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2004 Whitney Biennial

In the wake of backlash against huge group shows like Documenta 11 (“too political—where’s the art?”) and the Venice Biennale (“too difficult”), this year’s Whitney Biennial, if nothing else, will be remembered as a Biennial for the people. The 2004 Biennial is a colorful snapshot of American art au courant, mixing lots of very young artists with vets like Yayoi Kusama and Paul McCarthy, whose works are framed as influential for younger artists working today. The Biennial is always popular to trash, and the curators usually end up serving as the critical punching bags. But with this year’s incarnation, curators Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin, and Debra Singer should be credited with assembling a Biennial that very accurately documents what’s now in American art, for better or worse.

The curatorial arrangement is very deliberate, with photographers like Alec Soth and Katy Grannan penned up in the same room and, similarly, “serious” political artists like Marina Abramovic, Andrea Bowers, and Emily Jacir all within a few feet of each other. The political gravitas of Jacir’s "Where We Come From" series (2001-2003) frankly feels out of place in this show. By offering to complete alternately weighty (“place flowers on my mother’s grave in Jerusalem and pray”) and circumstantial (“play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street”) favors for displaced Palestinians who aren’t able to re-enter the country, Jacir’s conceptual-activist project grimly exposes the very real hardships suffered as a consequence of the seemingly never-ending story of strife between Palestinians and Israel. Abramovic’s five-channel video installation “Count on Us” (2003)—which includes a screen showing her in a skeleton costume conducting a choir of children singing “The UN is now a symbol of peace”—hypnotically, if somewhat manipulatively, uses fresh-faced kids to promote a message of peace. Then, right outside Abramovic’s room, are Bowers’s drawings of female activists protesting nuclear test sites in the early 1980s. Whew! Now that the serious stuff is out of the way, we can move on.

Marina Abramovi�´c, still from "Count on Us" (2003), video installation. Collection of the artist; courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. Funded by the Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan.


A few other artists attempt political commentary, although their style is more in keeping with the glitzy pop that dominates the show. Sam Durant’s drawings of Black Panther protesters feel like teenage fan art, and Barnaby Furnas’s violent paintings of suited figures getting their brains blown out are spectacular and even sort of pretty, but do they really represent profound thought about American warmongering? A little obvious, perhaps.

Really, this is a Biennial about color, flash, and fun, and great lengths are taken to show older artists as (mostly formal) influences on the youngsters. Color-saturated films by Jack Goldstein and Stan Brakhage act as precursors for sensory-overload installations by assume vivid astro focus and Katie Grinnan. Similarly, James Siena’s meticulous formalism presides over much of the loopy installations, drawings, and paintings. Kusama’s “Fireflies on the Water” (2002) is the most epic piece in the show, although guards shuttled viewers in and out of the one-at-a-time installation like they were herding cattle. The piece is an entirely mirror-covered room with multicolored lights hanging from the ceiling, giving the impression of an infinite, peaceful, psychedelic, and utopian netherworld. A room of Raymond Pettibon ink drawings called “Title on the Line” (2004) is a showstopper, and proof that work made in a slack, doodling style can engage issues of content, as opposed to withdrawing into escapism that can only be judged on form alone. His signature ink drawings are especially nasty, all chest-thumping Americana and decontexualized quotes from political figures (“The girls too?”—George W. Bush, The Public Interest, Summer 2004) juxtaposed with proudly garish birds, like a peacock, over which Pettibon has scrawled “To make themselves heard.” Muscular male nudes are buried in the room’s corners, triumphantly lofting torches—politicians equal Greek Gods equal state birds, all flexing and strutting, heroically acting with fiery impulse, like the drawing on which Pettibon writes, “There was a light at the end of the tunnel, so he shot at it.”

