Same As It Ever Was: The 2014 Whitney Biennial

Biennial #1

The Whitney Museum of American Art; courtesy Rhys Ernest

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The following review was originally published in the May 2012 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of “Whitney Biennial 2014”, an exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

The first thing you need to know about the Whitney Biennial is that it doesn’t mean anything. Sure, it provides a window, albeit a highly selective one, into that confusing subset of culture known as “the art world.” As such, its interest is primarily sociological. The Whitney may tout its ‘signature exhibition’ as a ‘site of contention, conversation and debate,’ but it’s less about ‘”rewrit[ing] standard narratives” than a confirmation of establishment taste. If you’re curious about some of the ideas filtering through contemporary artistic thought—about “contradictory layers of synthetic nothingness,” “widespread opposition to top down systems of rigid authority”, and, er, “looping ropes and threads of rancid oily cum”—the Biennial is the place to go.

If that isn’t sufficiently diverting, you can ponder whether the curators have fulfilled the requisite quotas, ideologies, and agendas, not least if the recently minted MFA favored by this-or-that board member has been given the appropriate amount of floor space to improve the work’s market value. You can wonder, too, if the art of painting has forever been consigned to the margins—the examples at the Biennial being few, far between, and marred by gimmicky installation. As for the artists involved: each gets an impressive line on their resumé that may translate, at least temporarily, into some kind of fame. The Biennial will tell you a lot about the circus surrounding the scene, but as an indicator of art’s continuing vitality? The Biennial doesn’t mean anything.

Biennial #2Detail of Bjarne Melgaard’s Think I’m Gonna Have a Baby (2014) at the Whitney Biennial; photo by Kaitlin Karolczak

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The 2012 edition is particularly anemic. There’s nothing outrageous on view, though you might be taken aback that almost the entirety of one floor has been transformed into a dance studio. As it was, watching the choreographer Michael Clark running his crew through their paces was a highlight. Here was a refreshing moment of enthusiasm and unironic pride, particularly on the part of the dancers—many of whom didn’t correspond to the standard physical type associated with the art form. But the inclusion of a dance troupe in a setting usually devoted to static objects likely had more to do with “breaking boundaries” than with seeking to divine a true commonality between disparate art forms. Such a stunt points to curators eager to maintain their “bleeding edge” bonafides. They want us to know who’s in charge.

If anything, the Biennial points to the scattershot mindset typical of mainstream contemporary art. As an aesthetic imperative, “anything goes” has long de-evolved into a reflexive array of gestures that point to current events (hello Occupy Wall Street!), new technologies (always with the technology!), and the abject (so 1990s!). Commentators have pointed up the Biennial’s lack of focus, but how different is that from an afternoon spent going to galleries in Chelsea or, for that matter, visiting the studios of any art school you’d care to name? Given the amount of by- the-book posturing at the Whitney—what with all the stuff scattered, hung, draped, and impeccably arranged to no discernible upshot—even the most charitable soul might wonder if it isn’t time to start un-mixing media in the effort to figure out what isn’t art.

Is there anything worth spending time with at the Biennial? Folks have been waxing enthusiastic over Hearsay of the Soul (2012), a multi-screen installation by the filmmaker Werner Herzog and a paean to the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers. Andrew Masullo’s cheery, candy-colored abstractions raise a smile. Then there’s the artist who works with construction materials to streamlined and elegant effect—I can’t remember the name. The worry is that if I weren’t already an admirer of Herzog’s films and Masullo’s paintings, I might forget their names as well. Encompassing surveys of art risk a certain amount of cross-cancellation of temperaments. But it’s as if the Biennial has made anonymity its goal. Perhaps individual vision is considered un-democratic. Say this much: The 2012 Biennial is pretty much over by the time you enter the museum’s doors. Sometimes life is wasted on art.

© 2012 Mario Naves

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