Art Alert! Brilliant Stars at the 2017 Whitney Biennial

The whirl of important art shows and exhibits continues apace. After a three-year hiatus, the Whitney Biennial – an authoritative overview of the state of contemporary American art – opened to the public on March 17th for the first time since the museum relocated to its airy new Renzo Piano-designed space in the meatpacking district. The distinctly different setting opened up new vistas – literally and figuratively – and the 63 artists and collectives invited to participate in this year’s show took full advantage (BTW, kudos to the Whitney for assembling such a diverse and eclectic group: almost half are female, and almost half are of color).

The Dandelion Chandelier team recently visited the exhibit, organized by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, and here’s our report (you can see photos of everything we saw and more in the slideshow below).

The exhibit ranges over two full floors at the museum, in addition to a small gallery off the lobby and other scattered locations throughout the building. We started on the fifth floor (we were told that starting either there or on the sixth floor would be equally good places to begin). One of the first galleries we entered was fully devoted to a meditation on censorship, with large paintings by Frances Stark of pages from Censorship Now!!, a treatise by the cult music figure Ian Svenonius. Stark includes her own edits in the paintings, highlighting phrases with red paint like dripping blood for emphasis.

In this room there is a quite comfy large ottoman, and in other galleries throughout the Biennial there are similarly inviting velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs created by Jessie Reaves. They’re made from found materials and discarded fabrics, and we’re sure that they were meant to signify something important, but we were just happy to have a hang-out spot from which to take in the paintings that surrounded us. Specifically, the vivid abstracts by Shara Hughes and Carrie Moyer, the colors of which are so brilliant they’re almost like neon signs.

The mood can change sharply from room to room, which is part of the joy of this experience. We went from serious photographs of desolated urban lots to a room of works by John Riepenhoff, who has created headless sculptures of his body with his hands holding paintings by other artists. Continuing the whimsy, he also offers up a “gallery in a box” that is viewed by climbing up a white ladder and inserting one’s head into the box. The resulting tableau for those nearby – a view of people essentially being consumed by art head-first – is actually more fun than what’s happening inside the box itself.

The funhouse theme continues with Pope.L (a.k.a. William Pope.L)’s Claim (Whitney Version), an installation of a large pink box decorated with 2,755 slices of bologna pinned to its walls (there were complaints about the smell at the press previews, but we can report that when we saw it, the work was scent-free), and Jon Kessler’s 2016 Evolution, an installation features two tattooed animatronic robot droids “swimming” in a pool of blue computer monitors.

The works also range between indoor and outdoor installations. The late-winter snow still lingering on the fifth-floor terrace prevented us from a close inspection of Larry Bell’s Pacific Red II, an installation of laminated glass panels in varying shades of red. The art critics who did examine it highly approved.

Venturing up to the sixth floor, we found one of the most memorable spaces in the show. New York-based photographer Deana Lawson – whose work we loved at the recent Armory Show – is also one of the artists showcased here. As with the prior photos we saw, her works at the Whitney make heroes of everyday black people in domestic settings – one called The Ring Bearer is a formal portrait of an elderly woman who is visibly exhausted, sitting in an armchair beside a school-aged boy who stands sturdily upright, dressed in a tuxedo and carrying a heart-shaped pillow with a ring.

Her work shares gallery space with Los Angeles painter Henry Taylor, who takes us into the recent headlines with a series of oil paintings of black Americans. One, called The 4th, portrays a middle-aged man presiding over a barbeque; two women appear to be dressed as angels – or are they actually angels? Another, painted this year, is a close-up portrait of the dying Philando Castile, shot in his car in St. Paul, Minnesota by a police officer last year. Echoing the cell phone video shot by his girlfriend, who was beside him in the passenger seat while it was happening, bearing witness to history so raw that the paint really isn’t yet dry, it’s entitled The Times Thay Ain’t a Changing, Fast Enough! We read afterward that these two artists are longtime friends, which made us smile – it was clear even before we learned of their friendship that, like Gauguin and van Gogh, these two are creating elegant and demanding images that complement and inform each other.

