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Whitney Biennial 2004

Whitney Museum of American Art

March 11 to May 30, 2004

"Beetle Manifesto IV" by Tam Van Tran

"Beetle Manifesto IV," by Tam Van Tran, chlorophyll, spirulina, pigment, staples, binder, aluminum foil, and paper, 92 by 91 by 12 inches, 2002, collection of the artist, courtesy Cohan and Leslie, New York

By Carter B. Horsley

The Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art is a huge and popular affair that usually is exasperating and exhausting and crowded with far too many photographs of little merit. Photographs continue to be in evidence, albeit without much improvement, this year, but the 2004 Biennial has some quite interesting and intriguing works of considerable intellectuality and beauty and impressive technique. It also has a formidable catalogue filled with many provocative essays as well as commentary on the artists.

Perhaps the most striking work in this exhibition is "Beetle Manifesto IV," by Tam Van Tran (b. 1966). This work is made of staples, chlorophyll, spirulina, pigment, binder, aluminum foil and paper and measures 92 by 91 by 12 inches. Executed in 2002, it is like a patch from an giant Amazon's tattered evening dress, gently crumpled and frayed.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this Vietnamese-born artist who lives in Redondo Beach, California:

"Tam Van Tran's artworks extend the boundaries of both painting and drawing, using a range of materials and techniques to create abstract compositions whose references sweep from the microscopic to the boundless. His earlier paintings were acrylics on canvas; more recently, he has placed a greater emphasis on materials, using crimpled paper, stables, hole punches, and pigments infused with organic matter such as chlorophyll and spirulina to create works that often feature wavy protrusions, lending them a sculpture presence. The combinations of natural and industrial materials parallels the associations most visible in Tran's works. Earlier works emphasized fragmented grids of acrylic connected by then lines, set against uniformly colored backgrounds, which wee inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting yet evoked compute networks, city plans and futuristic architectural structures. Most recent works, including an ongoing series of large-scale drawings collectively titled Beetle Manifesto, eschew the space-age references for an intimate focus on organic matter, conjuring forests, leaves and microscopic views of cells. For these latter works Tran draws on large swaths of paper that he cuts into thin strips and then sutures back together with thousands of staples; irregularities in the labor-intensive process often warp the artwork and push his drawings into the third dimension. The arcing tracks of holes punched into the paper appear as if they were made by the mouths of the insects implied in the title. The use of natural materials offers Tran a back-door entry to natural references, while his art remains engaged with issues of abstract painting. He sees that the filigreed lines of connectors on a computer chip are visually similar to human veins or those of leaves. He shifts back and forth between the industrial and the organic, the abstract and the representation, and the delicate and the roughly handmade, holding them all in a protective tension."

"Airborne Event" by Fred Tomaselli

"Airborne Event," by Fred Tomaselli, mixed media, acrylic and resin on wood, 84 by 60 inches, 2003, lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and the collection of John and Amy Phelan, fractional and promised gift

Another "labor-intensive" work is "Airborne Event," a mixed media, acrylic and resin on wood by Fred Tomaselli (b. 1956), one of three works by the artist in the exhibition. A mixed media, acrylic and resin on wood that measures 84 by 60 inches, it was executed in 2003 and lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and the collection of John and Amy Phelan, fractional and promised gift.

"Tomaselli," according to the catalogue entry on him, "arranges pills, leaves, insects, and cutouts of animals and body parts into deliriously multifaceted patterns and ornate floral designs. He often incorporates drugs over-the-counter medicine and prescription pharmaceuticals, as well as street drugs and marijuana leaves into his compositions, with the patterns and designs of their arrangement suggesting the expanded fields of perception and the heightened visual experiences induced by their consumption....In his most recent works, Tomaselli has expanded his compositional technique, moving away from pattern based-works to more figurative compositions, using tiny photocollage elements."

The figurative compositions do not work as well as the pattern compositions, but they are both impressive.

"Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity Rainbow" by Zak Smith

Four images from "Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thoms Pynchon's Novel Gravity Rainbow," by Zak Smith, 755 drawings in various media, each 5 by 4 inches, 2004, Collection of the artist; courtesy Fredericks Freiser Gallery, New York

Easily the most impressive work in the exhibition is "Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow," a series of 755 drawings in various media, each 5 by 4 inches, by Zak Smith (b. 1976). Filling a huge wall at the Whitney, it is difficult to view each drawing but there is no question that Smith is a virtuoso draftsman. The drawings are in many different styles and most are stunning.

