The 2008 Whitney Biennial

Yes, despite the presence of Roe Ethridge’s sexy <br /><i>Camilla</i> (2007).<br /> (Courtesy of The Whitney)Roe Etheridge, Camilla (2007); courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Somewhere there’s an art history graduate student sitting in Starbucks, laptop and venti decaf latte on hand, writing a thesis on the Whitney Biennial. It’s bound to be a history of arrant egos, frustrated reputations, political intrigue, curatorial missteps and temporary fame.

Part of the narrative will be an inventory of reviews. Given the negative and sometimes vitriolic criticism the Biennial has engendered over the years, it should be an entertaining and maybe hilarious roundup. But then, any exhibition purporting to define the current state of American art is asking for it.

You’ve got to have some sympathy for the curators—to paraphrase R&B duo Sam and Dave, the Biennial can’t stand up for falling down. Yet it’s a perennial hit, and judging by the crush of media types that showed up for the press preview, the 2008 edition will be no exception. (The general public can expect to wait in a line trailing around the corner of Madison and 75th Street.)

The first thing I did upon entering the Whitney was race toward the second-floor restroom—not out of necessity, but out of curiosity. Would there be art displayed in there? It’s happened before, and is a pretty sure gauge of the Biennial’s free-for-all ethos. Sure enough, there was something above the hand dryer: A black metal box with an angled mirror inside.

I couldn’t find an identifying label, but a security guard assured me it was a work of art. Another guard told me there was a similar black box in the ladies’ room. The gracious press folks knew nothing about them. The Biennial image list doesn’t include the black boxes, nor does the catalog. Were they a long-term installation, a work from the permanent collection or artful bathroom fixtures?

Probably the latter, but that’s the confusion the contemporary scene poses: What isn’t art? The Biennial doesn’t answer the question because it hardly realizes the question exists. The art world elite and the culture at large take for granted that anything is fair game; artists have a liberty of means that was unimaginable 50 years ago. But the only thing heedless freedom has resulted in is avant-gardist novelty.

Take Bert Rodriguez’s elevator installation The End (2001). After stepping into the elevator, the doors close and we read on them the piece’s title; music plays from the finales of well-known films. Mr. Rodriguez’s piece is charming because it’s predictable. Oh those crazy artists, they’re at it again! At which point visitors can move on to the next distraction.

This is the blandest Biennial in memory and, in its own dithering way, the happiest. The fun-house aesthetic reigns. The easy gratifications of spectacle have replaced the rigors of engagement. Most of the featured artists plug into received conceits as if they were a new pair of socks. Proud triviality is the consequence, and the point. Racial politics are no more meaningful than dressing in Viking drag.

It’s one thing after another at the Biennial: rickety installations, the requisite array of dark rooms, droning voices, pseudo-zoological environments and more videos than any reasonable person should experience in a lifetime. The 80 or so artists employ lots of stuff—try not stumbling over it—but little of it has been crafted with a sense of possibility or joy. Material sensuality is suspect, and avoided. What a puritanical lot.

Anxious to touch upon the full range of existing aesthetics, the curators end up with a swift blur of anonymity. This is typical of far-reaching overviews—artists get stiffed for the sake of inclusiveness. But the Biennial isn’t about hard-won individuality; it’s about striking a pose. There’s a cool elegance to it all. Pretty much everything at the Whitney looks like it should be art, but leaves no discernible impression. The Biennial is safe enough to ignore.

Jason Rhoades fills a gallery with junk—bottles of Elmer’s Glue, a poster featuring porn star Marilyn Chambers, desk chairs and a sign that reads “Filling with whole green peas by weight not volume”—but there’s nothing chaotic about it. The Grand Machine/THEAREOLA (2002) is immaculately calculated. Mr. Rhoades is a wily artist, but he’s cowed by heady intentions. He’s one example of a generation incapable of acknowledging that art is bigger than the artist. Just what are these people afraid of?

The catalog essayists think something big is afoot. “The revolution can be, must be, will be in each of our gestures all the time.” “Revising the space-time continuum: Where and when is the New World?” “Interconnectedness by way of information technology … is predicated on what in global terms is enormous socioeconomic privilege.” It’s as if exhibiting at (or writing for) the Whitney has itself nothing to do with socioeconomic privilege. Some revolution.

Those interested in the art of painting can forget it. The few painters included—the inexplicably admired Mary Heilmann or the slack and kitschy Karen Kilimnik—are there mainly to prove how bankrupt the art form has become. Photography is slick, shiny and vacuous. You’ll remember photographer Roe Ethridge less for his ambition to orchestrate a “fugue form with multiple voices” than for Camilla (2007), a picture of a sleek young woman wearing a captain’s hat and a fetching red bikini.

Buried inside the Biennial is a barely discernible and potentially rewarding sampling of contemporary sculpture. Heather Rowe’s walk-in installation creates chunky rhythms from two-by-fours, mirror fragments and drywall. Ruben Ochoa channels Hellenic sculpture through the juxtaposition of rebar, chain link and concrete. Charles Long imagines Giacometti, Francis Bacon and Donald Judd entwined in plaster, papier-mâche, garbage and metal stands.

Mitzi Pederson’s thin arabesque of bent wood is minimalism-as-fashion-statement, and practically irresistible. Best of all is Carol Bove’s The Night Sky Over New York, October 21, 2007, 9 p.m. (2007). With its glittering maze of hanging bronze rods, it’s true to the title and the poetry implicit in it. Ms. Bove aspires to beauty. In an otherwise desultory mix of art school bric-a-brac, that’s the most shocking thing of all.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 11, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.


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