Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Whitney Biennial 2008

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

April 1, 2008
Trippy as the Whitney's prose is (see 3/28 post), I’m beginning to see that it opens up interesting linguistic possibilities in terms of new words or uses—such as as “Pop-ifies,” which seems to mean “makes like Pop art.” Now if you were to apply the ending to other art movements, such as Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism (Minimal-ifies? Minimalism-ifies?) it could get a little clunky—however I can see its literary applications. For instance, when we were talking about style at our Edward Winkleman said that a publication, having seen his blog, asked him to write something for them and then complained that it was too “bloggy.” Perhaps he should have Whitnified it a bit, just as the Whitney’s essays might have been improved with a little blogification.

Then there’s “spectatorial”--as in a “unified spectatorial vantage point” which I take to mean a “unified spectator vantage point” but with better clothes. However my absolute favorite is “problematizing” for which I can see myriad uses in the vernacular, and is certainly more concise than “making mountains out of mole hills.” You could say, “I had to leave the meeting because of all the problematizing that was going on” and everyone would know exactly what you meant. And don’t we all know people who are problematizers and never had a word for it? Or maybe I’ve just been in that interstitial space between understanding and confusion far too long.
March 28, 2008

Random quotes from the publicity information about the artists in the Whitney Biennial:

…It is the problematizing of expectations and formalisms through destruction and transformations that is the heart of the continuing project…. (Todd Alden on Mika Tajima/New Humans)
…invents puzzles out of non sequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial…inhabits those interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion… (Trinie Dalton on Amanda Ross-Ho)
...Thomson's inherently conversational practice both gamely Pop-ifies its often antiaesthetic historical precedents and resituates that generation's thought experiments in the social realm. (Suzanne Hudson on Mungo Thomson)
…features dozens of strips of junk mail spliced together and “stacked” in two zigzagging towers as if piled atop a desk: it is a conflation of art space and work space whose subtle allusion to the increasing corporatism of the art world is tempered by its intricate polychromatic delicacy…. (Lisa Turvey on Frances Stark)
... Bove's "settings" draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty, where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings." (Jeffrey Kastner on Carol Bove)
…creates space for the articulation of intention….(Suzanne Hudson on MK Guth)
…. This early work’s active impediment of a unified spectatorial vantage point has led the artist to investigate, in his words, “a variegated relationship between painting—a practice whose ossified discursive and speculative value I want to mark with its various economic and technical support systems—and the contradictions of discursive engagements that subsist largely outside the site of display, but which are value-producing sites nonetheless.”…. (Suzanne Hudson on Cheney Thompson)
…acknowledges the elusiveness of her practice in a conversation … “There is this great movie title for a film with Leonardo DiCaprio called Catch Me If You Can…about a con artist who always manages to escape. All artists are sort of like con artists.” (Suzanne Hudson on Fia Backstrom)

The Whitney Biennial is inconsequential except in how it isolates, as Jerry Saltz put it, “the current art school moment” (he would know, having visited more art schools than just about anybody)—and therefore the ways in which such schools are failing would-be artists. The very homogeneity of the show is a tip-off. Instead of aiding students in finding their singular voices and helping them to develop the methods that best put them across (here I’m not referring necessarily to traditional art techniques--although they are part of the mix--but whatever vehicle allows an artist to reach his or her fullest expression) schools rarely teach skills outside of the mouthing of terms and art references. Hence the emphasis on what Saltz termed “Home Depot displays.” Not that great art can’t be inspired by the local hardware store—Dan Flavin did a pretty good job of it—but in this case, easily available, cheap materials attached to lofty ideas are taking the place of mastery. I read once that more people graduate from art school each year than made up the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance. When schools stay in business by convincing everyone that by investing a couple of years and many thousands of dollars they can become an artist, there’s no room for true critical evaluation.

The most succinct summing up so far comes from an Associated Press review with no byline in the Baltimore Sun, which also notes the “unmistakable art school feel”:

New art, even the most seemingly inscrutable, has the job of engaging with the culture around it, moving and affecting it in some way. Showcasing work that rehashes common themes and styles seems an odd path for a biennial to take. When the mundane fancies itself novel, it becomes nothing more than slightly irritating.
March 24, 2008

“Mr. Michelangelo” in a comment below, requested that I analyze the reviews of the Whitney Biennial, and I'm never one to avoid a challenge. First, howver, I want to say that these are adept essays by critics I admire—my quibble is with the format. We live in a strange world of “balanced journalism,” an insidious concept to begin with because it’s utterly impossible and negates the value of considered opinion. Further, because journalists are called upon to give voice to “the other side”—every positive statement must have its naysayer—fringe groups or opinions that might otherwise go unnoticed are given undeserved respectability. Used as we are to this format in the news media, it’s crept into art criticism as well, so that the critic’s real opinion becomes lost in a sea of alternating positive and negative statements.

