The 2010 Whitney Biennial marks the series’ 75th anniversary, yet while one might expect an exorbitant extravaganza, it is smaller and less grandiose than older iterations. Only 55 artists are displayed (down from more than 100 in 2006). The reduced size of the show has drawn criticism from various sources. When discussing the Biennial in his recent New York Times article, Holland Cotter wrote that “the show lives up — or down — to its billing” and that “much of what’s in is quiet and hermetic to the point of initially looking blank.” It is undeniable that the reduction, which was largely brought on by budget constraints, has created a more sober atmosphere than the artistic smorgasbords of previous years – but maybe that’s not a bad thing.
2010 is less about the diva that is the art world and more about the art, and the people who make and inspire it. Walking through, you can concentrate on each piece without feeling overwhelmed by an overabundance of visual stimuli. Additionally, the exhibition series attempts to present periodic snapshots of contemporary art and the world it reflects. In a time of global economic crisis, the show’s modesty and it’s simple title, 2010, seems appropriate. This structural understatement is coupled with an intense humanism and an interest in tradition and cultural continuity on the part of the featured artists. The result gives us a sense of what it means to make art in these troubled times.
The down-to-earth nature of this Biennial is in stark comparison to the gargantuan 2006 show, Day for Night, named for the process of filming nocturnal scenes during the day. That title served as a metaphor for the artifice of American culture and for the idea that the meaning of the word “American” is constantly changing. By contrast, the title 2010 is understated and does not make any immediate statements about the work on display. Rather than referencing war or the financial crisis, it asks you to reflect on the meaning of the year and what is relevant today. The body of the show answers it’s own questions. In troubled times, we search history for a sense of continuity and identity, or we turn inward and focus on personal relationships. Many of the artists in the exhibition make humanistic work that connects with tradition (whether cultural or art historical) and explores the individual experience.
A number of 2010’s participants created work that is small in scale, physically and thematically. Two extraordinary photographers force us to ask important political questions by zeroing in on the lives of a few individuals. Nina Berman began photographing wounded and disabled veterans in the early days of the Iraq war. Her series, Marine Wedding, is a compassionate look at the days leading up to the marriage of Ty Ziegal (24), a horrendously disfigured veteran, to his high school sweetheart, Renee Kline (21). The series is compassionate and real and does not seem exploitative. Through an acute attention to gesture and facial expression, Berman gives us a snapshot of the intense weight, agony and guilt that was placed on the shoulders of this young couple. Renee and Ty later separated a few months after their wedding. Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs document Afghan women receiving medical treatment after lighting themselves on fire. Although these moving images are awkwardly placed on a floor where there is a heavy emphasis on painting and abstract art, they clearly communicate a profound message about the depth of human physical and psychological suffering. The very inclusion of photojournalists in the biennial seems to mark an important transition in the show’s mission. The pieces in these series are not overtly concerned with the idea of art for art’s sake, medium or what constitutes art. Instead, Berman and Sinclair use their considerable formal artistic talent as a tool to convey a humanistic message.
The theme of Housing and domesticity is also heavily featured in the biennial. Photographer, James Casevere, creates small models of candy-colored houses and arranges them on top of a table, in an artificial landscape. Casevere dramatically lights his towns before photographing them from above. The fragility of the little houses and the total absence of people inevitably bring to mind recent photographs of partially abandoned neighborhoods that were devastated by the housing crisis. Many of the foreclosed homes were recently constructed, like Casevere’s newly minted models, and their freshness reminds us that they once stood as emblems of American progress. Casevere’s images also connect with the suburban American tradition. His slightly creepy pink, blue, orange and yellow boxes recall the identical homes of Levittown and other post-World War II planned communities and also bring to mind late twentieth century films that poke fun at suburban living, like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
In the next room, Ari Marcopoulos’ video Detroit shows us a scene that could be happening inside one of Casevere’s tiny domiciles. You approach the screening room cautiously, as loud, deliberately grating noise rock pours out of it. The video documents two musicians hard at work: two ‘tween boys pressing a series of pedals to create ear piercing sounds. The camera stoops to the boys’ level as they crouch on the floor, intently staring at their toys/instruments. There is an intimate, awkward tenderness to the scene. At the end of the set, the boys look up proudly, as if the discordant screeches that resulted from their hard work had been made to impress a small group of relatives. Marcopoulous succeeds in giving us an honest, moving look at urban boyhood at the moment between childhood and adolescence.
