By Carter B. Horsley
If the Whitney Biennial is a good reflection
of what is exceptional in contemporary art, then the state of
contemporary art in 2002 is pretty sad as the vast majority of
works exhibited this year are puerile and without much merit.
The biggest show in two decades, this biennial
highlights the works of 113 artists in a variety of media and
there is more architecture, performance, Internet and "sound
art" in this biennial than ever before. If the overall verdict
for the biennial is disappointment and ennui at what mostly is
a ghastly mess, a few works, nonetheless, are outstanding and
The finest work is Roxy Paine's "Bluff,"
a 50-foot-high, stainless-steel tree that is being exhibited on
the eastern edge of Central Park's Sheep Meadow as well as in
a much smaller model at the museum. The highly realistic but leafless
tree, shown at the top of this article, is wonderful and is deserving
of remaining permanently on exhibition at its location in Central
Park and hopefully some patron of the arts will acquire it for
that use and the museum will somewhat finagle the necessary permissions.
The tree's stainless steel trunk supports more
than 5,000 pounds of cantilevered branches welded together from
24 different sizes of steel pipes and rods and, the catalogue
maintains that "Standing among other trees in Central Park,
the sculpture reminds us that the park itself is an artificial
sanctuary, a product not only of natural forces, but primarily
of city planners." '"Through this juxtaposition, Paine
asks us to reconsider distinctions made between the natural and
the artificial, which are increasingly difficult to discern in
a world filled with genetically engineering substances and products.
Bluff's monumental proportions and glistening surfaces serve as
both a wistful reflection on the tenuous state of the natural
world and a foreboding harbinger of things to come," the
catalogue entry for this work continued. Why the catalogue suggests
that it might be "a foreboding harbinger" is not very
clear as this is a work of considerable beauty and elegance that
glorifies the nature of trees and human craftsmanship. The artist
was born in New York in 1966 and has had exhibitions at the James
Cohan Gallery in New York, the Galerie Thomas Schulte in Berlin
and the Grand Arts Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2001 and
the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York in 1999.
It is one of five sculptures that the biennial
is exhibiting in Central Park.
Another work that takes inspiration directly
from nature is Evan Holloway's "Gray Scale," which consists
of tree branches, paint and metal. The catalogue provides the
following commentary on this work:
"Evan Holloway's work exemplifies a strong
tendency in contemporary Los Angeles art-making. Inspired in part
by influential local figures such as Liz Larner and Charles Ray,
a new generation of young artists is creating sculptural works
that combine formal rigor with an irreverent, playful use of materials.
Holloway's highly idiosyncratic works have several key features
in common: formal succinctness, the acceptance of change, and
the overlaying of diverse systems and media. Gray Scale
alludes to the gray scale of colorless tones that photographers
are often at pains to accommodate in their black-and-white prints.
In this piece, Holloway applies a rudimentary version of the gray
scale, which runs from white to black with various shades in between,
onto a structure made from a single tree branch. Following a self-imposed
system, Holloway reconstructed the limb, breaking off each branch
exactly halfway before the next branch began and then reattaching
it at a right angle."
The 78-by-30-100-inch work, which is in the
collection of Kenneth L. Freed, conjures some of Giacometti's
early Surrealist sculptures. Its pronounced rectilinearity is
in stark contrast to the nature of tree branches and the "gray
scale" denotes an absence of liveliness, a cold remembrance
of past life, but the work's structure also reminds the viewer
that trees provide the wood for a lot of human shelter. The wiry
and fragile appearance of the work belies its rigidity but also
reaffirms its individuality. The artist was born in La Mirada,
California, in 1967 and has had exhibitions at The Approach in
London in 2001 and Marc Foxx in Los Angeles in 2001 and 1999.
Visitors to the Whitney are confronted by "Matrix
IV," shown above and below, a light installation by Erwin
Redl that has three curtains of small bright lights, red and blue,
hanging from the cantilevered floors the museum into its moat.
The lights are LEDs and their use in such a large-scale installation
Sculpture, indeed, fares better in this biennial
than painting. One of the most striking works is "Payphone,"
by Robert Lazzarini, a 108-inch high street phone booth, shown
below, that is very askew, as if a photograph of it had been dramatically
tilted and shifted to a crazy perspective. The artist works with
three-dimensional computer models of his subjects and distorts
them in software and then fabricates them. The artist was born
in Parsippany, New Jersey in 1965 and has been exhibited at Pierogi
in Brooklyn in 2000 and 1998.
