Whitney Biennial 2019: What this year’s “snapshot” of contemporary art reveals

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 17 May–22 September 2019

Whitney Museum of American Art [Credit: Ed Lederman]

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s prestigious Biennial in New York City, according to its organizers, provides a “snapshot of contemporary art-making in the United States.” The “snapshot,” in this case, also takes in the controversies that emerge around the art.

Judging from the work selected by Whitney curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley for the 2019 Biennial, it would seem that artists have not responded profoundly, either directly or indirectly, to the social and political crisis that has increasingly gripped the US, particularly since the 2016 Trump election.

Instead, the artists remain largely trapped in a narrow environment and outlook. “Race, gender, equity and the vulnerability of the body” are the central themes of the installations, video, mixed media and performance pieces, as well as more traditional media of painting, photography and sculpture, produced by 75 artists and collectives in this year’s biennial.

Panetta says that in their hundreds of studio visits, the curators found that artists have “adjusted to what I think felt like a really traumatic moment at the time of the [Trump] inauguration ... It’s sort of accepting the reality and looking ahead.” (Emphasis added) Or more accurately perhaps, they’ve gotten back to themes that have dominated the arts for the past decade or more.

John Edmonds, The Villain, 2018. Inkjet print, 30 x 24 in. (76.2 x 61 cm). [Credit: the artist and Company, NY]

Just a few of the many examples: Martine Syms’ (b. 1988) installation Intro to Threat Modeling “explores pervasive archetypes and depictions of Black experience in America, often intervening directly in the ubiquitous platforms we use for communication and identity production.” Syms refers to herself as a “conceptual entrepreneur.” In his photographs, John Edmonds (b. 1989), by “making Black queer collectivity and self-awareness central to his work, explores the aesthetic possibilities of intimacy and desire.” And Elle Pérez’ (b. 1989) large-format photographs of post-facial feminization surgery and of the word “DYKE” spelled out in blood seeping from carved skin, we are told, constitute “a study of the human process of creating a new reality for oneself ... not replicating the world, but instead transfiguring it.” And so on and so forth. Much of this language has a clichéd and formulaic character by now.

The 2019 Biennial has been hailed as the most diverse and inclusive to date. The majority of the artists are “people of color,” half of them women, a significant number identify as LGBTQ. Several Native American artists are included, four artists hail from Puerto Rico, another from Canada, several are US-born living in Europe. But with few exceptions, the “diversity” of the artists does not serve to expand our insight into a wider range of social experience. In a peculiar fashion, in a process duplicated in other artistic fields, the supposed inclusiveness, because it reflects the thinking and feeling of such a small percentage of the middle-class population, can actually work to reduce the overall perspective and scope of the art on display.

This is not entirely the fault of the artists, almost 30 percent of whom are young (20 out of the 75 artists/collectives are younger than 33, with the youngest two born in 1991.) And in a sense, they are attempting to respond to aspects of the current social crisis. Racist police violence, climate change, the exploitation of migrant workers, gentrification are all taken as subjects in work which is in some cases skillful or inventive.

But the technical complexity of the pieces is often in inverse proportion to the very limited or stunted insight they have to offer. In part, this has been fostered by the “conceptualism” that has dominated much artistic practice for the past 50 years.

For example, Maia Ruth Lee’s Bondage Baggage is a stack of four tightly bound (with rope) tarpaulin bundles. These bundles-as-sculpture literally reproduce the bundles carried by Nepalese workers as “luggage” when they return from working in the Middle East. According to the wall caption, the sculpture “model(s) a condition of the self, as well as concepts of self-preservation, diaspora, the family, and the economic oppression of developing countries.”

Even if one did derive any of this from the pile of bundles, which seems unlikely, how has one’s understanding of the economic oppression of developing countries been enhanced to any degree by Lee’s sculpture? The artist is simply being too elliptical and self-conscious for her own—or our—good.

A more decisive problem, however, is the identity politics outlook promoted at all levels of this careerist milieu from art schools, juried art shows and residencies, to critical art journals and mainstream press such as the New York Times. The Whitney curators themselves reflect this atmosphere, and they are encouraging the artists in a certain direction.

The curators, in a statement, describe that while “we often encountered heightened emotions” (presumably in response to Donald Trump and the political situation) in their studio visits, the artists “were directed toward thoughtful and productive experimentation, the re-envisioning of self and society, and political and aesthetic strategies for survival.” The focus on “self” first, and society second, implies that the kind of social change envisioned wouldn’t likely affect the basic structure of society and the lives of millions of people. It simply means pressuring “society” to become more amenable or hospitable to the demands of “self,” or these particular “selves,” creating more psychological/cultural space for these previously under-represented groups. Likewise the focus on “equity” instead of social equality largely means more privileges for certain groups to bring them up to the level of the most privileged social layers.

