A Whitney Biennial of Shadow and Light

After a year of Covid delay, the Whitney Biennale has recently arrived in town and it’s a welcome sight. Other recent editions—the 80th such collection—have tended to be lively, timid, youthful jolts. That doesn’t read that way, even with the many young artists amongst its 60+ contributors, many represented by brand new, quarantined works. A particularly bleak, adult spectacle filled with three years of heart-rending history marked by social division, racial violence and brutal death.

Organized by two veteran Whitney curators, David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, the title of the Biennial, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” a colloquial phrase taken from Toni Morrison and pointing to dark unspoken truths, brings to mind the austere tone of the show. Its appearance offers a hint of mood: its main installation on the 5th and 6th floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art is literally split between shadow and light.

On this occasion, the museum removed nearly all the dividing walls on its fifth floor, opening up the Manhattan space end-to-end from the Hudson River to the High Line, and disseminating the art in island-like units from start to finish. The arrangement is not pretty; It has the appearance of a cluttered, sales room. But it silently reminded me of a utopian art world moment.

A local non-profit organization in 2009 X InitiativeA group of artists, vendors and curators hosted an event in Chelsea not far from the current Whitney. “No Spirit For Sale: Festival of the Independents.” It brought together dozens of alternative galleries and organizations under one roof and used precisely this limitless format – eliminating art fair-style booths and VIP lounges and entrance fees – and allowing art and its audiences to mingle freely. share common air and light. (of the city Independent Art Fair initially adopted the wallless model, but soon abandoned it.)

As the curators emphasized in their explanation of the exhibition, the idea of ​​borders and getting rid of them was important for them to think about this biennial, starting with the questions (Also covered in the 2019 edition) on how to break down the geopolitical boundaries that traditionally defined and constrained Whitney’s version of “American art.”

Three of the 2022 artists live and work in Mexico (Mónica Arreola, Alejandro Morales, and Andrew Roberts) and two in Canada (Rebecca Belmore and Duane Linklater, both of whom are Indigenous heritages). More than a dozen were born outside of the continental US; some still live elsewhere on a part-time basis. Rayyane Tabet, one of whom lists Beirut and San Francisco as home, was in the process of applying for US citizenship while the Biennale was being held, and in a series of text pieces published inside and outside the museum, she quotes official US citizenship.

The boundaries of the art media are also confused. The curators took a keen interest in abstraction as an emancipatory mode that could free art from certain social and political meanings—in part, I guess, in response to the current market’s obsession with figure painting—but at the same time it was as quiet as it was kept. – place them.

Painters of the older generation James Little and Denyse Thomasos His work illustrates this dynamic (1964-2012), which appears to be entering a Modernist tradition of “pure” abstraction on which Whitney is built. The two magnificent photographs of Trinidad-born Thomasos are all about painterly gestures, but also, as their titles suggest – “Displaced Burial/Burial at Goree” and “Prison” – are about the history of Black bondage, past and present. .

Having performed with veteran New York gallerist June Kelly for years and now garnering widespread attention, Little also lets the titles tell a story. In “Stars and Stripes” (2021), which is enchanting, all black, oily and waxy, it’s hard to tell whether the sticks that make up his geometric pattern converge or collide.

Among the other abstract paintings in the exhibition, those that touch on other disciplines attract attention. Linklater’s two big pictures use the tepee forms as templates. Tapestry-like vines by artist Lisa Alvarado were made as settings for musical performances she attended. Influenced by John Cage and Afro-Cuban religious rituals, Puerto Rican artist and choreographer Awilda Sterling-Duprey, in her 70s, paints while blindfolded, to jazz recordings. (Three pieces in the show were executed on-site at the museum.)

Performance combines with abstract sculpture in a predictable video Dave McKenzieIt looks like he’s had quite a bit of quarantine time here, where we’ve seen impromptu ballistic encounters with stray objects in his studio. And Alex Da Corte While embracing historical sculptures (Brancusi’s) and defacing Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” (Brancusi’s) and defacing historical paintings (Marcel Duchamp, Joker) in a video dated 2022, he creates a kind of official trilogy. to them.

Every Biennial produces at least one audience favourite, usually a video. The Da Corte piece – funny, spooky, copiously produced – is a natural candidate. (According to the rights, Jacky Connolly‘s four-channel movie “Descent into Hell” should also be released in its relatively awkward but tight, immersive, more difficult-to-watch format.) By contrast, what’s less likely to stand out is working in a different environment — language, visual and speech — though the show is rich in. Inside Jane Dicksonurban signage pictures; inside Tony Coke‘s rapidly flashing video texts (“How to mourn mass death?”, “BRTH I CN’T BRTH”) and Ralph Lemon’s drawings and illustrations suggestive of a kind of cosmic dance notation. Most of these are on the 5th floor, but the main concentration of word-based art is on the 6th floor, where the dividing walls are high, the gallery lights are low, and the spirit of this Biennale is in focus.