"His work," according to the catalogue, "demonstrates a deconstructed neo-punk aesthetic conversant in comic-book style drawing, vivid psychedelic coloration, experimental photographic processes, and traditional draftsmanship.Central to his work is a balance of seemingly disparate aesthetic modes. Using visual elements from painting, drawing and photography, Smith achieves a hybrid effect that vacillates between sober realism and electrifying abstraction. Many of these individual images have also appeared as decorative backdrops for Smith's portrait works, calling attention to a sense of play between these different modes of representation."

Hopefully some publisher will publish an edition of Pynchon's novel with all of Smith's drawings. Many of the very small drawings are very, very detailed. Smith is very, very talented.

"Empirical Construction, Istanbul," by Julie Mehretu

"Empirical Construction, Istanbul," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 120 by 180 inches, 2003, collection of the artist, courtesy The Project, New York and Los Angeles

The multiplicity of Smith's images is mind-boggling. Julie Mehretu (b. 1970) is another mind-blower. Her 2003 "Empirical Construction, Istanbul," an ink and acrylic on canvas that measures 120 by 180 inches, is a labyrinthine tour de force of great dynamics.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this artist:

"Julie Mehretu's complex paintings and drawings layer and compress data gleaned from our media-saturated lives into coolly rendered, mostly abstract compositions. Architectural plans, newspaper clippings, mall escalators, cartoon fragments, maps, and graffiti morph into points, lines, planes of color, arrows, and small explosions. Despite incorporating as many as six layers of acrylic paint, silica, vellum, rapidograph pen marks, and other materials on each canvas, the works remain diaphanous, reminding us that much of what she renders in intangible. Her busy tableaux evoke the methods through which data, people, and money now travel across continents with unparalleled ease. A multitude of small energy flows and interactions take place, leading the viewer's eye across each composition as we attempt to pick out recognizable fragments. There is a political aspect to Mehretu's investigation of how local and international structures, economic or otherwise, almost invariably represent specific ideologies. Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001) combines renderings of sports stadiums, airport plans, city buildings, and grand staircases, flattening hierarchies among them to present a cacophony of organic lines and shards of color. Excerpt (Paradigm) (2003) lays expressive brushstrokes over city maps of the capitals of every country in Africa."

"Double Recursive Combs (red and black)" by James Siena

"Double Recursive Combs (red and black)," by James Siena, enamel on aluminum, 29 1/16 by 22 11/16 inches, 2002, Collection of David and Nancy Frej; courtesy Gorney Bravin + Lee, New York

One of the most elegant works is "Double Recursive Combs (red and black)," is an enamel on aluminum by James Siena (b. 1957). The 29 1/16-by-22 11/16-inch work was executed in 2002 and is in the collection of David and Nancy Frej. "Attempting to simultaneously retain the gap between conception instruction and manual execution," the catalogue noted, "and to critically respond to abstraction's demand for a self-referential formal procedure, Siena employs diverse strategies to produce complex structures that further his personal exploration of the definitions of visual language."

While Siena's algorithmic abstractions are in the Minimalist tradition, they have more color, density, substance and beauty than similar compositions by such artists as Agnes Martin.

"Hamlet" by Amy Sillman

"Hamlet," by Amy Sillman, oil on canvas, 72 by 84 inches, 2002, Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Committee

"Hamlet" by Amy Sillman is a strong and vibrant oil on canvas that measures 72 by 84 inches and was purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art last year.

The catalogue provides the following commentary on this work:

"Hamlet reveals Sillman's interest in novel representations of landscapes. The multiple horizon lines depicted in the work act as a nonlinear narrative device, allowing the painting to be read both from left to right and top to bottom. In the uppermost level, a town or hamlet emerges from the body of a sleeping hermaphrodite (with an erect phallus) whose profile is integrated into the land. For the artists, this level represents fertility, life, and hope, dominated by bright curving lines tightly packed together, that flows into the middle passage. Sillman's use of dark blues and grays and impastoed rectilinear forms in this section evoke a dense, compacted sense of space and refer to conflicted psychological state. The head of the figure lying at the base of the layer, his body a thin red line dividing the canvas, consists of a yellow clock face, whose disarrayed numbers allude to time in a state of chaos. In the bottom register, a third figure lies face down. The head explodes in bursts of color, representing death and decay. The three layers in the work bring to mind frames of a filmstrip. Taken together, the framed spaces suggest a physical passage from life to death, and a psychological journey from hope to despair. Oscillating between varying psychological states, the cartoonlike characters in Sillman's Hamlet can be seen as both tragic and comic, not unlike those in many of Shakespeare's plays, in particular the one referenced in the painting's title."