Julie Mehretu titles one of her large, doodle-y paintings “Rise of the New Suprematists” (2003). Perhaps the New Suprematists are myriad artists concerned mostly with style, fashion, and handicraft in this show whose concept of art totally rejects Pettibon’s engagement with the social, political, and economic issues “real people” deal with. The overwhelming majority of the work in the 2004 Whitney Biennial is dealing with issues of form and the freedom of materials—the craft of making art. Although much of this work is either completely personal or allusive to a masked narrative, several pieces have a vague element of danger about them—like David Altmejd’s sculptural arrangements including gothic werewolf skulls and Terence Koh’s small room filled with white powder with a small knife hanging on the wall. Sue de Beer’s video installation environment “Hans und Grete” (2002) contains similar overtones. De Beer has arranged the obligatory multi-channel video screens juxtaposing teens chilling in their bedrooms, reading magazines, smoking, twirling guns. The room’s carpet is fluffy and pink, there are amps hanging around, and there are big stuffed animals that the audience is invited to sit on. If the point is that suburban kids are bored and resorting to smoking and violence for sport, well, that’s not a new phenomenon, and the theme is pursed much more evocatively in Gus van Sant’s newest film Elephant as well as in A.R.E.Weapons’s music. The piece is heavy-handed, awkward, and blank without really meaning to be.

Cory Arcangel & Beige, "Super Mario Clouds v2k3" (2003), hacked Super Mario game cartridge. Handmade edition of five. Courtesy Team Gallery.

Hence the perfection of Cory Arcangel/BEIGE’s “Super Mario Clouds v2k3” (2003). The piece is a projection of a hacked Super Mario Brothers Nintendo cartridge, manipulated so that you only see the clouds scrolling by endlessly, accompanied by “Rudy’s Cake Walk” a BEIGE-programmed techno song (utilizing only Nintendo sounds) dinkily emanating from a busted-looking sound system. Arcangel’s piece revels in vacancy and banality, conflating it with the art world’s ubiquitous retro-nostalgia. And the connotations are ambiguous and unsettling—like a big fat question mark hovering over couch-sitters who pass time with video games or television—but without preachy value judgments or lame nostalgia. Virgil Marti’s “Grow Room 3” (2004) occupies all of the adjacent room. A blandly psychedelic hall of curved mirrors with flowery print-on patination, “Grow Room 3” encapsulates the dim feel-goodism of this Biennial, which will be loved by soccer moms, NASCAR dads, and their kids alike for its colorfully vacant accessibility.

- Nick Stillman

The 2004 Whitney Biennial is easy to like. Myriad materials fly in a colorful array of forms. But as a whole, the show never moves beyond the decorative. Perhaps this is a function of the venue rather than a curatorial failing: installing a massive group show of contemporary art in a museum asks that the work appeal to a mainstream audience and fit into the antiseptic white walls of the institution in a way in which other large festival shows do not require. Or maybe it was the fortuitous convergence of the opening with the Armory Show, that massive weekend art-buying frenzy, which made the Biennial seem like more of a showroom than a thought-provoking survey.

The curatorial introduction notes the American political climate in the wake of 9/11. Yet politics are present either literally, as in Andrea Bower and Sam Durant’s drawings of 1960s protesters, or obliquely through a juxtaposition like Julie Merhetu and Tam Van Tran, two of a very select group of artists of color, who both work with abstract vocabularies that evoke identity through geography and material. Roni Horn’s photographs mounted on stanchions offer a piece of the artist’s continuing investigation of difference in identity with the motif of landscape and portraiture, but lack the subtlety of her “Still Water (The River Thames for example)” or her two part exhibition at Dia. Tom Burr’s “Blackout Bar” (2003) might be about the crackdown on nightlife, but it is ultimately frozen in its S-and-M aesthetic.

The darlings of the recent trend dubbed the Gothic, Banks Violette, Aïda Ruilova, and Sue de Beer, are all here, but their work feels more like surrealism than a romantic sublime in the obsession with literal depictions of dreams, violence, and sex. Violette’s theatrical installation hinges on the shiny black surfaces of melting musical paraphernalia, a stunning example of the superficiality of the curatorial notion of materiality. The difficulty most of the work has transcending surface to explore materials and making is also evident in Matthew Ronay’s neatly molded plastic body parts, which aspire to abjection but remain stuck in objectness. James Siena’s small abstractions, Amy Sillman’s colorful canvases, and Jim Hodges’s cutout photograph-cum-sculpture are better examples of the mania for making as they capitalize on the difference between obsession and control: the obsessive working of materials results in “flaws”—Siena’s wavering lines, Sillman’s gestural patchworks, and Hodges’s flopping leaves—that become the works’ surprising strength. Overall, there is little left to chance—a powerful, funny, tragic, and beautiful element to which the current sprawling Dieter Roth retrospective noisily attests.

