Sunday, June 16, 2019

Back to the Whitney Biennial

Detail from "Labyrinth" by Maia Ruth Lee
A trip to the Whitney Biennial is a treat. It's an opportunity to see what is happening in the art scene in America right now. The work is not, however, always self-explanatory, even if you read the wall cards. Happily, the Whitney provides excellent docents to lead you through the show and give a face to the artists.

One of my favorite pieces was Maia Ruth Lee's "Labyrnith," a site-specific work created from steel glyphs made by local welders from metal Lee scavenged from across the city. The juxtaposition of the interesting shapes with the robin's egg blue wall just drew me in. But what was really interesting about the work is the symbology Lee has created.

Steel glyph chart

Thanks to Wendi's keen eye, I have a copy of the chart setting out what some of these glyphs mean. In their entirety, they are intended to provide viewers with the tools to help 2020 be the Year of Self-Defense. But when she says "self-defense," Lee isn't referring to using one of these glyphs to ward off an attacker (although that would probably work). Instead, they are reminders to defend against your own darker instincts, including stress, fear, jealousy and hate. The chart also suggests the use of these symbols to enhance your humor, communication, balance and other qualities. The title of the work -- "Labyrinth" -- is explained on the chart through this quote:  "But you know I myself am a labyrinth, where one easily gets lost."

And here's a tidbit about Lee that we learned from our docent. She might have developed the propensity to create her own language from her parents. While living in Nepal, they were tasked with creating a written translation of the Bible into Sherpa. It was more of a challenge than the typical translation since Sherpa was only a spoken language. Consequently, their project required them to create a Sherpan alphabet from the sounds of the language. It's mind-boggling to consider.

Detail from "The Farm" by Pat Phillips
Another site-specific work created for the Biennial was Pat Phillips' "The Farm." The title is a reference to the Louisiana State Prison, also known as Angola. The prisoners there create products to be sold in the community, including snake skin belts that Phillips himself wears. The parallel between slave labor and prison labor is an issue Phillips explores in his work. He also incorporates the words "Don't Tread on Me" in this work, a motto first used on the Gadsden flag during the American Revolution and more recently adopted by the Tea Party. The picket fence is a nod to, among other things, incarceration and the wall Trump so longs to install along the Mexican border.

"The Farm" also includes a tear gas cannister behind the fence. This is a reference to the controversy over the manufacturing of tear gas by Safariland, a company owned by Whitney Board member Warren B. Kanders. There is evidence that Safariland tear gas was used on migrants attempting to cross the Mexican border. Protesters have called for Kanders' removal from the Board. To date, the Whitney has taken no action. I appreciated the docent calling attention to this issue rather than dodging it.

From Nicole Eisenman's "Procession"
Then there was the, well, bizarre installation by Nicole Eisenman entitled "Procession." Sadly, our docent just said "make sure to go outside to check this out" without giving us a primer.

I had read a bit about this work before I went to the exhibit, but I only retained this salient detail: It contains a farting figure. Yes, the man being towed--who seems to have been tarred and feathered--periodically emits steam from his rear end. Hmmm. While I'm sure there's a deep meaning, my only thought was it must be a response to how stinky the New York Giants have been the last few years. (Note the socks.)

More from Nicole Eisenman's "Procession" 
The wall card describes the work as follows:  "The figures in Nicole Eisenman's sculptural ensemble Procession appear downtrodden, yet they carry on and move forward. For the artist this tension poses questions about what it looks like to be disenfranchised, but also part of a community, and about how to protest when protests feel like a constant cycle."

The Whitney Biennial runs through September 22 and is well worth a visit for any art lover. To read more about the exhibit and the participating artists, click here. Many of the artist bios have short audio interviews that allow you to hear directly from the creators of the work on display. It's almost -- but not quite -- like being there.

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