Frederick Charles photograph of Joe Bradley’s installation at the Whitney at Time.com wins the award for least representative image of the Biennial. Any other shot in the museum would have included four or five works due to the nature of the exhibition design.
Looks like it’s Whitney Biennial day here at AFC. My own write up on the show will be posted later today, but in the meantime Richard Lacayo’s recent review prompted several hundred additional words on the subject. Part of the reason for this, is that he does an excellent job of touching on all the major talking points of the show. The critic begins with a thorough account of the Biennial and the difficulties curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Monin were likely to encounter — namely a history begetting negative reviews — and goes on to describe the aesthetic of the show while expressing some tripidation.
Like a lot of people, I also hate what the market has done to the experience of art, substituting the verdict of cash for every other judgment. But when I first heard that this year’s Biennial would be heavy on humble art, I winced. Small potatoes is a dish that the art world circles back to every decade or so, usually out of revulsion against a gluttonous market. The go-go gallery salesrooms of the 1960s led to the rise of deliberately unsalable performance art and earthworks. And the 1993 Biennial, the first to follow the Reagan-Bush era, featured work that its catalog solemnly promised “deliberately renounces success and power in favor of the degraded and the dysfunctional.
And then there is today’s wave of success-renouncing, degradation-favoring art, much of which takes the form of listless flotsam-assemblage sculpture, things built from chunks of Styrofoam, torn cardboard or bits of twisted wire. It’s piled together with some measure of deliberation, but who can tell how much? Its heart may be in the right place, but it emits an awfully faint pulse.”
Art made with the intent of rejecting the market can suck in its own unique ways, so it’s no surprise that it’s return should see an uneasy welcome such as the one above. It may be fairly obvious to state, but I would add that, unlike 60’s performance art and earthworks, from all outward appearances, humble assemblage, installation art, and performance doesn’t represent a less salable object in 2008. Even with the Park Armory space, by my count, close to 70% of this year’s Biennial artists have gallery representation, which can only mean that dealers are finding ways to make art ephemera of almost any kind appealing to collectors.
The question Lacayo and many others have on their lips is whether the unofficial Biennial theme of “lessness” amounts to much in the end. Not that this is necessarily the case of nay sayers, but I’ll admit that if the only thing I’d seen taking this approach was The New Museum’s Unmonumental and The Whitney’s Biennial, I’d probably have a fairly grim outlook on the prospects for art. Certainly these shows have given me pause, neither effectively displaying the work or necessarily even finding the best of it. By contrast, New York’s commercial galleries have been more successful this year launching unmonumental-esque shows. While the large size of the Biennial undoubtedly makes the job a little more difficult, Bellwether’s brilliantly organized three part exhibition series curated by Becky Smith and Joao Ribas could be no better testament to the success seen within the commercial world, as was Gagosian’s Beneath the Underdog, curated by artists Nate Lowman and Adam McEwen last spring. Notably New York Times critic Holland Cotter named this show one of the best gallery shows of the year.
Lacayo never definitively weighs in on the value of “lessness” (though it’s clear he’s not completely convinced), preferring instead to discuss the works he responded to. The critic stumbles a bit here though, leaving out a few assessments that would have been helpful to the evaluation of the work. For example, Lacayo does a good job at describing artist Heather Rowe‘s sculptures as “wooden frameworks” with bits of broken mirrors and molding, that create “memory mazes” and comparing them to Gordon Matta Clarke’s sawed houses, but doesn’t ask how they compare with her other works. The answer to that question unfortunately is poorly. Oversized, and with less interesting due to a smaller amount of her trademark molding, painted, or mirrored crannies, these works simply don’t deserve the attention her exhibition at D’Amelio Terras in the summer of 2006 received. Similarly Lacayo discusses Joe Bradley’s colored canvases arranged in the shape of men without asking how they have progressed over the years. Again, the answer is not well. Personally, I’m sad to see his sloppily stretched canvases, and awkward colored surfaces be replaced with bright colors and techniques that make references that were already there such as Ellsworth Kelly and Joel Shapiro all the more obvious. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still seeing wavy canvas lines at the corners, but the irreverence seems to have been lost.
Lacayo also mentions painter Robert Bechtle, one of the first photorealists as a notable in show, though no word on their placement in the gallery was given. The fact that these works practically disappeared amongst the bric-a-brak placed directly in front of them is no small point.
The only art work the Time Magazine writer openly questions is Agathe Snow’s 24 hour dance party, this year’s social performance/relational aesthetics target. Coincidently, while he describes the piece, Lacayo never names the artist, nor does he adequately describe the work, failing to mention the dance lessons she holds each day prior to the event. With that said, I too have a hard time grasping why we should think about this kind of work as art, though I suspect if this came as part of an e-flux announcement as opposed to a Biennial appendage most of us would be less likely to attack it. To her credit, curator Henriette Huldisch gives one of the most concise and easy to understand explanations I’ve read to date on this work in the second half of an interview with Lacayo earlier that week “What art does is transform ordinary materials into something else. That’s what those artists are doing. They’re just using different kinds of materials.” Also despite all appearances, like anything else, you have to experience it to be able to comment on its artistic validity. As it turns out I missed this opportunity, the last lesson taking place March 14th, the party occurring, on the 15th. Next time I’ll have to plan these write-ups a little bit more in advance so I can speak about some of the events.