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2006 Whitney Biennial

Day for Night

Whitney Museum of American Art

March 2 to May 28, 2006

By Carter B. Horsley

The Whitney Biennial is always cluttered with a lot of pretentious junk by trendy artists on the contemporary art scene but invariably lends up a few interesting works that if not revolutionary, or innovative, at least are artistic.

The shows usually include some "big" names, and often serve to "make" more public names for some previously known only to the cognoscenti.

The contemporary art scene is pretty incomprehensible to the uninitiated and usually requires expository assistance by some very glib interpreters, which is to say that many, if not most, of the works on display are difficult to understand on their own.

This Biennial is accompanied by a very thick catalogue that is quite challenging with multiple essays and 99 fold-outs that are uniformly unappealing and require cross-referencing to an index because their placement in the book does not correspond to the artists represented on the immediate adjoining pages. The foldouts are a visual essay entitled "Draw Me a Sheep," according to the show's curators, Chrissie Iles of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Philippe Vergne of the Walker Art Center. The foldouts' title comes from the second chapter of Le Petit Prince, the 1943 book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in which an aviator in the Sahara is asked by a little prince to draw him a sheep. "In this spirit of irresistible absurdity, each artist has been given a four-panel foldout in which to respond the following question: If you could crystallize the last two years in one image, one word, one piece of text, one object, wha would it be?" the curators explain in an introduction. The fold-out notion is ambitious but too awkward to decipher as it is only hidden "between the pages" in the catalogue.

While it is a relief that the catalogue does not suffer from art-director surfeit, freshmen (and freshwomen) may not have the fortitude or wits to decipher all its content. While it does not, unfortunately, reproduce all the works in the show, it does have good essays on all the artists and a representative reproduction. It is dense and difficult, as are most of the works in the large exhibition, which is not light-hearted and rather dark in spirit, perhaps reflecting its theme of "Day for Night," the American transation of the title of Francois Truffault's 1973 film "La Nuit Americain," a reference to the fact that night shots in many films used to be filmed during the day with filters.

"Glory" by Nari Ward

"Glory," by Nari Ward, oil barrels, ultraviolet and fluorescent lights, computer parts, plexiglas, fan, camera casings, audio element, towerls, and rubber roofing membrane, dimensions variable, collection of the artist, 2004, courtesy Deitch Projects, New York

Several critics have commented on the fact that this is the first Biennial to have a stated theme, albeit one that is pretty all-encompassing. Luckily, generalities and themes are not always pertinent or applicable when it comes to capturing the current art scene and some works and artists stand out from the pack.

Probably the most impressive and satiric work in the show is "Glory," a sculpture by Nari Ward (b. 1963) that incorporates oil barrels, ultraviolet and fluorescent lights, computer parts, plexiglas, fan, camera casings, audio element, towerls, and rubber roofing membrane. The 2004 work, shown above, "addresses contemporary political events in a wry and disturbing way," the catalogue notes, adding that "consisting of three battered oil barrels welded end to end, turned sideways, and split in half, the sculpture is opened to reveal the mechanisms of a tanning bed." "Inside," the catalogue entry continues, "there is a mesmerizing audio element appropriated from an English-language training CD for parrots. The glass surfaces of the bed have been covered with stars and stripes, enabling a user to burn the motifs of the American flag into his or her skin. Crowned by the seal of the United States of America, the contraption is the ultimate representation of heated post 9/11 nationalistic fervor. Like all of Ward's works, Glory raises questions about our history, our culture, what we cherish, and what we abandon."

