The show everyone loves to hate

Short review of the Whitney Biennale

The Whitney Biennale is a show everyone loves to hate. A general discontent directed towards important exhibitions hangs over any appreciation of individual works. As in, what else can art do to change the world? In a show where most visitors spend less than a minute on average to see a work of art, a strong testament comes from the gestalt of modernist abstract painting. Its reincarnation in some of the works rewards them with modern art’s aestheticising character. The message is not aimed at confrontation. Rather, most of the works chosen seek an integrative dialogue between context and form, between the politics of the present moment and forms of contemporary art. Indeed, behind aesthetically divergent works, there lurks a spirit of protest that engages the fears and uncertainties spawned by current events.

Alexandra Bell, Friday, April 21, 1989 – Front Page, 2019, from the series No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter, 2018-2019. Photolitho and screenprint on paper, 22.5 × 17 in. (57.2 × 43.2 cm). Collection of the artist

Take for example Alexandra Bell’s reprinting of frontpage headlines from the New York Daily News that chronicle the paper’s coverage of the 1989 Central Park Five case, in which five teenage boys of color were wrongly convicted of assaulting and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. Bell redacts photos by blocking them–think of Malevich’s black square over a tabloid front page–to draw our attention to headlines and text. Seen all together, the heavy presence of black squares alludes to the media’s perpetuation of the systematic racialized violence against black bodies.

Installation view of the Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019). Third Party Transfer and the Making of Central Park (Seneca Village – Brooklyn 1853-2019), 2019. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Tomashi Jackson’s layered abstractions made of found materials—paper bags, food wrappers, vinyl insulation strips, and storefront awnings—recall the combines of Robert Rauschenberg. Their lighted surfaces refract the blue silhouettes from the transparencies onto surrounding spaces. They form a rubble of shadows that simulate demolished tenements. Her paintings presented in the Biennale focus on housing displacement in New York by drawing images from the history of Seneca Village—which was founded in 1825 by land-owning Black laborers and razed in 1857 to make way for Central Park.

Nicholas Galanin, White Noise, American Prayer Rug, 2018. Wool, cotton, 84 × 120 in. (213.4 × 304.8 cm). Image courtesy the artist. Photograph by Craig Smith

Nicholas Galanin’s White Noise, American Prayer Rug weaves the image of static on a television set into a prayer rug, typically used as a mobile site of devotion in Islam. His work probes the fundamentalist rhetoric of right wing American politics which the artist compared to a continuum of white noise, a dissociative vibration that appears when signals are lost. The radical devotion to this construct of whiteness based not only on complexion but also capital and blind belief, according to the artist, has “obliterated the voices and rights of generations of people and cultures.” 

The appropriation of modernist abstract forms, once thought to be passé, allows a glimpse into its potential as a technique of social analysis and political dissent. The works incorporate not only the look of radicalism; they empower the viewer to respond to social issues. They prove that these forms not only thrive on conceptually conditioned boredom. Hate it or love it, it’s an arsenal in artmaking that offers a critical diagnosis of contemporary life.

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