Monday, June 12, 2017

Is the Whitney Biennial a Bunch of Baloney?

"Claim (Whitney Version) by Pope.L
I couldn't resist this inflammatory question, the genesis of which will shortly be revealed. But I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a reaction many people have to contemporary art. How many times have you heard someone in a gallery say, "My kid could do that?" (Or, admit it, thought it yourself?)  But the art world would be pretty boring if there were only Monets. And so I'm learning to appreciate contemporary artists who push the envelope in their attempts to make meaningful art. 

During my recent trip to New York, a visit to the Whitney Biennial was at the top of my list. Now in its 78th iteration, the biennial exhibit showcased what American artists are doing right now. Most works in the show were created within the last two years.  I was grateful to have docents guide me through the exhibit, which was spread over two floors of the museum. 

Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" (on display
at the Whitney, but not part of the Biennial)
Our docent began her talk with an acknowledgment that the exhibit might not be that accessible to an art lover wandering in off the street. But, she noted, the first Whitney survey in 1932 featured the work of Edward Hopper. At that time, Hopper's paintings were considered strange and controversial. His work is now, of course, an integral part of American art history. It's all a matter of context. She also noted that the works in the show were selected before last November's election. So while many focused on hot topics in today's political dialogue -- income inequality, racial tensions and global warming, to name a few -- they are not a direct response to the policies of the current administration.

"Exodus Evolution" by Jon Kessler
Jon Kessler's "Exodus Evolution" is the latest in a continuum of work he's been doing with found objects for 40 years. The piece was inspired by the Syrian migration crisis. A rotating circular base hosts figures he found on eBay using the search word "travelers." It's an extremely varied collection that includes classic Hummels and Lladros, African wood carvings and tiny figurines. There are so many figures crammed together that it's hard to make them all out (which I think is the point). To the right of this picture, you'll see an iPhone videoing the journey. This component is intended to simulate surveillance, as the video streams onto a screen in the center of the base. 

"Open Casket" by Dana Schutz
"Open Casket" by Dana Schutz wins the award for most controversial work in the Biennial.  Emmett Till was a 14 year old African American boy from Chicago accused of flirting with a white woman during a visit to Mississippi in 1955. A few days later, the woman's relatives kidnapped Till, beating him beyond recognition before shooting him and throwing his body in the river. His mother brought his body back to Chicago, where it was displayed in an open casket for the world to see how her son had been treated. Thousands of people attended his viewing. She also took pictures of his disfigured face and distributed them to the media. Till became an icon of the Civil Rights movement. 

Why, you might ask, is Dana Schutz' portrayal of Till so controversial? Isn't this a moment in history we shouldn't forget? The primary answer is because Ms. Schutz is white. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” one African-American artist wrote in a Facebook post. “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others..."  There were protests in front of the painting, with demands that it be taken out back and burned. The Whitney did not comply with these demands, although it did post a response by Ms. Schutz.  Schutz said she approached the work as a mother and that she would never sell the painting. (The protests, however, have surely had the unintended effect of raising Ms. Schutz' profile.)  To read more about the controversy, click here.

"The Times Thay Ain't A-Changing Fast Enough!"
by Henry Taylor
The Biennial featured several works by Henry Taylor, including "The Times Thay Ain't A-Changing Fast Enough!"  The painting depicts the shooting of Philandro Castile, the aftermath of which many of us saw in a video taped by Castile's girlfriend. The immediacy of the image confronts the viewer, demanding our attention.

Our docent explained that the social commentary in all of Taylor's work should be viewed through the lens of his personal history, which includes a grandfather who was lynched.  One commentator suggested that what distinguishes Taylor's paintings from Schutz' "Open Casket" isn't the color of their skin but the seeming departure by Schutz from her typical subject matter.  Click here to read this article.

Detail from PopeL.'s "Claim (Whitney Version)"
And now, as our docent said, on to the meat of the exhibit -- PopeL.'s "Claim (Whitney Version)." In the middle of one gallery was a freestanding open-roofed building of sorts. Both the interior and exterior walls were gridded, with each square inhabited by a slice of bologna (yes, real bologna) with a black and white photograph of a person affixed to it with white latex paint. There were 2,775 squares in all, give or take. The number was intended to represent .25% of the Jewish population of New York City. When the Biennial first opened, there was apparently a distinct bologna smell in the gallery. As the meat cured, its oils and salt streamed down the walls. Troughs were set up to catch the liquid. The walls of the work now glisten.

"This work isn't easily explainable by just looking at it," our docent acknowledged as our group peered at the creation. "Claim" (which is just one in a series of similar works) is intended to question the efficacy of data collection and the resulting categorization of individuals. PopeL. grew up with his own number as part of the welfare system. Today he's an associate professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of Chicago. 

The Whitney Bienniale took some work to appreciate. And that's fine with me. In the days since my visit, I've found my thoughts returning to the exhibit as I continue to consider works I saw. While I like a pretty painting as much as the next person, I also enjoy art that makes me think. As I said, the art world would be pretty boring if there were only Monets.

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