In addition to the show’s proffered snapshots of everyday life, many of its featured artists use mythology and metaphor to explore contemporary reality. One obvious standout is Master of the Universe/ FlexMaster 3000, 2010 by Aurel Schmidt, an absurdly talented young drasftswoman. The 89.5 by 52.5 inch drawing features a life-size minotaur flexing his muscles. The beast serves as a reference to Picasso and the great male artists of the past. A small goofy bird perched atop its bulging bicep is an allusion to Jeff Koons. (A nearly identical one is featured in Koons’ hog/pig, goat, dogs, bird stack.) The minotaur’s head and body are partly made up of objects that he has consumed. The creature coolly smokes and lines of cigarettes spider down his limbs like veins. He carries a walking stick made of beer cans duck taped together and another six-pack of beer form his abdomen. A condom is placed in reserve behind his ear. Money, more condoms and a blackberry are strapped to his hip. The minotaur’s body is intermittently covered in flies and pink and blue exotic flowers, a probably reference to Dutch still-lives and their exploration of beauty and decay.
The minotaur is an exploration of masculinity, in its beauty and its horror. There is something refreshing about this role reversal: a young female artist who’s drawing skills clearly situate her within the boys’ club explores, exploits and takes artistic liberties with the male form. We’ve seen the opposite scenario happening for centuries, often with the minotaur standing in for the conquering male. Aural’s unabashedly erotic imagery levels the playing field. Master of the Universe transcends the question of gender; however, and explores issues of decay, renewal, excess, health, consumption, nutrition and decadence.
While the biennial’s representational artists are exceptionally strong, the show’s trend of humanism and interest in the personal extends to its abstract artists as well. Painter, Leslie Vance creates gorgeous, tiny oil paintings on linen. Vance’s process involves painstakingly arranging still life objects, photographing them and then using the resulting image as the basis for paintings. The combination of the lack of brush strokes (Vance applies paint with a pallet knife) and the relatively untextured surface of linen give the paintings a beautiful, sensual smoothness. Inspired by the Spanish still life tradition, this influence can be seen in her luminous color palette. Lance spreads beautiful, jewel-like colors across a dark background and her paintings seem to radiate with an inner light. Their fluidity, depth and intermixing of color also bring to mind Gerhardt Richter’s masterful abstractions.
Tauba Auerbach is another interesting artist who manages to combine humanism, sensuality and abstraction. She begins her process by folding a canvas to create natural creases. Auerbach then uses industrial spray guns to replicate a photographed pattern of a different folded cloth onto of the altered canvas, creating a trompe l’oeil effect and playing with dimensions. While they look better in reproductions, Auerbach’s paintings have a certain feminine, meditative loveliness. They also challenge the notion of abstract painting as strictly non-representational by creating images that we want to look at and touch precisely because they remind us of something in our lives that we have experienced before.
Not all of the work in the show is equally strong. The curators made the strange decision to dedicate an entire room to Charles Ray’s mediocre flower paintings. Each of the large pieces, feature multi-colored, cartoon-like blossoms, and are entirely interchangeable. The works would look fine on the walls of a large modern restaurant, but their artistic value doesn’t appear to transcend the decorative. Aki Sasamoto’s installation, Strange Attractors, documents Sasamoto’s attempt to comprehend a complex fractal structure called the Lorenz Attractor. Her installation, which aesthetically is much in debt to Eva Hesse, consists of two small, barely decipherable video projections, one on the ceiling and another on the wall. Large wires are attached to the ceiling along with hanging orange/pink fish net stocking-type webbings filled with water glasses, electronics and other random objects. In addition to its pretensions towards mathematical sophistication, we are told by the accompanying wall text that Strange Attractors explores Sasamoto’s recent obsession with, among other things, “doughnuts, fortune-tellers, and hemorrhoids.” I don’t buy it. And after seeing several artists engage in a selfless fashion with the extremes of agony, the human experience, the confusing allure of youth and masculinity and the potential for creating beauty out of abstraction, I have little interest in a young woman’s obsession with doughnuts and rectal veins.
As a whole, 2010, is a thoroughly satisfying exhibition. Most of the art is moving and meaningful without being pretentious or didactic. The show is an interesting exploration of what it means to be alive and making art today. It also connects contemporary art and the modern condition to the art and culture of the past, giving us a comforting sense of continuity.
The Whitney Biennial will be on display through May 30, 2010 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.