Although it goes unacknowledged by the curators, the influence of long ignored 20th-century European avant-garde artists like Roth is present and more exciting than the rehashed Minimalist/post-Minimalist discourse. “Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land” (2003), Catherine Sullivan’s five-channel black-and-white film installation of antic scenes of Cold War machinations played out in Dada theater is a brilliant example. Sullivan’s Dada sensibility suggests the absurdity of nostalgia, rather than the sentimental melancholia present in Dario Robleto’s dusty objects or Jeremy Blake’s ode to 1960s London. Rob Fischer’s “dumpster” is reminiscent of an early Arman accumulation, a personal portrait made of waste, writ large with discarded furniture rather than lipstick and hankies. But the objects in Fischer’s version seem too clean to be trash: the dumpster is made of glass and it is difficult to fathom that it contains anything that would truly be considered garbage. There is nothing personal in such a glossy dustbin. Which points to the larger problem of influence: the similarities in the work of younger artists reveal formal imitation rather than visual dialogue.

Barnaby Furnas, "Hamburger Hill" (2002), urethane on liner. Collection of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson, Los Angeles; courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York. Photograph by Jean Vong.

In a reversal of Larry Rinder’s visionary (if misguided) approach to the 2002 Biennial, the 2004 edition seems to want to be a pulse taking of the art world rather than a show of unknowns. But the pulse is weak. Debra Singer, Shamim M. Momin, and Chrissie Iles do present a nice summation of recent work, but they have no vision of the future. Instead of the weird, shamanistic homemade craftiness of Forcefield in 2002, this year’s Biennial presents the slick anodyne rave installation of assume vivid astro focus. To say the show is decorative isn’t to say that the work is all pretty. But since it is so self-consciously striving to look good, the more disturbing and powerful work is subsumed under more superficial connections. The erotics of painting in both of Richard Prince’s sculptural car hoods, trashy-looking yet sensually covered with expressionist gray brushstrokes, and Cecily Brown’s prone nudes are lost for a more obvious grouping with Chloe Piene’s masturbator drawings, which have more to do with sensation than sex. The pathetic and the unrefined, epitomized by Paul McCarthy’s crude sexuality and physicality, is largely absent—cleaned up into a tidy installation by Christian Holstad—as even McCarthy is sanitized in two very public installations. For the most part, there is nothing that might offend and nothing willing to fail.

Piene’s feral sensuality and deft technological manipulation manages one of the only sublime visual experiences in her video “Blackmouth” (2003). Performance artist Julie Atlas Muz’s sparkling combination of kitsch, politics, and the body have a twisted, ferocious sexuality that highlights the timidity of most of the other work, but unfortunately her nude appearance at the opening party is not repeated daily for the long lines waiting to enter Yayoi Kusama’s installation like an amusement park ride (although Atlas Muz’s inclusion in the performance art schedule is indicative of the impressive lineup). Also strong are Catherine Opie’s "Surfers." The photographs might be mistaken for four monochrome gray vertical rectangles with the subtle tonality of a Rothko, but at the right distance, the pictures reveal groups of surfers waiting for waves in a still ocean bathed in fog. Opie’s images have a subtle sense of place in their articulation of a relationship between surfers, ocean, and artist.

Julie Atlas Muz onstage in red bikini, Fez Under Time caf�©, NYC 2001. Courtesy of Lisa Kereszi/Pierogi.

In the week following the Biennial’s opening, I saw Atlas Muz perform her signature piece “I am the Moon.” Naked save for a thick coat of blue glitter, Muz dances to Mexican burlesque music, an animated ex-voto painting of a lunar goddess. Joined by a man covered in black glitter, they perform a duet in which he flies a spaceship to her moon. She bends over and he lands the shuttle on her back and, like a proud astronaut, places an American flag in her anus. Muz manages to make her exhibitionism gesture towards the vulnerable strength of the body in a funny yet political combination of visual and performance art. Unlike so much of the work in 2004 Biennial, “I am the Moon” is about sensation and experience, not literal renderings of events.

                                                 - Megan Heuer





The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2004

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