Notably absent from the political topics addressed was the fascistic Trump administration itself, the reactionary opposition of the Democratic Party and intensification of social conflict that has erupted since the 2016 election. Only in Marcus Fischer’s Untitled (Words of Concern), do we hear “loss of democratic rights, attacks on immigrants, fascism” in a loop tape recorded at a select residency on Captiva Island, Florida, where Fischer and other artists spoke the day before the inauguration. But that’s all they are, words without elaboration. Again, the absence of meaningful substance is offset by a complex installation that runs the tape from a vintage recording device up to the ceiling and back again.

Curran Hatleberg, Untitled (Camaro), 2017. Inkjet print, 19 x 23 1/2 in. (48.3 x 59.7 cm). [Credit: the artist and Higher Pictures, New York]

As always in the Whitney Biennial, there are a few exceptions to the rule. Curran Hatleberg’s photographs of quotidian American scenes with a surreal edge are in the tradition of closely observed photographs by Zoe Strauss (Whitney Biennial, 2006), for example. The sculpture Maria-Maria, 2019 by Daniel Lind-Ramos, who is one of the few older artists (b. 1953) included, combines the blue FEMA tarps left after the destruction of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria with natural and other found materials to create a totemic Virgin Mary.

And a more intimate side of life is revealed in Jennifer Packer’s colorful, loosely painted portraits bearing out the artist’s stated intention that “It’s not figures, not bodies, but humans I am painting.” She pays special attention, she explains, to the vulnerability of black female bodies in contemporary society.

Installation view of the Witney Biennial, 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019). Daniel Lind-Ramos, Maria-Maria, 2019. [Photo credit: Ron Amstutz]

Although social life is not richly addressed in the art at the exhibition, social and political developments inevitably make themselves felt. The fact they don’t find expression in the pieces themselves is a serious weakness and, to a certain extent, speaks to the artists’ view that such developments have no organic place in their (literally) self-centered work.

At the 2017 Biennial, a scurrilous attack was launched on Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), based on the famous photograph of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth lynched in Mississippi in 1955. The basis of the campaign was the reactionary argument that “it was not acceptable for a white person (Schutz) to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” There were calls to remove, even destroy, the painting. A campaign against this censorship drew strong support, but not till Schutz vouched for her sincerity and most importantly promised never to profit from the sale of the painting was it allowed to stay.

Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tenderness, 2017. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 7 in. (24 x 18 cm). Private collection. [Credit: the artist, Corvi-Mora, London; and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; Photograph: Matt Grubb]

The artists are not entirely blind to the world around them. The principal controversy this year involved demonstrations and the threat of a boycott by eight participating artists against Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the Whitney’s board. Kanders’ company Safariland manufactured the teargas used along the US-Mexico border, as well as against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, the Gaza Strip, Turkey and elsewhere.

The Whitney vice chair’s connection to teargas was established well before the opening of this year’s Biennial. It was reported in 2015 at the time of the protests over the police murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It was picked up then by the media and became the subject of a video piece, Triple Chasers (2019) by the artist collective Forensic Architecture, which was among the pieces included in (and then, in protest, withdrawn from) the Biennial itself.

Hannah Black, one of the initiators of the campaign against Schutz in 2017, co-authored (along with Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett) a statement, “The Tear Gas Biennial,” which appeared in Artforum on July 17. Black is on generally principled ground this time. The statement argues that the “Biennial is a prominent platform, and the teargassing of asylum-seekers, including children at the US-Mexico border a few months before its May opening, has thrust Kanders and Safariland into the public eye. And some of the artists involved have sincere political commitments and surely feel concerned that their work is being instrumentalized to cleanse Kanders’s reputation.” It likewise challenged artists, “a majority of whose work has some political valence,” to withdraw their work—even if the Biennial was already halfway through its four-month run.

Ironically, Black and the boycott supporters note that “We’ve heard, too, that the effort to politicize the Biennial amounts first, to racism, because it places an unfair burden on artists of color, who ought to be celebrated in this majority-minority Biennial, and second, an expression of class privilege, because ‘artists must eat.’”

In any event, soon after the statement in Artforum, eight artists issued a joint letter to the Whitney requesting their work be removed. Within a week Kanders announced he would step down.

However welcome Kanders’ resignation may be, it will do little under present conditions to change the dependence of the arts upon the “dirty money” of the super-rich. Nor by itself will it deepen and expand the artists’ outlook.

As evidenced in the artwork at the Biennial itself, a genuine reorientation toward critical questions of history and social life is required for the creation of more deeply challenging and insightful work.

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[9 July 2019]