Another sculptural work of "distorted
reality" is "Band," a group of musical instruments
fashioned by Christian Marclay for an imaginary band of goliath
musicians. This highly amusing work, shown below, is, like Lazzarini's,
immensely impressive for its craftsmanship.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"Trained as a visual artist, Christian
Marclay has been an influential figure in the experimental music
scene since the 1970s, when he made pioneering turntable works
that paralleled the rise of the hip-hop 'scratch' technique. In
addition to his great contributions to DJ culture and improvisational
music, Marclay has created a large body of related work in video,
installation, and sculpture. Much of that work has been concerned
with the relationship between imagery and sound. Marclay's installation
Band consists of a group of fantastically distorted instruments
arranged on a stage under theatrical lights. Sculpturally, these
objects at times embody the performative or sonic effect of the
instruments they present, while at other times they wittily deflate
the instrument's conventional image. Drumkit, for example,
is a complete set of drums that has been elongated into a towering
monument to the drummer's stereotypically inflated ego. Virtuoso
is a sinuous, twenty-five-foot long accordion that visually captures
the respiratory nature of the much-maligned instrument."
The artist was born in San Rafael, California in 1955 and was
exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Paula
Cooper Gallery in New York and the St. Louis Art Museum in 2001,
the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 2000 and ArtPace,
A Foundation for Contemporary Art in San Antonio, Texas, in 1999.
"Payphone" and "Band" are
works that show that Surrealism has not lost its power.
Like many works in the Biennial, they have
a sense of humor as does the work of Hirsch Perlman, who is represented
by numerous photographs of a room in which he has created "figures"
out of moving material and the "figures" have seemed
to have suffered from at least a hangover in the best traditions
of Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist in the great movie, "Dead
of Night." His figures "occupy the room with him like
imaginary companions," the catalogue noted, added that "the
photographs that document these performances are shot - with a
pinhole camera also made form the packing materials - from the
figures' perspective as well as form Perlman's, creating a sensation
of fluid subjectivity." "The fact that he has brought
these figures to life doesn't stop Perlman from tearing them apart
again or even subjecting them to primitive forms of torture.the
work.has a dark undercurrent. Perlman's ambiguous, often violent
relation to his figural subjects recalls his own earlier work
concerning methods of interrogation.this work is extraordinarily
visceral, spontaneous, and direct." The artist was born in
Chicago in 1960 and has been exhibited at Blum & Poe in Santa
Monica, California in 2001 and the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in
New York in 1997.
Structure is a theme also explored in delicate
fashion by Vija Celmins in her lovely painting, "Untitled
(Web)," an oil on canvas, 15 1/4 by 18 inches, shown above,
executed in 2000 and in the collection of Lyn and Gerald Grinstein.
A depiction in limited gray palette of a spider's web, this is
a rather mystical painting. "Over the past thirty years,
Vija Celmins's art has been concerned with a narrow range of subjects:
darkly radiant night skies, mesmerizing ocean surfaces, and finely
detailed desert landscapes. Based on photographs, her paintings,
drawings, and prints present a vision of the natural world distinctly
devoid of human presence. Although her subject matter inspires
a sense of wonder, Celmins's artworks do not exploit the landscape's
easy sentimentality or romanticism. Rather, in their quietude
and restraint, her painstakingly crafted works magnetically compel
the viewer to move closer to investigate the artist's remarkable
technique and artistry," the catalogue gushed. The spiderweb
here is a bit like some of Gerhard Richter's candles, realistic
and a bit overpowering, curious, fascinating and mysteriously
wondrous. Clemins was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938 and has been
exhibited at the McKee Gallery in New York and the Museum fur
Gegenwartskunst in Basel, Switzerland, in 2001, the Cirrus Gallery
in Los Angeles in 2000 and the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London
Another work that has a strong organic sense
is Tim Hawkinson's "Mirror," a 76-inch high polyurethane
sculpture, shown above, only 2 inches deep, that has the appearance
of having been eroded and excavated from some ancient Egyptian
tomb. The work has an eerie but very tactile quality.
The catalogue provides the following commentary
on this work:
"Tim Hawkinson's art combines an almost
childlike naiveté with a very accomplished sense of craft
and technical prowess. Each of his works springs from a comparatively
simple concept that is played out to its most fantastical conclusion.
The end results are propelled by the artist's fascination with
gadgets and gizmos; he often creates new tools to produce his
images and forms, and many of his works are themselves rudimentary,
albeit extraordinary, machines. Hawkinson's intense, unrelenting
focus on mundane subjects pushes his work to the point of strangeness,
much like the children's game of repeating a familiar word over
and over again until it starts to seem incomprehensible and weird.
