Saturday, June 8, 2019

Exploring the Whitney Biennial

"National Anthem" by Kota Ezawa (video) 
The objective of the Whitney Biennial is to capture the pulse of what's happening in the contemporary art world right now. To create this exhibit, curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley visited 300 artist studios across the country before selecting the 75 artists and collectives who would participate. According to the statistics provided by our docent, 44 of the artists are under the age of 30; more than half are people are color. Despite the tumultuous times in which we are living, the curators came away with the belief that artists are hopeful about the future. The question is how that translates into their work.

When Wendi and I stepped onto the fifth floor of the museum, we were greeted by the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner and a colorful video featuring football players and coaches. Some men were kneeling; some had their hands over their hearts; others were locking arms. The issue being depicted was, of course, the controversy sparked by Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against unarmed African-American men.

"Born Athlete: Simone Biles" by Jeanette Mundt (oil)
The video was beautiful as it wove together hundreds of watercolors created by artist Kota Ezawa. In his work, Ezawa purposefully genericized the men's faces to eliminate any emotion. In doing so, he successfully converted the emotionally-charged action into the peaceful protest it was intended to be.

In an adjacent room,  Jeanette Mundt's paintings remind us of another issue ripped from the headlines -- the abuse of young female gymnasts at the hands of their coaches. This was not, however, Mundt's intention. In fact, she started the series before the scandal broke. Instead, her goal was to draw attention to the dichotomy between the athleticism of these premiere athletes and their make-up and glittery costumes. What, she asks, is beauty?  (Note: Mundt drew from a series of stop time photographs of the gymnasts by the NY Times to create this work.)

"Centinelas" (Sentinels) by Daniel Lind-Ramos
One of my favorite works of the show is "Sentinels" by Daniel Lind-Ramos.  The work is a reference to the 1797 Battle of San Juan during which the British invaded Puerto Rico. The British brought 68 vessels and 7,000 men to the battle. Puerto Rico cobbled together an army of nearly the same size that included armed peasants and paroled prisoners. The British went home empty-handed.

In this assemblage, Lind-Ramos pays homage to the women who stayed behind during the battle and kept watch over the city. I love the strength of these women made of steel bars, burlap, plywood and the like. The denuded palm trees that frame them are a reference both to Puerto Rico's landscape and to the devastation of Hurricane Maria. (In his "Maria-Maria"--also in the show--Lind-Ramo's figure wears a FEMA tarp as a dress.)

"Stick" by Simone Leigh
I found myself picking up the pace when I spied Simone Leigh's "Stick" from an adjacent gallery. Leigh is one of the best known artists in this year's Biennial. In fact, she has an exhibit on now at the Guggenheim and a 16 foot tall totemic sculpture on the High Line that I'm kicking myself for not going to see. (To see a picture of her "Brick House" on the High Line, click here. Talk about a sentinel!)

Leigh's work has many influences, including African and African-American cultural traditions. The skirt of this woman mimics the shape of an adobe structure you might find in an African village. But it is also reminiscent of the skirt worn by Aunt Jemima. This similarity is not coincidental. When traveling in Mississippi, Leigh came upon a restaurant called Mammy's Cupboard that is shaped like Aunt Jemima. Yes, this restaurant is still open for business in 2019. To see a picture, click here.

"Robe" by Diane Simpson
Diana Simpson's work was displayed on the first floor of the museum in a room I fear many visitors to the Biennial will miss. I don't quite understand her inclusion in the Biennial since most of her sculptures on display predates 2017. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.

Her sculptures are inspired primarily by garment design -- from the wardrobe of a Samurai warrior to the bonnet of an Amish woman. Much of her work, like this stunning robe, has a distinctly like Art Deco feel. It was quite beautiful and felt a bit like an oasis in the midst of the politically charged Biennial.

Stay tuned for more from the Biennial -- after a foray into the world of Book Expo.

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