Whitney Biennial 2010

I made it into this year’s Whitney Biennial…   OK, you didn’t fall for that for a second, did you?  Let me start again.  I attended the Biennial today during member previews, which allows you to spend some time with the work without feeling pressed onwards by a huge crowd.  On the other hand, you don’t get a feel for the “buzz” that might surround the event and for something like the Biennial, buzz is an important part of the experience.

And, just as this year there is no official theme other than the time stamp of “2010”, the takeaways from my visit are elusive.  Thankfully, there are fewer of the large architectural installation pieces that filled much of the 2008 show.  However, quite a few rooms are devoted to video pieces, which I find to be awkward art objects at a museum:  you have to walk into a dark room, let your eyes adjust, try not to bump into anyone; the video is invariably in the middle somewhere; there’s not enough room to sit and you’re not sure you want to devote the time to the piece.  I’d rather that the museum set up a movie theater with fixed screening times so that you could take a seat and settle in for an hour or two.

One video that looked clever, though I didn’t give it more than a couple of minutes, was a Josephine Meckseper piece depicting scenes from in and around the Mall of America coupled with ominous music, clips from a flight simulator showing planes in attack formation, and colored filters that implied war footage.

Another film that I would have liked to spend more time with was Kerry Tribe‘s about “H.M.”, one of the most famous subjects in psychology literature.  H.M. underwent experimental brain surgery in 1953 to treat epilepsy but ended up with severe retrograde amnesia: the inability to form new memories or to remember anything for more than about 20 seconds.  The film is projected onto the wall in two places (from a single strip of film) such that there is a 20 second delay between the two videos, cleverly reinforcing (almost Memento-style) the fragility of memory.  The interviews depicted in this film use an actor; I would have loved to see footage of the real H.M.

I had watched a video with Aki Sasamoto on the Whitney’s website ahead of the exhibition and wasn’t expecting to like the actual artwork, but in fact it turned out to be one of the most attention-worthy pieces in the show.  Filling up one small gallery with wires, nets, video cameras, and dangling glasses of “liquid” (hopefully plastic!), it’s the kind of installation that makes you want to figure it out:  where’s the camera that’s projecting that image?  how do those shadows mingle with the charcoal on the wall?  what’s in the glasses?  why those pretty nets?  The art is entitled “Strange Attractors”, with references specifically to the Lorenz attractor, an infinitely looping butterfly-like mathematical structure (not the same as Strange Loops, but you can see why I was “attracted” to this piece).  The artist has a number of scheduled performances of some sort that go along with the installation, though I didn’t see one and so don’t know what I was missing.

There was not a whole lot in the way of painting-that-makes-you-want-to-paint.  Tauba Auerbach‘s  trompe l’oeil paintings had a number of gallery-goers looking intently from up close and from far away, debating with each other exactly what they were looking at.  At first, it looks like a wrinkled bed sheet hanging against the wall.  When you look up close, you see that in fact it’s a painting and only by reading the wall text would you determine the mechanism of its creation (spraying paint onto carefully folded and rolled canvases).

I also liked the tempera and oil paintings of Jim Lutes, whose “Piece of Barbara” summons de Kooning’s women with its mixture of figurative and abstract elements.  Swirls of ribbon-like color engulf  the representational, in this case the likeness of a 1950s B-movie actress.  Lesley Vance exhibited a series of small abstractions derived from still life photographs that had a nice color tone and palette knife paint handling.

At the entrance to the third floor, a huge tapestry by Pae White depicts a photographic reproduction of plumes of smoke.  From afar you could almost mistake it for a Mark Sheinkman painting.  The Whitney web site (and the wall text) seems to go a bit overboard in describing this work as “cotton’s ‘dream of becoming something other than itself’ by contrasting an image of something immaterial with the physicality of fabric.”  Okay…  Whatever.  I will say that the thick and varied texture of the tapestry did make you want to reach out and feel it (as if you were shopping for a rug).

One overall problem is the need to rely on the wall texts to figure out what you’re looking at.  Some of the paintings, for instance, don’t stand on their own and require an explanation that tries to turn something mundane visually into something meaningful intellectually.  In some cases, I think the wall texts stretch too far:  does depicting a few photographs of Baudelaire next to Michael Jackson in “The First and the Last of the Modernists” really “raise questions about the roles of art and popular culture as well as how modern figures are presented, flattened, and distributed through the news media”?  Well, it raised that question, I suppose.  There were quite a few grunts (with accompanied head-shaking) from fellow gallery-goers after reading some of the wall texts, though I couldn’t tell if they referred to the art or the text.

Speaking of grunts, Mariane Vitale‘s video screams directly at the viewer.  Once again, I missed the beginning of one of these video clips and couldn’t subject myself to the screaming for very long, but I did almost enjoy her diatribe about the products that specific states bring to us, exclaiming (if I heard her correctly), “New Jersey brings us GLUE…”  I didn’t know that.

After the Biennial, I headed down to Chelsea for a quick visit to a handful of galleries for some very fine painting exhibitions (whew, I needed some attention-focusing paintings after being yelled at by that last video).  But I’ll have to report on that in a subsequent post.

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