I first became conscious of this phenomenon two years ago when I read Jerry Saltz’s review in the Voice of the 2006 Biennial, where he starts off with “ ‘Day for Night’ is the liveliest, brainiest, most self-conscious Whitney Biennial I have ever seen,” while the next paragraph begins, “’Day for Night’ is filled with work I’m not interested in…..” –then switches gears with, “Nevertheless, the show is a compelling attempt to examine conceptual practices and political agency, consider art that is not about beauty,” etc. He talks some more about what he doesn’t like (“The show is not without problems…” “This brings us to an irksome feature of this show and many like it…”) before flipping back to, “A number of artists stand out….” so that by the time we finish we’ve completely forgotten that he’s writing about work he’s “not interested in.”

This is the dilemma of full-time critics—they have to write about a lot of stuff, so they either have to like a lot of stuff or write about a lot of stuff they don’t like and in doing so they don’t want to come off as too dismissive, lest they get a reputation like Hilton Kramer’s.

This year, in “When Cool Turns Cold,” a thoughtful analysis of what he aptly calls “the Art School Biennial,” Saltz makes it almost to the end before falling into the trap saying, “On the upside, [the curators] Momin and Huldisch should be congratulated for mounting a thoughtful show that, while academic, is neither dogmatic…nor sprawling…nor sexist…” and concludes with an upswing, reaching for a “striking moment” or two when, earlier on, he already said it all: “There’s little that’s overtly sexual, shocking, angry, colorful, traditionally beautiful or decorative, almost no madness or chaos. The show doesn’t alchemically add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

Peter Schjeldahl starts off by calling this year’s Biennial “the most poetic I can remember” but gives an example of that only at the end, a work that “enchanted” him, while the in-between is filled with descriptions of things that didn’t, his detailed attention giving them more weight than they deserve. I must say he nails the Rachel Harrison experience, however, when he calls her, “the leading light of new sculpture…[who knows] precisely what she means—and you would too if you were just the littlest bit smarter than you are.”

Holland Cotter (who took no joy in the Armory building itself, calling it a “moldering pile”) does the flip-flip thus: “The 2008 edition is…an unglamorous, even prosaic affair, the installation plain and unfocused” with works that have “uncharismatic surfaces, complicated backstories,” followed by, “There are certainly dynamic elements” followed by, “But again, the overall tenor of the show is low-key…” and then “Hard-liner believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog. But if the show is heedless of traditional beauty, it is also firm in its faith in artists as thinkers and makers rather than production-line workers meeting market demands.”

However, I would posit that if Biennial artists were truly “thinkers and makers” their output would be more engaging. Also I want to point out to the world at large that we, as artists, seek “visual pleasure” not because we’re playing to the market but because we are, ahem, visual artists and therefore, not coincidentally, concerned with things visual.

The Biennial, if not beloved—in fact often called “the show you love to hate”—but which at least used to generate excitement, has been slowly losing gas to the point that it’s become so inconsequential that maybe next time these guys can forgo writing about it altogether and put their talents toward covering events that, pro or con, stir their souls.
March 22, 2008
In my world the Whitney Biennial was such a non-event that I almost forgot to write about it. I went two weeks ago during a rainstorm and rushed through, intending to come back another time for a closer look. Unlike the recent Asian Contemporary Art Fair, which I assumed would be a quick take but where I ended up staying for three hours, nothing in the Biennial entreated me to linger. Instead it came off as gloomy, dated and stagnant, a littered graveyard of academic post-conceptual art. Further, the curatorial offerings as well as the Breuer-designed museum were completely upstaged by the newly renovated Armory at 67th and Park (site of Part II of the Biennial, admission free), where we arrived soaked to the skin. Hardly any art had yet been installed but we didn’t feel the lack as we wandered from room to room, our damp condition forgotten as we reveled in building’s opulence. Built in the late 1800s, the place is totally OTT—a fusion of too many styles and motifs to reference—but its creators, happily, weren’t cool enough to care. They put everything they had into creating an aesthetic experience—and for soldiers, yet. It made me realize how weary I am of cool, of irony, of scorn masquerading as art. I can still handle profundity (no danger of over-exposure there), but I want something to look at, something that gives me faith.

After wandering around, three of us flopped onto a couch in the Armory's vast entry hall. Huddling together for warmth we stayed nearly an hour, while I got up every so often to look at the one of the few completed pieces, Swiss artist

And I like what Breuning said in a video interview, that he "finds creativity through pleasure," a fairly radical statement for an artist these days. I know all too well that there are horrid things going on in the world, but we also need something to live for.


Reviews of the Whitney Biennial:

Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker

Jerry Saltz in New York