Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Whitney Biennial

The Whitney Biennials are landmarks in my memories of being a nerd obsessed with art in NY. I will confess up front that I am now becoming one of those annoying old persons that reminisces about how much better things were back in the day, or so I must seem to my graduate and especially undergraduate students. And what I am about to start kvetching about will be pretty predictable when I say that my favorite Biennial ever was the one known as "the political biennial."

I also can reminisce about the days when the lines were all the way to Park Avenue, people got falling down drunk or smoked joints in the garden during the openings, and much more! This year, the biggest news was the enterprising food vendors who parked along 75th Street selling slices of pizza and desserts! From Satyricon-like excess to country-fair type refreshments? Is this symptomatic of the corporate, Disneyfied, mall-like NY we now live in?

I went to the opening because a former student has a good job at a museum (academics don't count in the hipsterati scene, unless they work at the SFAI with Hou Hanru, probably) and she put me on the list. This allowed me to participate in one of my favorite sports: giving out fashion citations. The looks were by and large generic hispterati all black, corporate attire (indicative of the main constituency administering and purchasing art today), youth emulating the worst 1980s fashion that I rocked in High School and College (see my posts labeled Fashion Citation for description of 1980s Fashion Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome), and myriad bad tattoos, ironic mullets, men clad in what looked to be faux Monty Python Knights of the Round Table garb, a woman wearing an abject green croched hat that looked like a Jackie O pillbox designed by Mike Kelly, and one of the Curators, Shamim Momin, in a very Loni Anderson in WKRP in Cincinnati clinging strapless number that didn't at all contain her her cleavage.

The woman who won my grand prize for BEST outfit was a petite blonde with a bob, round 1930s intellectual glasses (very Trotsky, sigh), a Chinoiserie jacket and a Philip Treacy feathered headdress which was very homage to my Idol, Isabella Blow. That made up for the festival of tacky outfits. A note on demographics: there were many many pregnant women (including one who looked about 9 months pregnant and was, inexplicably, rocking pseudo Christian Laboutin 6-inch high stilettos and a red satin babydoll mini dress), and bald men (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Before I begin to bitch, let me mention that I have to return to see the videos carefully because there were way too many crowds. A future post (for the 3 of you who actually might be reading this) will discuss the second venue.
Eduardo Sarabia's "The Gift," (pictured isn't the work in the Biennial, but it gives an idea of the elements in the piece) was the work I liked best (again, given that I have yet to give the videos and the other venue their due) and I hated most of what I saw. Sarabia's installation looked like a down-at-the-heels bodega meets curio shop. I read it as a pun on the "enormous vogue for things Mexican" in the 1930s-1940s, the unequal relationships between post-NAFTA Mexicans living in Mexico or as immigrants in this country versus the purchasing power of US Americans and their role as tourists. The installation presents a series of at first glance typical Mexican items such as pottery, and food stuffs familiar to (some) of us in the US -the latter represented by cardboard boxes labeled "Maizena" for example. To make the meta references to globalization, tourism, commerce both quotidian and artworld-related, a little give-away artist book labeled "Order Catalogue" listed each of the objects with the prices (in the 1-10 thousands range). In this way, a parallel was drawn between the price-driven nature of the contemporary art market, art as commodity first and foremost, and the politics surrounding trade and immigration. Even more meta-ironic is the fact that the funder was JUMEX.

The objects were tweaked so that for example the patterns on the ceramic urns were, instead of abstracted floral arabesques or Chinoiserie type decorations, images of naked women, guns etc. so murders of women on the border, drug trafficking or La Migra might come to mind. And at the same time, other objects - sculptures of a woman, reminded the artsy viewer of Jeff Koons' sculptures of his then wife Cicciolina, and the cardboard boxes labeled with typically Mexican products reminded one of Mike Bidlo's Brillo boxes. Perhaps the references to 1980s early 1990s artists wasn't accidental either, since in the 1980s and early 1990s there was a "boom" in the market for the work of the so-called Neo-Mexican artists, who included many references to Mexican crafts, indigenous customs, and daily life in their work.

And since I mention Bidlo, his boxes were a kind of leitmotif in the show, I have no idea why but there were cardboard boxes everywhere, most labeled with product names.

Daniel Joseph Martinez "Divine Violence" 2007. I was very excited to see this artist since I treasure my little badge (it says, appropriately, "EVER WANTING") from the piece he did for the political biennial "I CAN'T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE." One walked into a room that resembled a mausoleum or group of cemetery niches. Each gold-flecked plaque bore the name of a group that uses violence as part of its strategy to attain political goals. These included Los Macheteros, Puerto Rican Nationalists, and the nationalist terrorists fighting for an independent Basque Country, ETA. Since I am a pacifist, who believes all nationalism is fascist and racist, I was struck by the ambivalence of the piece. Was Martinez suggesting that the era of such groups was over? That their work leads to death? That they are heroes that should be memorialized?

Rodney McMillan "Untitled" 2007. McMillan's work led my fabulous friend, a curator at a major museum who is just as catty as I am, to continue playing our game of "what if this was a question in our Orals?" because there were so many art historical references being made by these artists. It was rather an ordeal, frankly, to try to recognize them all. The repetitiveness of some references, such as the Bidlo, made it somewhat less exhausting. Here, I think everyone can see Kusama, Oldenberg, Louise Bourgeois.

Heather Rowe "Screen (for the rooms behind)" 2007. Rowe's work suggested a mass cultural reference that also proliferated in the Biennial - the HGTV/TLC/"Flip This House" aesthetic. This is fitting given the artists' demographic and the particularly New York obsession with real estate. Several works looked like a home under construction. Another perhaps related aesthetic had to do with installations that looked like, well, trash. This recycling aesthetic is also found in the New Museum show "Un-Monumental," as many reviewers have commented.

Carol Bove "The Night Sky Over New York, October 21, 2007." Returning to the art historical references, my friend and I gasped when we saw the above work by Bove, because it looks exactly like the "Penetrables" by the late Jesus Rafael Soto (created in the 1960s and until 1997). It in fact resembles one that is in the collection of the MFA Houston, and below is an image from the Museo Soto in Venezuela.

However, the Bove is meant to be walked around, while the Soto, and this is its greatness, is meant to be walked into and through, as you see below. This comparison raises an issue often discussed by art historians looking at modernities and the fraught issue of "delayed" reception of Modernist styles that are regarded as models to be emulated. Often the work of, say, Picasso, is first encountered as a magazine photo, for example. So many aspects of the Picasso's proposal are not evident to the artist who will be inspired by his work.

Phoebe Washburn's installation "While Enhancing...." 2007 reminded me very much of Luis Benedit's 1973 work "Phytotron" (1972-1973) which created a hydroponic environment for plants and was shown at MoMA as a Project in 1973 and in a new version at "Inverted Utopias" at MFAH Houston. Edward Leffingwell described this and other early 1970s works by Benedit as "harbinger for environmental art" ("Latin American Modern," Art in America, Oct. 2004).

This is it, for now. In summary, I hated it.


AK said...

Dios mio! You should just have your own page 6 of the NYT! I love it! What an incredible writer AND arbiter of good taste and kitschness you are!

Did I tell you my Boricua friend is teaching me Brujeria?

Petite Maoiste said...

So glad you like it, I was pretty proud of my comparison of the curator with Loni Anderson ;)