In another ripped-from-the-headlines installation, financier Larry Fink takes a star turn in Debtfair, with his quote about the two great sources of wealth being contemporary art and Manhattan real estate emblazoned across a towering graphic showing the rise of the stock market – it’s juxtaposed with works from 30 artists who are deeply in debt. Alongside are statistics and testimonials from artists unable to create because they cannot afford the supplies they need, and others forced to sell works at fire-sale prices to stay afloat. Created by Occupy Museums, some might say it’s a bit too on-the-nose, but the point is very well taken.

An intriguing series of heraldic flags hang from the ceilings of the lobby and the 6th floor, their bright colors and glitter belying the defeated messages they bear: I Have Nothing Left to Give; We Were Not Meant to Survive; I Am Holding My Breath. Created by Cauleen Smith, they tell of loss, frustration and weariness – and yet their very presence made us feel that in fact, there are still multitudes of people who will rally around these flags.

Mirrors make an appearance in many of the works, including in one gallery on the fifth floor where an austere mirrored rectangular box, with black chairs all around it, reflected back in unexpected ways views of us, our neighbors, and the surrounding artwork.

Similarly, Samara Golden’s The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes is best described as an upside-down urban skyscraper. It’s a site-specific work that makes full use of the radiant Hudson River and the endless stream of traffic passing on the West Side Highway. Through the clever use of mirrors, visitors can lean over a steel railing set on an elevated ramp and see the endless reflections of a tall institutional building; at first glance it appears to be an apartment building, fully furnished. On closer inspection, though, we saw all kinds of interiors found in a modern city: fancy apartments, soulless office cubicles, prison cells, and a high-end hospital room – a metropolis in all of its richness and contradiction, reflecting into infinity. In the angles of the installation we can also see reflections of the sky, the river and the roadway just outside. And we can see reflections of ourselves and our fellow visitors peering intently over the edge of the railing. It’s both fanciful and mesmerizing, and the work will never look exactly the same way to any two people, thanks to the ever-changing light and the passing parade indoors and out.

One of the most haunting works is among the first you might see. In a small room off of the lobby, there’s a striking installation from Rafa Esparza called Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field. It’s a circular space constructed from adobe bricks, and it smells and feels as if it’s underground: slightly damp, with the pungent scent of the earth; uneven ground beneath our feet, and muffled sounds filtering through from outside. Inside, we see five photographs of the faces of Latino men – one wears a hard hat that immediately reminded us of the Chilean miners, trapped and then rescued from inside a deep industrial mine. In the middle of the circle is a triangle of black stones, entitled Cairn, by Beatriz Cortez. The name of the piece reminds us that a cairn can serve to mark a memorial, a burial ground, an event, or a path forward. Or all of the above. They’re typically located on a hilltop or skyline, and they are just one more way that people can create a work that will bear witness long after they’re gone.

In sharp contrast to this somber subterranean space, there’s a shimmering forest of cherry trees – some already in full bloom – growing on the far Eastern side of the museum’s sixth floor in a rose-hued installation of 26 potted trees under pink spotlights with towering windows right behind them. Asad Raza’s Root Sequence. Mother Tongue makes for a stunning tableau that draws you closer, after which you can pause on the outdoor terrace just beyond and contemplate the dense urban landscape all around you.

The New York Times reviewer noted that the spirit of Kerry James Marshall, whose incredible exhibit at the Whitney’s former uptown home dominated conversations last fall, is present here. As with that exhibit, many of the works in this one stealthily enter our consciousness, reminding us of the urgent present moment but also reminding us of classical forms, timeless images, and the enduring power of art to speak to things that are sometimes impossible to put into words.

The installation from this Whitney Biennial that still lingers in our minds the most clearly? Raúl de Nieves’ towering stained-glass window, with several ghostly bead-bedazzled figures in front of it. It might signify a new spirituality, or a wedding procession, or a funeral march. It might evoke the great cathedrals of Europe, or the childhood parish where you attended confirmation classes. It might just be the most gorgeous array of pure color that you’ve seen in a long while. All we know is that it stayed with us, and made us think deeply, and left us feeling alive, awake and optimistic. Connected to a great stream of history and humanity, and yet individually free to see the modern world exactly as we like. You cannot ask for much more from art than that.

The exhibit runs through June 11. If we were you, we wouldn’t miss it.


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