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Recap: Five Favorites from the 2019 Whitney Biennial

Updated: Jun 19, 2019

Aerial view of "MISSION TEENS: French school in Morocco" by Meriem Bennani at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Photo by James Khattak.

We were lucky that the 2019 Whitney Biennial coincided with our annual trip to New York City! The Biennial takes up three floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art and focuses on emerging artists.

From "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

Jeffrey Gibson's "Stand Your Ground" at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Photo by James Khattak.

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." -

2. "Hometown Buffet—Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise)", by Tomashi Jackson

"Hometown Buffet - Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise) by Tomashi Jackson at the 2019 Whitney Biennial.

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.

Detail of "Hometown Buffet, Two Blues..." by Tomashi Jackson.
"...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." -