The Whitney Biennial this year came off pretty much the same as it has every year. Though I certainly expected nothing new, seeing as this year's curator was none other than a rank-and-file Art Cheka, Francesco Bonami. The Whitney has a reputation for presenting Art which taps the pulse of the American mainstream (if it had a pulse), and it has again done its job. This year's exhibition was another in a long drudging line of annoying and ultimately boring repetition; something of a full sensory manifestation of a Bruce Nauman video where he repeats "Thank You, thank you" over and over in the most nerve racking voice you could imagine. But, no offense intended to you Mr. Nauman, it's not your fault that you ate lead paint chips as a child.
Being its 75th birthday and all, there was of course an installation of highlights that have come to grace the Whitney in years past - kind of a "Whitney, this is your life" experience. The usual suspects were in force: Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Eva Hesse, and Julian Schnabel among others. Hesse once said in an exhibition statement in 1968
"I wanted to get to nonart, nonconnotive, nonanthropomorphic, nongeometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point,"
If Hesse's quote tells you anything at all, it is something of a mantra for the entire hokey, banal, and incoherent assemblage of dementia that we now call the Whitney Biennial. In that regard, Bonami has done no worse than any other curator. This years event included the vast breadth of American creative expression: abstract pastiche, political pastiche, feminist performance pastiche, installation pastiche, and conceptual-conceptual pastiche. He even threw in a bit of "representational" Alex Katz pastiche by way of Maureen Gallace, whose paintings had all the beauty, pathos, and intelligence that you might find in that painting your aunt once made while watching Bob Ross. (I'm sure she's a lovely person.)
Why the only thing missing was life and humanity!
Instead of wasting my time describing the likes of Sarah Crowner's Sunday paintings with Rothko in watercolors (Jesus! aren't you tired of minimalism yet?), or Mike Asher's 1960's-ish conceptual pastiche: a proposal asking the Whitney to remain open for 24 hours for a week, I will instead jump to the two moments which stood out in their mediocrity among the wealth of drivel.
The works of photojournalists Nina Berman and Stephanie Sinclair described the stark phantom of casualties from America's wars in the middle east. Most of Berman's photos were very descriptive, but incredibly removed from their subject. Yet her mangled groom in "Marine Wedding", actually surprised me in that through the shock value, there lay a deep well (if somewhat juvenile) of empathy. Sinclair's photos of self immolating Afghani women were more consistently striking. These women who set themselves on fire in order to escape abusive husbands were quite touching. As journalism, their work is valuable; as fine art merely competent. The human content makes this collection the most powerful works in the Biennial. These belong in a fine edition of one of Time magazine's photo collections. It is a very rare photograph indeed that transcends its medium to become an emotive and communicative piece of beauty, and being held back by their average level of craftsmanship, none of these quite achieved that goal.
The biggest disappointment was the over baked, 'what if Georgia O'Keefe were sad', hastily painted still lifes of Lesley Vance. Her work from the last few years, interesting and representational, which seemed promising, was compromised by her desire for acceptance by the Art fascist state. These paintings embody the closest approximation of a mastery of the medium in the Biennial, yet this compromise has bled out most of the humanity.
"The whole history of painting is in painting—I don't see that as being something outside of my practice. There's so much in the history of painting, I can't even think of taking on anything beyond that. I just respect painting too much." Yet, Vance characterized her regression into abstraction by saying "There wasn't much abstraction that felt warm and intimate. Abstraction that works like representation, that invites you in. I wanted the energy of my works to be interior. I was looking at 17th century Spanish still lifes. In Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) the lemons almost become pure form, but they stop just short. The representation pulls them back. I felt like I wanted to keep painting the lemon past the point of representation, so that it could become something else."
Sadly her deep interest in 17th century Spanish painting came across as an earthy mimicry of 1980's pop decor, which in turn was a mimicry of cubist formal abstraction. Though if you look closely at these paintings, every once in a while there is a moment of light and shadow which reveals itself to be almost significant: the melancholic umbra of something that once had meaning.
I can't blame the artists for this sad showing. They are merely responding to the state of Art as it is. I would hope to encourage these three women above. Have heart, you have something here, but don't compromise it for the desire for acceptance. I know this is easier said than done. The real culprits are the art historians and curators, Cheka like Bonami, who define the rules of the game in order to shore up their own power. Understandably, they have made their livelihood in this system and they don't want it to change. And admittedly, my own brotherhood suppressed modernism once upon a time. But, that time passed long before my grandfather was even born. Like any movement, you have to recognize the moment you change from being the revolutionary to the oppressive establishment.
The Modern art world did not notice this moment 100 years ago. The Post-moderns didn't notice while they were burning cast drawings and dismembering sculptures in l'École des Beaux-Arts during the student revolution at the Sorbonne in 1968. They didn't notice that while they were fighting for "liberation", they were also crushing a long and valuable heritage, destroying a cultural tradition, and robbing future generations of their freedom to choose. So, my goal is not to repeat the French revolution: by replacing the aristocracy with a bourgeois (or replacing the bourgeois with aristocracy) just as vicious and decadent, but look to the civil rights movement. Equality.
All in all, the birthday bash of the Whitney Biennial gave me the sense that American Art (along with the rest of the Art world) has been barking up a dead tree for a long time. Not only has it made no progress, it has actually lost ground.
So, is American Art standing still? I should say not.
It's chasing its tail.