The Whitney Biennial reputedly seeks to represent the tenor of current American art. Toward that end, this Whitney Biennial presents novel concepts at representation and abstraction that contemporize past formal conceptualizations. With news coming at us so fast, it is difficult not to portray past events, relegating current topics to history. This Biennial is relevant and courageous in unveiling truth and reminding us of the importance of remembering the recent past and remaining informed of that past and its impact on the present.
“Triple-Chaser,” 2019, Forensic Architecture’s documentary film of Warren Kanders’ firm, Safariland was well-presented and critical to current debate in the arts and museum community. Warren Kanders is the Whitney Museum board’s vice chairman and chairman and CEO of Safariland, the firm producing the tear gas that is the target of demonstrations by the members of the Decolonize This Place movement, advocating for Kanders’ removal from the Whitney’s board. That film, with facts backed by charts and statistics, documented the impact of tear gas canisters and bullets produced by Safariland and the harm to victims of tear gas and documenting those who manufacture the product.
A collaborative at Goldsmiths College, University of London (working with Laura Poitras and Praxis Films) comments on and brings awareness to a U.S. company that causes harm and destruction worldwide from the Mexico-U.S. border at San Diego and Tijuana to Gaza where Safariland bullets and tear gas have been used. This excellent, informative, truthful film underlines the present concern with the ethics and politics of people serving on museum boards, donating money toward exhibitions and the museum’s acceptance of those funding sources. The Whitney Biennial should be applauded for the courage to bring this film to the public amid the ongoing controversy surrounding Kanders’ position as Vice Chairman of the Whitney board.
A high point of the biennial was Ellie Ga’s high definition color videos, “Gyre 2 (Tama)” and “Gyre 3 (Walking)” (both 2019) were one such point, exploring the spiraling ocean current that circulates debris and throws it to the shore. These beautifully constructed videos resulted from blending views of beachcombers after Japan’s 2011 tsunami with oceanographers’ accounts of container spills and the history of migration in the Greek islands and brought home the point that we are polluting our oceans and land.
I did love Gala Porras Kim’s “La Mojarra Stela and its Shapes,” created in 2019 from graphite and ink on paper, film on Plexiglas and mahogany wood. The mesmerizing Plexiglas discs on pedestals, which the artist would like the viewer to believe are La Mojarra Stela 1 — a mesoamerican, carved monument, from the year 156, containing untranslated Epi-Olmec glyphs — offer us possible approaches to translation including mirror-interpreting reflections. Backed by Epi-Olmec glyphs on a long sheet behind the discs, I stood exploring possible translations and associations with other forms of writing, but also appreciating the formal characteristics of another culture’s calligraphy without knowing the meaning.
Kota Ezawa’s “National Anthem” series of small watercolors of black football players becoming the frames of large-scale animations (including Colin Kaepernick kneeling), accompanied by a string ensemble’s recording of “The Star Spangled Banner,” did not benefit from the use of animation, which, cartoon-like, trivialized the topic while the images, projected on a huge screen, were overwhelming. Sam Levi Jones, in the show he curated in 2017 at Galerie Lelong, treated the Kaepernick protest with better art. Repeated silk-screened images of Kaepernick kneeling instilled the idea that we all were kneeling, initiating conversation and thinking about the incident.
The treatment of gymnasts and all that entails, body awareness and Russian cheating at the Olympics are the same issues of years ago that unfortunately, are current as well. Alexandra Bell’s montage of clippings of the Central Park Five, wrongfully convicted in 1990, made me remember these incidents.
Similarly, Marcus Fischer’s audiotape recorded before Trump’s 2017 inauguration, including the words “white supremacy” and “denial of science,” alerted me of the president’s words that had not yet become action, and consequently, of the importance of listening to language. I liked Josh Kline’s small, glass-enclosed installations, including his photographs upon which water and other natural forces appeared to destroy and overtake buildings harboring technology and government. These included “American Flag, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C.;” “Front Desk, Twitter Headquarters, San Francisco;” “United States Capitol and Deck” and “Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, Menlo Park” (all 2019).
Several artists used fabric in their work. In Robert Bittenbender’s “Sister Carrie,” detritus made of entangled fabric, metal and street junk appeared haphazardly thrown together. The artist said it incorporated a “funky East-Village-garbage aesthetic.” In his 2017 installation, “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” Mark Bradford, the U.S. representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale, artfully and intentionally exhibited detritus and discarded clothing with a clear message: that the homeless and poor were throwaways.
The Whitney wrote in the accompanying text to Eric N. Mack’s floor-to-ceiling fabric jumble, “(Easter) The Spring/The Holy Ground,” that the acrylic, dye and moving paper on blanket “maximize the qualities of fabric — its opacity, colors and texture,” making the piece about the formal qualities of fabric. Only Matthew Angelo Harrison’s “Dark Silhouette: Traversed Vision,” a wooden sculpture of West African tinted resin, anodized aluminum and acrylic, really combined “hybrid forms to address globalization and pan-Africanism, resulting in what the artist calls ‘abstracted ancestry,’” as the placard explained.
Nicole Eisenman’s “Procession” installation, a collection of her sculptures taking up the entire roof of the Whitney looked hastily assembled and uncared for, made clear by the sign she made for the back of her truck, on which a figure rests sporting New York Giants socks. It reads, “HOW’S MY SCULPTURE, CALL 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Perhaps the lack of care in making her sculpture reflects her non-caring attitude regarding the public reception of her installation. Eisenman’s “Pole Bearer,” a larger-than-life-size sculpture, depicts a figure leading another figure on all fours held under a pole, with a figure beating cymbals on his back. What is the music celebrating? Are we not to care about the meaning, but only the parade?
The best sculptures here are Diane Simpson’s abstract sculptures of painted fiberboard, crayon, polyester and copper tacks, including “Lambrequin and Peplum” and “Peplum IV.” Abstraction, intentionally non-representational and non-referential, is interpreted by the viewer, not alluding to the artists’ prejudices or political or social choices. These tall sculptures remind me of Fritz Lang’s tower in “Metropolis,” leading me to wonder if that is the association intended by the artist. Are we drawn more to an untranslatable language because spoken words can be dangerous? Are we safer admiring the spectacle, the form and the fabric? Are we afraid to speak, to show, to care? Is this Biennial a testament to that fear?
(To visit the Whitney Biennial 2019, the Whitney Museum is located at 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, New York. The biennial is on view through September 22. Hours are Monday–Thursday from 12–9 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday from 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m.–10 p.m. and on Sunday from 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Same day tickets are available at the museum or you can order ahead online at whitney.org.)