Mirror is a self-portrait in which Hawkinson represented
not how he imagined he looked, but exactly how his image appeared
in a mirror. 'I produced my reflection in three dimensions by
sculpting my self-image onto the surface of a mirror exactly as
I saw it reflected,' writes Hawkinson. 'The result was a three-foot-tall
'gnome,' seemingly grotesque and distorted but, from my original
perspective, quite accurate. I made four of the figures, cut them
into small cubes, and spliced the cubes together to 'grow' the
figure to life size. This accounts for its somewhat digitized
appearance.' While Mirror is a kind of practical experiment
in spatial perception, it is simultaneously a glimpse into the
distorting powers of an obsessive psyche. Alternately humorous
and disturbing, Hawkinson's work demonstrates the remarkable images
and forms that may arise when the material world is infused with
an unbridled human imagination."
While this work would not appear to have anything
whatsoever to do with machines and the ghostly "gnome"
would appear not to be an anatomically accurate, mirrored image
of the artist, it has considerable charm and its rubbery, scaly
surface seems to be something that Issey Miyake might fashion,
which is a very high compliment. The artist was born in San Francisco
in 1960 and has been exhibited at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden of the Smithsonian Institution in 2001, MASS MoCA in North
Adams, Massachusetts and the Power Plant in Toronto in 2000 and
the Ace Gallery in New York and the Akira Ikeda Gallery in Nagoya,
Japan in 1999.
Hawkinson has another work in the exhibition,
"Emoter," shown above, a mechanized face that changes
expressions. It is one of the more macabre but interesting works
in the show.
Another mechanized work that changes as you
view it is "If/Then" by Ken Feingold, one of the more
popular works in the show. It consists of two hairless talking
heads jutting out of a box of styrofoam. The heads are side by
side leaning backwards and facing in opposite directions. The
heads talk about their own existence and identity and their gender
is unclear. The artist was born in Pittsburgh in 1952 and was
exhibited at the Postmasters Gallery in New York in 2001 and 1999.
A different take on talking heads is 'When
I Close My Eyes," a performance by Karin Campbell in which
she sits in a gallery with her eyes closed but her eyelids are
painted with eyes. The artist, who converses with visitors during
her "performance, was born in San Diego, California in 1962
and exhibited at the Courtroom Project Space in Brooklyn in 1998.
Another work that is concerned with intricacy
is "Topologies (3-5.02)," by Anne Wilson, which consists
of fragments of black lace strewn about a very large white tabletop.
In the catalogue, the artist makes the following statement:
"I am deconstructing the webs and networks
of found black lace to create large horizontal topographies, 'physical
drawings' that are both complicated and quite delicate. This project
is a constantly unfolding process of close observation, dissection,
The artist also used a computer to scan and
alter lace patterns and the art work abounds in elegant tracery
and has a randomized structure that is organic but made stark
by its blacks and whites. The artist was born in Detroit in 1949
and has exhibited at the Aurobora Press in San Francisco and the
Revolution Gallery in Detroit in 2001, the Museum of Contemporary
Art in Chicago in 2000 and the Museum for Textiles Contemporary
Gallery in Toronto in 1999.
As pleasing as Clemins's spiderweb is and charming
as Hawkinson's gnome is and as romantic as Wilson's is, Jeremy
Blake's "Winchester" video is much more beautiful and
intriguing. It combines film, digital video and special effects
to represent the San Jose, California home of Sarah Winchester,
widow of the founder of the Winchester rifle company. The catalogue
notes that after her husband's death in 1881, Sarah Winchester
"believed that she was being pursued and punished by the
phantoms of those who had been killed by Winchester guns."
"In order to accommodate friendly spirits by providing them
with their own quarters, and to ward off evil ones with the noisy
activity of construction work, Winchester continually added new
rooms, stairs, and chimneys to her home over a thirty-eight-year
period, resulting in a sprawling architectural oddity," the
catalogue continued. It quotes the artist as stating that his
"intention in pursuing this work is to gently confront by
example the way in which American culture grieves and mythologizes
violence." The work is complied on a DVD and is shown courtesy
of the Feigen Contemporary, New York. It is very mesmerizing work
that in parts is like a vibrantly saturated and very animated
Morris Louis painting. The artist was born in Fort Sill, Oklahoma
in 1971 and has been exhibited at Feigen Contemporary in New York
in 2001 and 2000 and at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati
and the Schusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow in 2000 and Works
on Paper, Inc., in Los Angeles in 1999.
