From Whitney.org: "The Whitney Biennial is the longest-running survey of American art, and has been a hallmark of the Museum since 1932. Initiated by the Museum's founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as an invitational exhibition featuring artwork created in the preceding two years, the biennials were originally organized by medium, with painting alternating with sculpture and works on paper. Starting in 1937, the Museum shifted to yearly exhibitions called Annuals. The current format—a survey show of work in all media occurring every two years—has been in place since 1973."
Looking over the exhibition catalog pre-trip, I was only familiar with one exhibiting artist- the wonderful Wangechi Mutu, whose "Water Woman" sculpture I had seen - and loved - at The Contemporary Austin - Laguna Gloria a few years ago.
While I was eager to look through the images online, it was nothing compared to seeing them in person. So many of my favorites were three-dimensional or installation pieces, and I was really grateful for the opportunity to see them in their natural habitats.
The exhibition's dominant themes were identity and the artists' response to the current turbulent political landscape. It was interesting to see how each artist arrived at similar places through their own creative influence, perspective and motivations, and created such different pieces to communicate it.
In no particular order, here are my top five favorite pieces from the 2019 Whitney Biennial:
1. "Stand Your Ground," by Jeffrey Gibson
Most of my favorite pieces here had mixed-media and collage elements, and Gibsons' installation work is no exception. I greatly admire artists who can use seemingly disparate mediums and objects to communicate their message in a visually arresting and aesthetically pleasing way. Gibson's other piece, "People Like Us" was hung in a diagonal corner, and together they anchored the room in complementary color and texture.
Gibson, a Native American of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, incorporated historic Native textiles and craft methods to protest modern cultural issues including racial injustice, cultural appropriation, and Bear Ears, the politically threatened US National Monument.
"The inclusion of the Bears Ears reference is another display of Gibson’s work as at times confrontational and political but also aesthetically pleasing to the eye, mixing past and present Native realities, while also envisioning future possibilities for Indigenity." - CulturalSurvival.org
2. "Hometown Buffet—Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise)", by Tomashi Jackson
Before I even left the museum, I was already on social media, calling out Jackson's work as some of the exhibition's best. Beyond being beautiful, technically sound and provocative, it is also very interesting. As in, I immediately wanted to learn more, not just about Jackson as an artist, but about the content and inspiration behind her work.
"...the piece uses the perceptual tricks offered by Joseph Albers’s color theory, taught to generations of American art students, to bring two histories into alignment: the destruction of Seneca Village, a black settlement in Manhattan razed to make way for Central Park, and the city’s ongoing Third Party Transfer Program, whereby the De Blasio administration has recently been seizing property from black and brown homeowners in gentrifying areas and transferring it to developers in the name of “neighborhood revitalization." - 4Columns.org
Jackson discovered, and then used her work to expand on, the linguistic parallels between Josef Albers' language around color perception and the language of racism.
I recognized terms about how “colors” interact from Albers’s text: colored, boundaries, movement, transparency, mixture, purity, restriction, deception, memory, transformation, instrumentation, systems, recognition, psychic effect, placement, quality, and value. The language around de jure segregation is similar to Albers’s description of the wrong way to perceive color, as if color is static. Marshall and Albers concluded that color is relative, and what a viewer perceives a color to be is determined by the color nearest to it. - Tomashi Jackson in Hyperallergic.com.
This is my favorite type of art. It inspires the viewer to dig deeper, analyze supporting information, and connect in new ways with the human experience without being obvious or making it too easy to do so. The learning is part of the beauty, and when the viewer puts all the pieces together, it forms a connection with the artist that wasn't there on first viewing.
3. "Euclidian Gris Gris 2," by Todd Gray
Todd Gray's work was also mixed-media collage, executed in a way that I had not seen before. Primarily a photographer, Gray juxtaposes seemingly disparate archival photo prints in frames to make a new piece. His "Euclidian Gris Gris" series was presented as parts of a whole, with common elements found in its colors and in the black and silver "cosmos" images.