Works by Matthew Monahan

Installation view at Anton Kern Gallery, New York, 2005, by Matthew Monahan

The artist who clearly displayed the most consistent talent was Matthew Monahan (b. 1972), who was represented by a large collection of small sculptures that unfortunately were not reproduced in the catalogue, which showed an installation view from 2005 at the Anton Kern Gallery in New York.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"An exploration of the human figure - its insides and outsides, beauties and grotesqueries - unites the diverse work of Matthew Monahan. His large-scale transfer drawings, executed by incising carbon paper with a pencil, fork, or palette knife, are reminiscent of blueprints: architectural structures, abstract designs, and human bodies are densely arayed on the surface like intricate cross-section diagrams. The precise, finespun subtlety of these drawings finds its counterpoint in Monahan's widely inclusive sculptural assemblages, made of beeswax, floral floram, and encaustic and bedecked with glitter, hardware, twine, wire, and small objects (a tiny paint-brush, a five-dollar bill). The sculptures reference a profusion of sources, including Buddhism, the occult, robotics, classicism, and modern design: one figure alludes to the modeling in ancient Greek sculpture, and another recalls a voodoo doll. The artist speaks of 'a brutal materiality edging toward spirituality' in his work, and indeed, despite the gory, inside-out features of many of his forms - some heads are bound, others spill brains or sprout tumorlike growths - Monahan's installations often resemble totems or small altars."

The second most charming work in the exhibition is "Kite Wars," by Jennie Smith (b. 1981), a huge drawing in which adorable tiny creatures are represented as kites flowing in a considerable breeze across a quite large piece of paper. The figures are quite small for such a large field and as one "reads" them one is reminded somewhat of the process of unfurling Chinese scrolls. The process is made even more intimate by the faintness of the drawing that requires close attention and discovery. "A variety of creatures, both real and fantastic, populate Jennie Smith's graphite and watercolor drawings. Individual animals appear in small, delicately rendered compositions, while in larger drawings, they are aassembled into formal structures suggesting narratives of collective action and ecosystems."

Perhaps the most impressive work in the exhibition is "Los Moscos," a large 2004 work by Mark Bradford (b. 1961). The catalogue suggests that it "distantly recalls Piet Mondrian's allusion to Manhattan in his late painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), adding "Yet Bradford's paintings, like the topography of South L.A. are far less rectilinear. Evoking impermanence, they appear scattered, as if puctuated by vacant lots and plots awaiting development, making a grittily beautiful and dynamically sensual exchange between the studio and the streeet." "His multilayered and vibrant paintings are built up using commonplace materials such as translucent paper, string, magazine pages, tape, and colored stationery and often incorporate remnants of 'street spam' advertisements for workers 'living under the radar of formal business.'"

"Glint" by Kori Newkirk

"Glint," by Kori Newkirk, artificial hair, pony beads, aluminum and dye, 92 by 84 by 48 inches, 2005, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego

If Monahan's creations are dainty in size but strong in content, Kori Newkirk's "Glint" is large in size but dainty in sensibility and content. It consists of a rectangular frame from which are suspended pony beads and artificial hair with aluminum and dye. The 2005 work measures 92 by 84 by 48 inches and is in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. It is a handsome shower-curtain-like work that has "nighttime scenes from both urban and suburban settings" and the catalogue notes that the ability of his work "to be recognized, all at once, as painting and sculpture, representation and abstraction, reveals the complex territory in which Newkirk's art operates, where stereotypes can be shattered as easily as parting a curtain." "Although cultural references emerge in his recurring use of pomade and plastic pony beads, both used to style black hair, as well as the color white, with its connotations of race and pristine environments, the symbolic possibilities of these elements are always matched by their formal elegance," the catalogue maintained, adding that "while easily discernible from a distance, the curtain's image breaks down into sculptural abstraction upon closer viewing."

"Glint" does not have the rippling glitter of the tall gold bead curtains at the Four Seasons restaurant, but it is also not a threatening cage.

Another artist whose work stands out is Yuri Masnyj (b. 1976). His installation piece is pure Deconstructivism, "filling the gallery with architectural panels, 'aesthetic objects,' and graphic elements," the catalogue maintained, adding that "Constituting a drawing in space, the work challenges the boundaries between media and, in the process, invites us into a fictive world in ruins that has all the ambiguities of our real one."

