Feature

Exhibition of the week

2008 Whitney Biennial

Exhibition of the week2008 Whitney BiennialWhitney Museum of American Art, New YorkThrough June 1

Every two years, the Whitney’s Biennial exhibition tracks the current state of American art, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. “Past biennials have had a festive, party-time air.” The 2004 and 2006 editions, in particular, were crammed full of works designed to dazzle, provoke, or impress with conceptual complexity. “The 2008 edition is, by contrast, an unglamorous, even prosaic affair.” More than 80 artists’ works are displayed, but there’s hardly an old-fashioned painting in sight. Instead there are countless collaborative projects, seemingly improvisatory collages, and staged performances. This biennial’s “down-market” aesthetic is best summed up by several artists who incorporate trash into their creations. Jedediah Caesar encases old socks and coffee cups in resin. Charles Long covers garbage with plaster, producing objects that resemble bird-droppings. “A biennial for a recession-bound time? That’s one impression it gives.”

But the art market is hardly in recession, said Ariella Budick in Newsday. In fact, even as the wider economy is slumping, the price for contemporary art “soars blithely upward.” At this biennial, the presence of too many inadequately conceived works suggests that projects were rushed to completion in order to cash in on a boom. Worse, “the Whitney’s amorphous, random, and mostly incomprehensible” gathering of objects reveals an art world dangerously out of touch with the era’s important subjects. The artists seem too tired or timid to make bold political or artistic statements, while the exhibits’ organizers appear “caught up in the market’s bizarre hysteria, swooning over mediocrity and prodigally handing out prestige.”

Don’t draw too many conclusions about the wider art world from this grab bag of artists, said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. The idea that a biennial can define a movement, “or that it will take the moment’s pulse, is almost always a fiction.” Rather, art lovers who attend this show should simply hope to find one or two works that speak to them in a new way. Javier Tellez’s video Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See, for instance, is one that will stick with me. To re-create a parable about blind men and an elephant, Tellez took a pachyderm to a New York park. The result reveals much about how the blind perceive the world—and how the sighted misperceive it. A Whitney Biennial, like any collection of new art, is bound to include more misses than hits. “But you still leave knowing more good works of art than when you entered.”

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