"His unique process of combining and layering a variety of images and fragments of images allows him the opportunity to create his own history and “my own position in the diaspora.” Working with photographs of pop culture, documentary photographs of Ghana (where he keeps a studio), portraits of Michael Jackson, gang members from South Los Angeles and photo documentation from the Hubble telescope, Gray asserts what he refers to as his own polymorphous identity that defies definition. Inspired by the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, Gray invites the viewer to participate in an “ever-unfinished conversation about identity and history.” - Artsy.Net.
This piece was my favorite in the series. The red jacket was easily recognizable as Michael Jackson's (and Gray was Jackson's personal photographer for many years.) I was drawn to this piece visually, but was also a bit conflicted, given what we know now about Jackson's legacy. My own experience with the piece is in line with how Gray explains the composition of his Jackson portraits. I think that by obscuring Jackson's face, it made me feel more conflicted vs. less conflicted about the piece. It would have been easier to make a snap (and influenced) judgement to avoid it, and any internal struggle had his face been shown. In terms of the "plurality" Gray references, I admit that as a child of the 80s, I do have positive memories of Jackson's music, and seeing that bright red jacket in the gallery hit on those emotions before more complex thought took over. So, lots to think about here, going beyond the objectively visually appealing work at its surface.
Everyone seems to have their own image of Michael in their head depending on the stage of his career they were first introduced to him. MJ Thriller looks different than MJ Bad. MJ Bad (1987) looks different from Blood on the Dance Floor (1997), etc. By obscuring his face I allow each viewer to project their own Michal Jackson onto the work. I also cover the face to allow viewers to read the body of not only Michael, but also the body of a black man, encouraging a plurality of readings or references. - Todd Gray, National Portrait Gallery/NPG.org.uk.
4. "No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter," by Alexandra Bell
It feels strange to call this a "favorite piece," because it's not something you ever want to see. Artist Alexandra Bell's series of photo-lithograph and screen prints make the media, and by extension, the public complicit with the slander, wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and blatant racism directed toward the "Central Park Five."
"The title refers to an open letter that Wynter, a cultural critic, wrote about police classification of black men. I’m quite literally highlighting particular terms that I feel like are pathologizing and racialized and trying to show the ways stories are reported about black people,” (Bell) tells CJR.
“Is there a way to train people how to question? To have a whole set of questions about terminology used, what photos are used, where the photos are placed? It’s what I was trying to think about,” she says." - Via Columbia Journalism Review/CJR.org.
5. "Born Athlete American," by Jeanette Mundt
The surface of these exuberant paintings give way to a greater depth that focuses on the challenges of professional women athletes Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez.
These oil paintings are drawn from images of the U.S. Olympic team competing in Rio de Janeiro and depict the sense of pressure and pursuit of perfection that comes from laying a national identity on the back of a young woman.
“You can see they are kind of broken down into pieces already by the nature of the judgment that is passed on them, both the sanctioned judgment of the routine but also this other side of, ‘Do they look the part?’” - Time.com
The broken, staggered figures also bring to mind a glitching television set, which is how most people encountered these athletes, at a stylized and edited remove from all the literal blood, sweat and tears on the gymnastics mat.
The Whitney Biennial is no stranger to controversy, and the 2019 controversy is that there really isn't one. (With the exception of the relatively tame Warren Kanders protests.) But does art really have to be "controversial" to be critically or objectively strong? I admit that the more controversial stuff is absent from my top five, not because it isn't important or didn't move me, but because it's not what I connected with, personally. The art covered here is very smart and quite incisive. It's also very pretty. I realize that, but I also believe that those traits don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Take Tomashi Jackson's work, for example. Am I, as an average viewer, learning as much from her work as I am from the "Procession" aka "farting man" sculpture on the Whitney's terrace? Yes! As a matter of personal taste, "Procession" was not my favorite. Another viewer may connect with "Procession" and not with "Homestyle Buffet..." But different styles and different artistic voices don't point to a thoughtlessly-curated exhibition with less potential for impact.
Also, the Whitney Biennial (rightfully) gave voice to many historically marginalized artists this year, I feel that this type of criticism puts too much pressure on those artists to perform their artistic responses to their personal experiences/worldview in a certain way. Why is it a bad thing if these pieces are beautiful or visually quieter? Isn't it the artist's prerogative to communicate their story in the way that they feel is best, not as what we as viewers wish to see?
The 2019 Whitney Biennial is up through September 22 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Tickets are $18-25.