1st Light by Paul Chan

"1st Light," by Paul Chan, digital animated projection onto floor, 2005, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

One of the more entrancing installations is "1st Light," a digital animation by Paul Chan (b. 1973) that is projected at an angle onto the floor. The work is in the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"In 1st Light (2005), Chan invokes religion as he speculates on the mechanisms of faith and belief. Here, a silent digital animation is projected onto the gallery floor. Simulating the knd of diffused and schematic imagery that might be cast - in light and shadow - through a glass window, the work offers a post-9/11 version of the Rapture. An electrical pole invokes both the everyday and the transcendent, its tangle of wires thwarting our reading of it solely as a crucifix yet insisting on the ubiquity of that form. As the rapturous ascension appears to take hold, a number of items are loosed from gravity's grip: cell phones, cars, sunglasses suddenly float upward and outward. Yet, impsobbily, as these signifiers of material possession are rendered buoyant, human bodies begin to fall toward the ground in poses we know all too well from recent events, as though in pointed opposition to any dream of salvation."

"Untitled (Shirts 2)" by Troy Brauntuch

"Untitled (Shirts 2)," by Troy Brauntuch, conté crayon on cotton, 63 by 51 inches, 2005, Collection of alberto and Maria de la Cruz, courtesy Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Troy Brauntuch (b. 1954) is represented in the exhibition with three large paintings, the best of which is "Untitled (Shirts 2)," which was executed last year. The works are ghostly and evocative. "In his most recent work," the catalogue maintained, "Brauntuch investigates that infrathin space between a thing and our idea of it. Continuing to lean on the photographic as such even while utilizing a variety of media, he is able to play with yet another layer of mediation. In his conté crayon works on black cotton, the images feel as though they were conjured from the deep recesses of phantasmic dspace. What appear at first to be monochromatic canvases reveal photo-derived images....that coagulate and rise to the surface, barely there. In his photographs, everyday objects assert their ephermerality, and a tangible, intimate silence seems as much a part of the pictures as the simple domestic scenes they convey."

Artists' Tower for Peace

"Artists' Tower for Peace," by Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija

The north sunken court of the museum is filled with "Artists' Tower for Peace" by Mark di Suvero (b. 1933) and Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961). In 1966, di Suvero designed the "Artists' Tower for Peace" for the Artists' Protest Committee in Los Angeles and it was erected on a vacant lot on the corner of La Cienega and Sunset boulevards. "Dismantled and dispersed at the end of its three-month lease, today it is a largely forgotten event in the history of art and activism," the catalogue notes, adding that "The nearly 50-foot-high multicolored steel structure was an experiment in effective political protest that sought new ways to organize in a nonhierarchical fashion and to create a media spectacle. More than four hundred 2-foot-square artworks (participating artists included Elaine de Kooning, Leon Golub, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein and Mark Rothko, among manyothers) were displayed, democratically, on a 100-foot-long billboard wall that stretched around the tower....In many respects, Peace Tower (2006) remains true to the spirit of its predecessor; following Tiravanija's reconception of the project, di Suvero redesigned and constructed the steel tower, which rises out of the Museum's courtyard well; some 300 artists, included those involved in the original tower, were invited to contribute 2-foot-square panels to hang on the walls of the well and on the tower itself."

Still from "Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula" by Vezzoli

Still showing Gore Vidal in "Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula," 2005, by Francesco Vezzoli

The Whitney's Biennials are not for the prudish and squeamish and the most spectacular work for those not prudish and squeamish is Francesco Vezzoli's "Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula." It is a sumptuous, gaudy, explicit romp in debauchery that surely would have played to standing room only crowds on 42nd Street a generation ago. It is a very convincing "epic," "big," "Hollywood" costume, occasionally, affair and really stars Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Toro, Milla Jovovich, Karen Black, Michelle Phillips and Courtney Love, all in costumes designed by Donatella Versace. Vezzoli (b. 1971) plays, according to the catalogue, "on a dark fascination with the luster and decadence of celebrity and the treadmill of fame and extends a whole tradition of artists, from Andy Warhol to Douglas Gordon, dealing in their work with Hollywood and cinema....Vezzoli's practice merges a studied melancholy derived from Italian film directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti with the high-camp seduction of contemporary popular entermtainment, with its contsantly changing roster of pop stars, realty TV shows, and celebrity magazines."

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