Although this composition is confusing, the central section is particularly striking and conjures a crystalline and very dense Yves Tanguy world.

"Untitled" by Lecia Dole-Recio

"Untitled," by Lecia Dole-Recio, paper, vellum, tape and gouache, 84 by 94 inches, 2003, collection of the artist, courtesy Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

A nice visual companion piece to Sillman's "Hamlet" might be a large untitled work by Lecia Dole-Recio (b. 1971). The 2003 work consists of paper, vellum, tape and gouache and measures 84 by 94 inches and is in the artist's collection.

"Dole-Recio's use of a knife is key," the catalogue maintains, adding that "She begins by taping or pasting together several layers of cardboard, butcher paper, watercolor paper, or vellum and painting of drawing over the top layer. Then she hand-carves geometric holes into the surface, revealing the various strata and giving her work an optical depth. The cutout circles, squares, and rhomboids slightly smaller than the holes they came from, are then imperfectly pasted back into the composition and painted over. The many rows of these incisions form loose grids across the surface.Dole-Recio's labor-intensive process bridges traditional categories of art-making. A sculptural cutout that makes a shadow by pushing away from the surface of one artwork may simply be a drawn or painted representation of a shadow on the next. This element of surprise encourages the viewer to consider each work more fully. Dole-Recio's visual gamesmanship merges material and process to ensure that her abstract works are not always what they seem."

"Dreamcatcher" by Katie Grinnan

"Dreamcatcher," by Katie Grinnan, chromogenic color prints, ink-jet prints, polycarbonate resin, foam rubber, magnets, steel, cel paint, wood, rope, plaster gauze, tissue paper, feathers, string, acrylic tubes, corduroy, shells and tile, 2003, collection of the artist, courtesy ACME., Los Angeles

A nice, arresting companion piece to the untitled Dole-Recio is "Dreamcatcher," a mixed media work by Katie Grinnan (b. 1970), much of which is suspended from a ceiling. It depicts "an upside-down forest scene consisting of photographs shaped as vegetation, rope and electrical wire fashioned into vines, and corduroy fabric arranged as mud on the floor," according to the catalogue. "Incorporating photographs of rain forests, deserts and lawns, the installation is a sculptural abstraction representing Grinnan's memories of traveling in Costa Rica as well as her surroundings in California," it added.

"Ten Yards" by Rob Fischer

"Ten Yards," by Rob Fischer, mixed media, 54 by 174 by 80 inches, 2003, collection of the artist

Notions of chaos and detritus are evident in "Ten Yards," a mixed-media work by Rob Fischer (b. 1968) enclosed in a glass-walled dumpster that measures 54 by 174 by 80 inches. This dumpster is very neatly packed with furniture and house parts and no evidence of dust and dirt normally associated with non-glass-walled dumpsters. One could argue that an empty glass-walled dumpster might well be a strong artistic statement.

The catalogue provides the following interesting commentary on the artist:

"Rob Fischer's sculptures balance mobility and the desire for escape with an inextricable bond to place. Often made from parts of transport vehicles in the past he has used airplane wings, flatbed trucks, boats, and trailers and scrap materials, his psychologically fraught assemblages make reference to architectural structures outside the gallery spaces in which they are exhibited. Unmoored from a landscape in which they might provide shelter, Fischer's sculptures do not quite reach architectural scale: they toe the line between disciplines as improvised, semi-inhabitable discrete objects. Viewers can enter his constructions, which are often created on-site and modified during the course of an exhibition, but they are given only piecemeal clues as to the works' fitness for human habitation. Instead, the ram-shackle dwellings' shortage of domestic trappings suffuses Fischer's art with an uneasy bleakness.Fischer's constructions are made entirely by hand, often reusing or recycling elements from earlier pieces, and the history of each scrap or spare part is embedded within the works. Their pathetic strivings toward mobility suggest a desire to shake off the burden of place; they fail not only as habitable constructions but also as a means of escape. Fischer's unsettling, enigmatic sculptures look toward a future laden with the aura of his materials' past lives and the places from which they have come."

