Monday, March 5, 2012

Whitney Biennial, 2012: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY

Usually I don’t end up visiting the Whitney Biennial until the last week it closes. The unplanned reoccurrence of this has in time become tradition. It was oddly self gratifying to hear all the hullabaloo about Biennials in the past and to nod at the complaints or praise but not having to engage in conversation because I had not yet seen it. It’s similar to not watching a hit movie; it’s a novel device in trying to remain above the fray, which is absurdly pedantic in practice but regardless, I have been one of those people in regards to the Biennales of past but for 2012, things changed. I went yesterday, the first weekend of its opening and it had a line wrapped around the corner, luckily my dear friend did that dirty work, and I was let in without delay. I came this first week because 1) someone I knew I would enjoy seeing it with invited me to and 2) the buzz around town is that this Whitney Biennial is like none before it. In obvious ways one Biennial to the next is always different, different artists, curators, themes, lack of themes, politics, economy, time, space and all the rest but all the buzzing bees have it right on this one, it really is a creature born of another beast. The Biennials of the past, well the half dozen or so that I have personally experienced, are usually bad. It’s like bad sex, all that excitement and effort for what? And with that bar so low, there is a general expectation that all other romps will also be so but alas, this go at it was actually not very bad at all.

Elisabeth Sussman, a curator in the Whitney’s Photography Department and Jay Sanders, an independent curator, are the 2012 Whitney Biennial curators. In addition, they worked with Thomas Beard and Ed Halter for the video and film portions of the show, which are plentiful. Sussman and Sanders are curator’s curators and their respective past shows reflect the tenor of show. There isn’t a theme and there is no tome of curatorial theorem for the show. Sussman and Sanders impress upon that point even in their video introduction on the Biennial’s page on the Whitney’s website stating that they are too immersed in the process to possibly tell what it is supposed to be about. That distance is possibly a safe place to position oneself but it also is probably the most honest as well and the show does have a certain air to it, installation wise and also conceptually.

This is the least cluttered show that has been held in The Bauer Building, which the Whitney will move out of in 2015 to a new location in the Meatpacking District. This Biennial feels like one giant, well-considered exhibition. There are general shared themes, ideas and medias but these are not forced or spelled out, there is a certain aesthetic aplomb, expertise and intuition that can be seen in the selection of artists and the works by those artists. This general consideration and security of choice resonates throughout the show and although not all artists or works are the top banana, they all make sense and you understand why they are there. Themes in any show are fraught, possibly suicidal for a curator’s concept, and having them for the Biennial, is like wearing a fire fighter’s uniform but all the time just in case there is a blaze. That blaze being critical backlash, but the lack of a theme results in not having to enforce ideas onto the public and that is gracious and smart on the part of Sussman and Sanders.

Although there isn’t a set theme there are some trending ideas, processes, and points of interest that do crop up over and over again. For me, this show was like an archeological archive and tool kit for the possibilities to create a new future in art and human existence. There were many artists that were creating devices of coping with the sense of time, self and objects and also others that created environments for investigating and presenting one’s self. The later is seen in the work of Dawn Kasper, who brought in and re-creates her studio and home and will apparently work in there for the next few months. Another is Wu Tsang, whose videos about subcultures within queer culture are in a lounge, dressing room type area with props and wigs. Kasper’s work is not very compelling to me; I find the exposure of the studio and the home in that way to be mildly diaristic (in a bad way) and boringly voyeuristic. For Wu Tsang there is more necessity to the space, although a bit too set designy for me, it does serve the work though and it gives it more presence and time to be experienced. For the artifacts of a future archeology department, the most goose bump worthy was Sam Lewitt’s creepy crawling synthetic black goo, magnets and computer-generated motors on sheets of plastic. It looked liked a mini primordial tar pit that had small fans blowing on these magnetized and computer integrated black substances that formed mitochondrial wormy-bug-virus forms that moved and wiggled with spiky phalangeal feelers. It made the hairs on my neck crawl.

