim’s haunting photos – one of her dead grandmother lying in a casket, another of a father, his face expressionless, staring straight into the camera’s lens as he combs his son’s red hair, who is dressed identically to his father. She does not share Jackson’s optimism, Paschke’s fascination, or Graham’s wonder at luxury. She sees modern life as sterile, devoid of emotion. Furthermore, her art is completely domestic and inward focused. It has nothing to say about foreign policy. September 11th, the war on Iraq, Al-Qaeda and the like go totally unmentioned.
Another one of the Whitney’s savants who stays local is Jamal Cyrus, a black artist from Houston. This time, however, politics, takes center stage. In his most provocative piece, Cyrus refashions a Ku Klux Klan outfit in throwback jersey motif. The number “66” is patched on the chest pocket, encircled by the words “Deep South.” Far from being disheartening, Cyrus’s piece had me feeling upbeat. He takes a humorous jab at white supremacy, using black fashion to symbolize black success.
Attacks against America’s foreign policy do, however, make their presence felt at the Biennial. In front of the museum’s entrance, there is Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Peace Tower,” a three-story high mélange of signs protesting the American Empire. Then, there is Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” charcoal drawing of a black-hooded Abu Ghraib detainee standing arms stretched atop a box, with the work’s title etched behind him. Last is Liz Larner’s “RWBs,” an entangled sphere of red, white, and blue aluminum tubes, which suggests the befuddled state of American politics.
Critics of the show have rightly picked up on these works, but they are the exception, not the norm, at the Biennial. Furthermore, di Suvero’s piece – undoubtedly the biggest anti-war statement at the Whitney – feels stale, marginalized. It sits completely outside of the museum, in the courtyard, and, we are reminded in the catalogue and the structure’s label, that it is a reworking of di Suvero’s decades-old “Peace Tower” protesting the Vietnam War.
So to view these political pieces as the crux of the Biennial is to miss the point. Are there politics involved in the show? Of course. But do they dominate it? Hardly. What emerges in the five stories of paintings, installations, videos and more is not a “conflicted” landscape in American art. It is a diverse one. Taken as a whole, then, the Whitney Biennial represents an art scene that is alive and well. It is varied, assertive, big, loud, and sure. Complex, yes, but confident too. It is, in short, American.