"Fireflies on the Water" by Yayoi Kusama

"Fireflies on the Water," installation with 150 lights, mirrors and water, by Yayoi Kusama

There are several room installations in the exhibition and the most dazzling is "Fireflies on the Water," by Yayoi Kasuma (b. 1929), a 2002 installation that measures 115 by 144 by 144 inches and consists of mirrored walls, 150 lights and water. It has been purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittneborn Miller.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about the artist:

"Since the late 1950s, Yayoi Kusama has used painting, performance, sculpture, and installation to develop a highly personal formal vocabulary that combines repetitive elements such as net and dot patterns with organic and often eroticized sculptural forms. Her early paintings and collages extend the language of Abstract Expressionism and its concern for allover compositions into an intimate form of gridded space. By the early 1960s Kusama had begun to produce her Accumulations everyday objects such as chairs, tables, and clothes densely covered with hand-sewn, phallic protrusions. Around the same time, Kusama began to paint net and dot patterns onto household items, and in 1965 she combined all these elements in the installation Infinity Mirror Room Phalli's Field (or Floor Show). In Infinity Mirror Room a dense field of polka-dotted phallic protrusions extended from the floor of an enclosed space. The walls of the environment were lined with mirrors, leaving only a small passageway into the center of the installation empty. For the installation Kusama's Peep Show (1966), the artist constructed a room whose walls and ceiling were covered with mirrors, while the floor was densely filled with glowing electric lightbulbs in different colors. Two small windows allowed the viewer and Kusama to peer inside. Continuing her obsessive, almost psychedelic approach, the installations suggest a kaleidoscopic mode of perception, in which interior rooms contain unbound, seemingly endless spaces. By the late 1960s, Kusama began to stage performances, sometimes covering her naked body, or others' bodies, with patterns. In the early 1970s, Kusama returned to Tokyo; she voluntarily entered a clinic for the mentally ill, where she has remained ever since. She has continued to produce work at a prolific rate, remarkable in its consistency. Her obsessive arrangements, her often radically eroticized alterations of everyday objects, her fascination with infinity, and the all-encompassing nature of her work have remained at the core of her production. In her most recent works Kusame continues to create reflective interior environments. Fireflies on the Water (2002) consists of a small room lined with mirrors on all sides, a pool in the center of the space, and 150 small lights hanging from the ceiling, creating a dazzling effect of direct and reflected light, emanating from both the mirrors and the water's surface. Fireflies embodies an almost hallucinatory approach to reality, while shifting the mood from her earlier, more unsettling installations toward a more ethereal, almost spiritual experience."

Everything Will Happen" by Jim Hodges

"Everything Will Happen," by Jim Hodges, cut chromogenic color print, 72 by 48 inches, 2003, the Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz Collection, courtesy CRG Gallery, New York

Another quite beautiful and delicate work is "Everything will Happen," a cut chromogenic color print, 72 by 48 inches, by Jim Hodges (b. 1957) from the Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz Collection: courtesy CRG Gallery, New York. Unfortunately the catalogue reproduction does not do it justice as the cut white leaves appear in three dimensions almost like blossoms.

"Jim Hodges's sculptures and drawings transform simple, ordinary materials into beautiful, accessible objects that allude to both the evanescence and persistence of life," according to Debra Singer's catalogue comments. "In his poetry of the everyday, slowness is literalized as Hodges tries to mark and track time through meticulously crafted work: fine brass chains are linked together to form progressions of delicate spider webs, silk flowers are stitched together into vibrant hanging fields, mirrors are hand-cut and reassembled into patterned mosaics, photographs of trees mutate into sculptural 'drawings' as the outlines of leaves are partially cut out and left to dangle as tendrils."

In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, Adam D. Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney wrote that "This Biennial in part takes its cue from the cultural climate of post-9/11 America and reveals tendencies that the exhibition's three curators Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin, and Debra Singer have perceived through their assiduous and attentive consideration of art of the last two years." "With ears to the ground and, more important, eyes on the work, the curators extrapulated from the art to develop the ideas behind this exhibition. While the Biennial represents the work of individual visions, it is also more than that. Given that the curators themselves come from somewhat different generations, it is not surprising that the leitmotif of this Biennial is intergenerational dialogue, a conversion that is based on distinct commonalities and threads of influence extending in both directions from older to younger artists, and vice versa."