Another surprisingly resonant theme was puppetry. Who knew the art world had such a thing for puppetry? I sure didn’t but apparently it is all the rage, and with closer inspection you see that “puppetry” expresses themes of the body, role-playing, performance, masking, revealing and stories, all things the art world loves. As technology creeps into the everyday, there is solace to going back, keeping things tactile, scaled to humanity and created by the solitary tinkerer. One example was the puppet installation by Gisèle Vienne, whose piece is in collaboration with Dennis Cooper, Stephen O’Malley, and Peter Rehberg. This consists of a white three walled room that has a grid of scratched drawings on paper which are gridded directly to the wall and in the corner stands a blond, white paint faced boy about ten or so, wearing a blue hoodie and in his hand is a miniature version of himself in the form of a puppet and that puppet is moving and talking in a male voice which is telling a distressing narrative. I actually saw this work in the form of a play with a puppet master performing and telling the story of sex, mutilation and murder that was based off a true story. It was surprising to see at the Biennial but in a way it does touch on many shared things, not only the puppet theme but also about sex, queer culture, mutilation, the body and tales told. In line with this, but not the same tenor, is the inclusion of Luthar Price, George Kucher, Charles Atlas and Forrest Bess. Continuing on the theme of puppetry there was the work of Tom Thayer, who I was delighted to see included as I saw his work some time ago at White Columns and his work made me happy. The installation here is a bit lifeless compared to what I know he can do but still, I feel glad for him and his art.

There was another strain of this puppetry and the thematics that are involved with this in the work of some painters and drawers. Nicole Eisenmen’s contribution to the show is just great. It is a series of characters that look worse for ware but ooze with personality. There are two gridded walls of them, some re-occurring but the cartoonish features and emotions they expressed reminded me of a back stage to a carnival show, they seem to be waiting to perform their bit for you. In addition to these works there is one of my favorite pieces in the show by Charles Desmuth from 1917, (which is not on the list online for some reason but I am certain it is in the show), that shows two people in the foreground, a man and a women and she is sitting on a bed with her head down, her hand on her head and there is a man, probably her husband in his undershirt and boxers and he looks to be trying to console her. And then most oddly in the far right there stands a nude in the bathroom at the sink, presumably male as there is a top hat, a bowler hat and two scarves about the room. The subtly to this piece and the narrative quality to what is occurring or what may have just occurred and the way in which it is drawn, painted and staged encapsulates much of the Biennale’s overall tenor and interests.

It is not all nostalgia in the show, there is a hearty number of artists that are traversing the artscape in newly considered ways, one is the emphasis on performance art, which also is strung along the puppet theme but here it is given capacious space and impressive staging on the Whitney’s fourth floor. I am sad I wasn’t able to see Sarah Michaelson’s “residency” the other day but I am pretty sure that it would have been awe worthy. The inclusion of this and other elements in the show such as screenings and lectures, gives the Biennale an air of academia, an acumen of practice, and this slows things down a bit and lets the audience know that there is more to this art thing than it appears. Not only that, the curators invite you to slow down as well and to learn more and to see and to participate. That’s the funny thing about this show; it felt less like a, “who’s hot list” and more like a small conference on the arts. It didn’t make me angry, it didn’t make my eyes roll (not once), it also didn’t make me giddy or swoon or want to run into some bushes afterwards but it did make my brain hum a bit and it was all very pleasant and fine. My friend had already been to the show and said that they would probably go six or seven times total before the Biennial closes. I laughed at that and told them they were nuts, but it does seem reasonable now, thinking back on it today. It was really a show that was enjoyable to be inside of, surrounded by. Now, I dear say six times is entirely too much for a gal like me but maybe I’ll go once or twice more, see how things change with the immersive interactive elements, or try to see a performance or two. It is the most surprising of things, but this Biennial is not about being “not as bad as those before” but it actually veers toward very good all on its own.