Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the show you love to hate

An NYC aesthetic that relies on tired tropes of industrialism, found objects, and half-assed workmanship filtered through an unfocused lens of social commentary that might have been fresh 10-15 years ago pervades the images I’ve seen from this year’s Whitney Bienniale.

Alhough noted critic Peter Schjedlahl over at the New Yorker does wax philosophic over the show, “This year’s Whitney Biennial, the most poetic I can remember, feels mildly unhappy and restlessly alert […] Its strongest suit is certain types of sculpture that have flourished lately—the same assembled, shaggy varieties that dominate “Unmonumental,” the inaugural, solid show of the New Museum […] It is full of busy ingenuities that smack of art school—but of art-school studios, not seminars. Two decades of academic postmodernizing have trailed off into embarrassed silence.”

And even I must admit that the curators’ invocation of Samuel Beckett’s notion of “Lessness” (not less is more, less is all) to characterize the Zeitgeist has a lovely sort of longing about it. But the images of the work don’t seem to bear up under the weight of the comparison. Of course, the fact that I am ridiculous enough to even deign to write about art I haven’t seen in person smacks of the worst sort of bravado and hubris. Although I will say it is not without precedent: in 2003, Blake Gopnik, the critic for the Washington Post admitted in print that he didn’t even visit Seward Johnson’s Corcoran show before panning it, nor did he intend to (incidentally, the Cummer hosted a similar show by the same artist in 2005, and I panned it–but I did go to see it).

In the limited images I saw, there were a few pieces that struck me: Charles Long’s sculptures; Javier Tellez’s “Letter on the Blind, for Those Who See; William Cordova’s “The House that Frank Lloyd Wright Built 4 Fred Hampton and Mark Clark” installation; Carol Bove’s “Night Sky Over New York;” and Coco Fusco’s “Operation Atropos.”

Though many members of the media seem quite taken with Mika Rottenberg’s “Cheese” installation, it seems to a be a kind of off-brand, dumbed-down Matthew Barney homage. There’s a rather wonderfully bizarre folksy back-story to the piece, but in depicting a narrative event, it seems that Rottenberg chose to obfuscate the work’s impetus in an attempt to add depth. In reality, the story would have been just fine on its own.

The idea of a Bienniale that culls just about half of its artists from NYC (out of 80, 43 were from/in/based out of NYC and 29 were from California), begs the very question of a prescient look into the “art world.” Instead it offers an incestuous look into the NYC scene. The rest of us might take a few notes, but its worth remembering how fractured the art world is, and though NYC might still be the center of that world, it is not the only game in “town.”

*the embedded video is from the coolhunting site. I especially like it because instead of speaking with one of the glossy-maned curators, they chose to speak with one of the blue collar (its all relative) workers. In this case, Mark Steigelman, the exhibition designer. Then I like it even more when he mentions that he (of course) has opinions about the work, but leaves the decision-making to the curators...it is the kind of open-ended statement that leaves one wondering about the politics involved behind the scene in this type of show.

**also, click on the title to go to the NY Times walk-through of the event and specific pieces, narrated by Holland Cotter.


URBISMUS said...

im gonna try to see the show, its up now, right? i agree, im getting sick of the nyc clique domination of the "town" but this is between us, i should draw conclusions after i see ths whitney.

madeleine said...

yeah, it is up now...and of course the best way to judge art is in person. I certainly have gotten all excited about a piece only to be disappointed in person and vice-versa. It's just difficult (for me to remain silent) when the overarching theme seems to be so concerned with a dated aesthetic, and when there seem to be many more interesting things happening.

That being said, drop me a line with your thoughts after you make the trip...I am nothing if not curious.

URBISMUS said...

yes, heard that "dated aesthetic"!

Mark Creegan said...

I am late to this thread but I wanted to say that so many of these works rely on the materiality that is not well conveyed thru the video screen. Of course that is why you are right to say one should postpone final judgment until personal viewing. The comparison to the Seward Johnson critique is not the same because the idea of making sculptures of paintings is so one-dimensional that one doesn't need to see it know its lacking.

As far as a "dated aesthetic", I think it would be difficult to find any art practice today that didnt have substantial precedent. And these at the Whitney Bi seem to owe a lot to Minimalism, Arte Povera, Post-Minimalism. The curators do seem to be trying to set it apart from previous modes my suggesting its purpose is not to make grand negative, dystopic gestures, but humble, hopeful, small, chance operations.

Whether or not they are successful in this is up to the viewer of course. I view the Whitney Bi as just one of many shows that offer a taste of the present moment. Its display is no more significant or incomplete to the contemporary discussion as any other show. It is very significant for individual careers however.

madeleine said...

Dear Mark,

Thank you for the comments…and you are right, there is so much that cannot be conveyed in pictures or in a video (though I appreciate your take on Seward Johnson). I just felt it was important to make mention of the show; inserting my own opinion proved irresistible.

Plus, the movements you cited: Minimalism, Arte Povera, Post-Minimalism, were themselves very much au currant when I was spending a great deal of time in NYC, (admittedly about ten years ago). So seeing them sort of re-highlighted in a show that attempts to take a contemporary pulse, seemed a little counter-intuitive; hence the “dated” comment.

However, I do like the ideas you mentioned of humble, hopeful and small…if nothing else, those ideas seem very elegant.