In a sense, the political spirit of this border-conscious, history-telling Biennale and the like-minded people that preceded it arose from a single, eight-word explanatory sentence – “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White” – arguably printed on metal acceptance labels made for the 1993 edition. Emoticon and tags designed by artist and provocateur Daniel Joseph Martinez later contributing to the 2008 show and doing it again to the current show.

For his new work in 2022, he photographed himself in the guise of five pop-cultural “post-human” anti-heroes (enhanced as prosthetics), including Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and The Count Dracula. Alien Bounty Hunter From the “X-Files”. But what makes the piece gripping is a phrase that accompanies the footage, a harsh accusation that the human race is the world’s “ultimate invader species,” about to self-destruct and with it all other living things.

The eschatological tone of the work finds an echo in it. Alfredo Jaar’tense video account full of special effects, 2020 police attack on protesters in Washington DC. And there’s a ton of mourning end times Coco Fusco“Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word” is a narrative account of Hart Island, the vast public burial ground in the East River that has taken the bodies of New York’s unclaimed dead for more than a century and now including Covid victims. video tour. .

Biennials, almost by definition, are events in the present (and include politics in the present: unionized Whitney workers seeking higher wages). brochures the VIP opening of this Biennale This week). These events rarely attract traffic in retrospect. But this does. Fusco’s video is a meditation on what has disappeared and continues to disappear. Adam Pendleton’s video portrait of theologian and social justice activist Ruby Nell Sales is an exciting tribute to a long, gritty personal history that continues to this day. Jonathan Berger‘s completely extraordinary sculptural installation, “An Introduction to Untitled Love”, a giant book made of letters cut from tin, is a kind of burial “Lives of the Saints”. Some of those saints are still with us, some are not.

And an audio track called “Silent Chorus” by a Navajo artist raven chacon – one of a cohort of outstanding Native American participants of this Biennale – here is a document of the past like no other. This is a 2016 audio recording made during a silent vigil (Chacon’s term is the act of “sound resistance”) by women protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock, ND. It’s a deeply moving piece of history that breaks the silence – it’s hardly there.

Acting is also a double tribute to the cultural figures from the past who featured the show. A figure is an artist Theresa Hak-kyung Cha. Born in 1951 in South Korea, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1962. By the end of that tumultuous decade—the student protest movement was boiling, the feminist movement had begun—she was studying art, film, and literature at university. She is starting experimental studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and in all three areas. This work took her to Paris, then Korea, and finally to New York City, where she married photographer Richard Barnes in 1982. She went with him to the Puck Building in Soho on November 5 of that year, and there she was. she was raped and killed by a security guard there, she. She was 31 years old.

Since then, his brilliant art and writing has been quite influential among young artists. Housed in the equivalent of a small white tent on the fifth floor, the Biennale’s mini-poll gives a good insight, with examples from his handwritten notebooks and videos. In one, her older sister Bernadette’s face flashed repeatedly on the screen for minutes. Then suddenly a different face appears – the artist’s own – but only once and then it disappears.

The other tribute on the 6th floor feels quite different in character: to a man, a place, and a collective project. he was a man Steve Cannon (1935-2019) was a New York writer and teacher active in the downtown Black literary collective Umbra during the 1960s. (The poet NH Pritchard, whose hand-embroidered manuscripts were featured in the Biennale, was also an early member.) This was Cannon’s East Village mansion – starting in the 1990s, it was home to a project called A Gathering of the Tribes. an art gallery, a performance space and an art magazine still published online.

Over the years, countless artists, musicians, and writers have walked through the Tribes’ never-closed doors. And the blind Cannon was always there, ready to give and receive ideas, enthusiasm, ideas. The biennial recreated or re-imagined the apartment setting by bringing in vintage furniture and installing a mural by the artist who was a friend of Cannon. David Hammonsand personal items such as Cannon’s always-available ashtray, as well as piles of books, notebooks and magazines that fill the space. In short, it evokes the specter of a utopian situation. The fact that a Biennale is a constitutionally up-to-date initiative says something about the reflective spirit that makes this edition different.

Whitney Biennale 2022: As Quiet as It’s Kept

Member previews, March 31-April 4 Public, April 6-September. 15. Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan; 212-570-3600; whitney.org. Timed tickets are required.

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