Exhibit of the week
The 2019 Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, through Sept. 22
Contemporary art is suffering a deep malaise, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. At the Whitney Biennial, the exhibition that aims to be a temperature check of the field, you can sense that most artists see America and the world at a moment of deep crisis, but their mood splits the difference between “petrified anxiety” and “half-hearted defiance.” With only a few exceptions, these artists are “trapped in a cultural elite by their education, employing sophisticated forms that are inaccessible to the general public.” Indeed, “if politics is about winning power through persuasion, much of the art at hand hardly qualifies as political.” Not that this first Biennial assembled after Donald Trump’s election doesn’t teem with grievances, said Peter Plagens in The Wall Street Journal. Consider Kota Ezawa’s animated watercolors of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, or Alexandra Bell’s reframing of Trump’s 1989 newspaper crusade against the falsely accused Central Park Five. But such works feel too polite—“a raised fist in an opera glove.”
Despite the gender and ethnic diversity of the artists, the work is also “surprisingly repetitive,” said Deborah Solomon in WNYC.org. “Too much of the art looks like too much else in the show.” Still, there’s much here to be admired, especially from newer names. Curran Hatleberg’s photos of small-town America “movingly update the documentary tradition,” while painter Janiva Ellis contributes Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet, a 20-foot-wide river landscape that includes a possibly dead figure who resembles one of Paul Gauguin’s eroticized Tahitians. “This is a painting in which social critique is matched by first-rate artistry.” A relative veteran provided one of the only true showstoppers, said Scott Indrisek in Artsy.net. In Nicole Eisenman’s Procession, a parade of cartoonish humanoids appear to be carting sculptures across the sixth-floor terrace, farting white steam as they go. It winningly mixes somber social critique with sophomoric humor.
“The metaphorical backdrop of the whole show,” though, is provided by an 11-minute video, said Jerry Saltz in New York magazine. Created by the Forensic Architecture collective and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Triple Chaser delivers a devastating indictment of weapons manufacturer Warren Kanders, a Whitney trustee who was petitioned against before the show. The title refers to a tear-gas grenade, manufactured by a Kanders firm, that is banned on battlefields but has been deployed against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Governments also use it to subdue protesters, and the video documents the deaths it has caused. Showing the video is just one museum’s first step toward cleaning its own house—rejecting the financial support of billionaires who are creating our present crises. Kanders is a start; “get rid of him and the rest might start to fall.” ■