1.11 / Review

2010: The 2010 Whitney Biennial

By Patricia Maloney March 24, 2010

Verbal reports of the current Whitney Biennial, simply entitled "2010," seem to note two characteristics: the significant inclusion of work by women and the understated, even staid, quality of the exhibition. The two should not be conflated, as many of the outstanding works in the exhibition are contributions from women, who comprise more than half of the artists in the show. Instead, the cause of the Biennial’s malaise can be traced to curatorial decisions about placement, juxtaposition, and contextualization.

The word that came to mind while walking through the three floors dedicated to the Biennial was facile; the curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari traffic in the most overt relationships between selected works, whether in form or content, with seemingly little concern for individual historical trajectories and influences. I felt bludgeoned by the superficial conflation of disparate narratives; ascribing the date as the title of this exhibition does not sufficiently affix all the contemporaneous political, social, economic, and aesthetic influences to the works on view. And so, instead of the assembled works of 2010 ascertaining a sense of history-in-the-making, one needs to disregard the suggested narratives imposed by the exhibition layout (not to mention the wall labels) and engage the work on individual terms.

In this way, one could get past the summation that Sarah Crowner assembles blocks of painted canvas in response to traditional notions of domestic labor, and instead revel in how the thread exposed seams of Untitled [Continuum 1963] (2009) defy Op Art’s hard edges and illusionism. The modernist legacies (including ones about craft practices) Crowner inherits may have come more readily to the fore had the work been situated adjacent to Lesley Vance’s small-scale abstract paintings. Vance applies wet paint with a palette knife to create luminous still lifes. Both Crowner and Vance take on the re-negotiation of spatial representation that dominated twentieth century Western painting without fully shouldering the burden of such historical weight. They rely on subtle gestures—recorded in stitch or stroke—to push and pull one through space.

In their essay, the curators suggest that the works “reflect(s) a sense of politics as being built through personal encounters

Lesley Vance. Untitled (12), 2009; oil on linen, 18 x 15 in. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

 

Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Couch For a Long Time, 2009; couch, newspaper, ceramic, 76 x 29 x 35.5 in. Courtesy of Small A Projects, New York, and Derek Eller Gallery, New York. Photo: Dan Kvitka.

and dialogue,” but they fall far short in making the proper introductions. To place Nina Berman’s photographic series “Marine Wedding” (2006/2008) on the wall behind Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ Couch For a Long Time (2009) does not propose an aggregate statement about the distortions that nationalism and militaristic propaganda promulgate about protecting the home front. Instead, it renders grotesque the physical and emotional plight of a badly wounded veteran by simplifying his ordeal into a narrative of stoicism and domestic dysfunction—his altered body juxtaposed against the misshapen vessels-as-surrogate-bodies found resting on Hutchins’ papier-mâché covered sofa.

The suggestion made in the exhibition catalogue that we’ve entered into a new era, one that allows “people to focus on their intimate concerns again,” does not resemble the political and cultural climate I recognize in 2010. And there is little to suggest that optimism is shared amongst the artists in 2010 either. The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s We Like America and America Likes Us (2010) combines an invocation of America as an alternately neglected and battered woman with a montage of pop cultural video clips played on the windshield of a painted Cadillac hearse. It is a misogynist allegory that doesn’t hold up except under the most revisionist history lessons, but the idea that our current moment more closely resembles a postmortem than a recovery is apt.

However, the two pieces that most evidently defy the proposed return to “intimate concerns” are by Marianne Vitale and Michael Asher. Vitale’s propagandist video Patron (2009) ostensibly extols the virtues of “Neutralism” while in fact barking absurdist commands and demanding viewers to “accept this humiliation” and “take this medicine.” Viewers were not so much watching as standing at attention. Despite its authoritarian stance, however, insecurity about what power there is to be had slips out: “We’re all taking care of something even though we don’t know how.” Meanwhile, Asher’s contribution is more accurately described as a negation, in which the artist proposed the amount budgeted for his contribution instead be allocated to keeping the Biennial open 24 hours a day for a week. While the duration has been reduced to three days, even this gesture gives significant credence to a need for sustained engagement between artist and audience.

Finally, Kate Gilmore’s (full disclosure: I’ve curated her work in two exhibitions) in situ video Standing Here (2010) is not simply about the isolation of socially imposed constraints, although that is a pertinent consideration. Watching the artist first squeeze into, then punch, claw, and climb her way up through a narrow vertical corridor while clad in dress and heels, I realized that the work is also about accepting risk. Gilmore’s video threw into sharp contrast the lack of risk taken by the curators. Bonami and Carrion-Murayari assembled a group of works without putting themselves on a limb in terms of what they meant or could mean, denying the complexities of the works at hand or the moment in which they were produced, and reducing a viewer’s ability to engage with the exhibition. 

 

2010: The 2010 Whitney Biennial is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 30. 2010.

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