Monday, April 12, 2010

Inside the Whitney

My walk through the 2010 Whitney Biennial began on the fourth floor and went downhill from there, though not quite so negatively as that may sound. In a show devoted to ways of experiencing space, there are also connections with human presence. One of the fascinations of re-viewing these works on the internet is that many of the pieces are more effective on my display than in actual fact, and that the most striking piece of all comes across as barely credible on the museum's website.

First off the elevator was a large hemp and jute tapestry by Piotr Uklanski (no image available). There is a recent time and tradition in which tapestry was bold in its imagery and reflected its roots in primitive traditions. Untitled (The Year We Made Contact) is such a tapestry and it comes across now as dated, monotonous and far too big for its wall. By contrast, Still, Untitled, Pae White's tapestry one floor down is modern in its execution but looks back even further in history to the 16th and 17th century tapestries woven at the Gobelins workshops in Paris. The same size as the tapestry a floor above, White's images of curling smoke activate the space rather than kill it. The fact that it is machine woven is so little evident that I at first took it for a painting, which is to say that the technique did not call attention to itself.

Some rooms/spaces at the Whitney are devoted to a single artist. Charles Ray's big flower paintings make a nice grouping, though each one could certainly inhabit a space of its own. Ania Soliman's NATURAL OBJECT RANT: The Pineapple, a frieze of collages and text that line the pink-painted walls of a small square room, describe the economic, politcal and ecological cost of the pineapple industry in Hawaii. The images were small enough to draw me in and spin me around the room. By the time I'd finished, I felt distinctly that I too had been sliced and canned, and was drawing personal parallels between the pineapple industry and the processing of viewers in blockbuster shows.

A site-specific installation by R.H. Quaytman that references an adjacent window by architect Marcel Breuer makes good sense visually, but on the whole this is a humdrum Biennial with much derivative work. Roland Flexner's 30 sumi ink drawings that have been mentioned by another writer as magical may have been so in the studio, but the presentation - overmatted, framed and gridded - snuffed the life right out of them.

Now almost a week later it is the breath in other pieces that stays with me: the heart-breaking photographs of Afghani women, by Stephanie Sinclair, Self Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help; the indifferent-to-human-pain smoke in White's tapestry; the hilarious video, Detroit, by Ari Marcopoulos of a couple of kids making noise rock in their bedroom. Standing in a small darkened room with this one is to know what it's like inside an adolescent boy's head: The Noise! The Color! The Lights! That's primitive, that's brash, and that for me made the show worthwhile.

Photo credit: No photos allowed of the Biennial art, but someone had left a closet door open, a stand-in for installations everywhere.

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