In their introduction to the catalogue, the curators wrote that:

"the 2004 Biennial suggests that another significant sea change in contemporary art may be under way. This change has arguably been catalyzed by the seismic global political and economic shifts that took place throughout the nineties, culminating in the events of September 11, 2001, and its continuing aftermath, which marking the beginning of a new millennium. During the early 2000s we have witnessed a rejection of the excessive values of the late 1990s: a conspicuous consumption that dwarfed that of the 1980s; scandals of corporate greed; the dot-com collapse; a crisis in the world financial system; and an unprecedented interdependence in the political and economic landscape. Whereas the early 1990s embraced the end of the cold war and looked towards a new, highly technologized future with optimism, the current economic, political, social, and artistic climate is dominated by anxiety, fear, and an uncertainty whether this generation is up to the daunting challenges posed by this new present. While not necessarily reflected in the content of the art we saw, the dramatic social and political upheaval of the past two years has clearly triggered a profound response among artists of all ages. If the body became a major subject in the 1990s as its materiality was challenged by the virtual space of technology, in the following years it has reasserted itself as a relentlessly physical presence, manifested with renewed intensity in the painted mark, the drawn line, and new ways of defining surface, image, geographical location, and social space. An engagement with process, and a desire for immediacy and intimate communication are present throughout the show, in work that is by turns fantastical, political, obsessive, formal, abstract, and narrative. A certain modesty and an interest in low-tech materials and media, whether in painting, drawing or film suggest a reaction against the highly produced slickness of the late 1990s and an increasingly skeptical attitude toward technology and the utopian hopes for its positive global impact. Many of the Biennial artists mine references ranging from science fiction to fairy tales, comic books to music culture, creating a fluid, emancipated space for the imagination. Their work is characterized by the mapping of an invented interior world, or the metaphorical exploration of the abstract, nonlinear environment of cyberspace, to investigate new belief structures that might replace those of the contemporary world that appear increasingly bankrupt."

In her catalogue essay, "The Way Things Never Were: Nostaglia's Possibilities and the Unpredictable Past," curator Debra Singer wrotes that:

"That the late 1960s and early 1970s have become such an important touchstone for younger artists should not seem so unexpected. It is arguably the last political decade a period when civic activism and popular culture merged on a massive public scale. By delving into the aesthetics and events of this earlier period, artists displace contemporary problems, anxieties and hopes into visual lexicons borrowed from a psychologically more remote past, rendered less traumatic with the passing of time. The artists' various methods for incorporating historical references can be understood within a continuum of earlier postmodern art practice based on tactics of appropriation. Many artists from the late 1970s and early 1980s made work that directly referred to other images borrowed from advertisements or films and was primarily concerned with questioning notions of artistic originality and authenticity. Similar to these precursors, much new work today seeks to replace and supplant previous meanings of the appropriated imagery while tending to take on a different set of issues and references than their artistic precedents. However, today, new tactics of appropriation are often characterized by a far greater specificity of cultural or political reference that was generally present in the earlier work, and the artists tend to employ labor-intensive processes that emphasize the materiality of the art object and convey a more intimate style of direct address.

Still from "Reading Ossie Clark" video by Jeremy Blake

Still from "Reading Ossie Clark," by Jeremy Blake, digital animation on DVD, color, sound, 9 minutes, collection of Ellen and Steve Susman, courtesy Feigen Contemporary, New York.

There are numerous video works in the exhibition, but most seem monotonous and indulgent with the exception of "Reading Ossie Clark," a fine nine-minute work by Jeremy Blake (b. 1971) that is in the collection of Ellen and Steve Susman. Ossie Clark was a British fashion designer in the 1960s and excerpts from his diary are read by "art world doyenne Clarissa Dalrymble, as a sequence of almost psychedelic images morph into one another. Details of Clarks's fabrics designed by Celia Birtwell appear in bright colors that evoke the multicolored lettering of Clark's diary, in which each word or phrase was written in a different-colored ink."

The exhibition is sponsored by Altria.

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