"Dinner at the Forbidden City" is
s 54-by-67-inch mineral pigment on rice paper painting by Yun-Fei
Ji that has a Boschian-cartoon-like imagery in the style of early
Chinese paintings but which also has an inconsistency of treatment
that is both intriguing and humorous. The artist was born in Beijing
in 1963 and exhibited at Pierogi in Brooklyn in 2001.
The exhibit is not all fun and games. A. A.
Bronson has a large lacquer on vinyl portrait of Felix Partz,
who died of AIDS-related causes in 1994, a few hours before Bronson
made the photographic portrait of him. Bronson and Partz and Jorge
Zontal had been the members of General Idea, a Canada art group.
Zontal also died from similar causes in 1994 and Bronson then
decided to retire the group and move to New York City making art
under his own name. With its very large scale, bold patterning,
asymmetrical composition and the staring eyes of the reclining,
robed Partz, this is a stunning work. The artist was born in Vancouver,
British Columbia in 1946 and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary
Art in Chicago in 2001, The Balcony in Toronto and Plug In in
Winnipeg and Secession in Vienna in 2000 and 1301PE in Los Angeles
Luis Gisbert has a rather delightful
work that shows three cheerleaders in green space and it is exhibited
in front of numerous objects fabricated by the artist that the
catalogue notes resemble "a cross between low-rider sound
systems and luxury furniture." "Set off from the surrounding
world, they look like spectacular swap-meet or car-show fetish
objects. 'They're a unique mix of ghetto-style and Danish Modern
design,' observes Gispert."
Chris Johanson has converted
Marcel Breuer's great staircase at the museum into a rickety,
cartoon-like sculpture, entitled "This is a picture about
a place we live in called Earth that is inside of this place we
call space," a detail of which is shown above, that is amusing
and folksy, but without the artistry that Red Grooms might have
brought to the space.
The $45 catalogue for the exhibition
includes a CD on the front cover with 13 recordings of "sound
art" that are part of show. Track 1, excerpts from "A
Step Into It" by Marilyn Amacher (b. 1946) is rather ominous
but has a great spatial sense. Track 3, "World Trade Center
Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd" by Stephen Vitiello
(b. 1964) has an intriguing creakiness that is eerie and fascinating;
Track 9, "Their Wildest Dreams," is an amusing and shocking
dialogue by Miranda July (b. 1974).
In his introduction to the
catalogue, Lawrence R. Rinder, the exhibition's curator, wrote
that "The events of September 11,2001, have accelerated a
process of self-reflection and debate that has been integral to
this country since its founding." "Americans have been
blessed with a remarkable capacity to imagine the unimaginable
and, more than that, a determination to achieve it. We desperately
need to call on that imagination and determination now....Even
before the events of September 11, I was convinced that there
was little need for works of art that lack a powerful sense of
conviction. It has not been fashionable to speak of sincerety
as an important attribute in works of art, yet nothing seems more
urgent than to know one's own heart and to speak one's own mind
as directly and honestly as possible. Pehaps beauty and irony
are luxuries of peacetime, something to cherish as much as unrestricted
travel and life without gas masks. Yet for many artists I encountered
over this past summer, there seems to have already been an awareness
of the need for art to perform some greater role than mere decoration
or ironic critique....Stylistically, the American art world is
as eclectic, or pluralistic, as it has ever been....I noticed
a number of intriguing tendencies. Especially among the younger
artists, the recent fascination with super-high-end production
values has been supplanted by a more spontaneous, do-it-yourself
aesthetic. In addition to the ongoing influence - both in content
and form - of the Hollywood film industry, comics have become
a major inspiration to artists of every generation. Much as many
young artists play in bands as well as making visual art many
also self-publish their own comics, zines, or graphic novels...."
The lead article of the Arts
& Leisure section of The New York Times March 31, 2002
was an article by Roberta Smith whose subhead read "The Whitney
Biennial is a sign that museums are becoming irrelevant to new
art." This provocative article maintained that that the exhibition
was "bleak, pious, naive, monotonous, isolated and isolating"
and included "little in the way of painting and photography,
and not much color anywhere." "It's the diffusion biennial,
populated by artists who just want to have fun, hang out, do good
or promote a mild-mannered social agenda," Smith continued,
adding that "The result is an exhibition that is largely
devoid of visual excitement" and "underscores contemporary
art museums' ever warmer embrace of late-late-late Conceptual
Art and conceptual-based-object-making" and "how much
of this art tends toward exhaustion and extreme derivateness."
Despite Smith's diatribe, museums
are not irrelevant and while much of "new art" is not
capable of sustaining deep metaphysical reflection the biennial's
huge net does capture some interesting fish and even one choice
morsel can make joy and as indicated above this biennial does
have some nice morsels.