At the Bronx Museum: Another Biennial Sets Out With Heart, But Leads With Resumes

by Whitney Kimball on August 8, 2013 · 0 comments Reviews

The AIM Biennial at the Bronx Museum (Image courtesy of the Bronx Museum)

In its thirty-three year run, the Bronx Museum’s AIM (Artists in the Marketplace) Program has touched a surprising extent of the New York art world. It’s rare to go on a gallery tour in this city without coming across one of its alumni, who range from establishment members like Glenn Ligon and Anton Vidokle, to rising stars like LaToya Ruby Frazier and David Gilbert. And now, AIM’s second Biennial “Bronx Calling”—a recent development for program alums—adds 73 new members to the roster. It’s a truly diverse showing of New York City-based talent getting its first leg up into the art market. As far as the commercial art world is concerned, AIM is the Bronx Museum’s most significant contribution to New York art. So why aren’t people talking about this?

It’s problem is mainly that “Bronx Calling” does everything it set out to do, and nothing beyond that criteria. First off, this year’s biennial is spread across New York in four parts (Randall’s Island, Midtown, in the South and North Bronx) which ideally creates both a presence within the Bronx and the Chelsea-based art world. But there isn’t enough art to fill those spaces with impact, and without a curatorial structure, the sole unifying artistic goal becomes professionalism.

The show in the Bronx Museum’s single gallery, for example, feels a little like leftovers. A mishmash of sculpture, painting, installation, and video loosely resembles popular successes like Ryan Trecartin, Wangechi Mutu, Shirin Neshat, Sarah Sze, or Jessica Stockholder. Quickly, you’ll fall into a steady rhythm: Allison Wall juxtaposes a stain painting, with a video of how it’s made (with her body). Diana Shpungin’s animation Figure and Ground references both literal and figurative “ground” with a shovel digging into a penciled texture. Wade Schaming’s Twin Towers sculptures give new meaning to stacks of post-consumer Kleenex and sandwich containers. Duron Jackson uses imprints from hooded, muscular black models to comment on race and shared history. Most everybody sets out with a vision for art, an observation about culture, or a social issue.

The show paints a picture of an earnest group diligently applying art to shared problems, but rarely do they galvanize or shift our attitudes. You can’t really blame the AIM Program for this; the formula gels with a pre-fab art-making which is cultivated virtually everywhere else and simply arrives at AIM for polishing. Art, through this lens, is wholly without intrigue.

Seldon Yuan and Tatiana Berg, at the Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery (Image courtesy of the Bronx Museum)

We’re told, for example, that Robert Raphael’s ceramic boxes use “the material of porcelain as a subtly powerful signifier of gender,” and that Miya Ando makes patinated gradients on steel because she descended from Japanese swordsmiths. Material is farmed like a magic Truffula Tree, which neatly takes on whatever meaning it’s assigned. The process reminds me of the framing around Olafur Eliasson’s 2008 Public Art Fund work The Waterfalls, which came with a forty-or-so-page instruction booklet for teachers, with clues on how to read an artwork. “Where else might this material be found?” it would ask, with lined pages allotted. Whittle down your environment into a neat package, rather than experiment toward something you didn’t already know.

That said, several of these works could benefit from more time, and a different show. In the Bronx Museum, Jacolby Satterwhite manifests an emotional response to his mother’s drawings through a professional-grade 3D-rendered animation. In Reifying Desire, he depicts himself flying, and shooting what looks like lasers at topless women, whose 100-foot-long braids fly around in the air. The special effects are so fantastical, and so detailed, that it almost distracts from the content; on close inspection, it looks like a visual demonstration of what you think of when someone says “random.” Some variety could go a long way toward advertising Satterwhite’s exceptional technical skills.

Seldon Yuan’s houseplants work especially well in the Avenue of the Americas Gallery (which is actually the gilded lobby of UBS’s corporate headquarters, which is kitty-corner from MoMA). Yuan has carved lines of a poem into different leaves of a live plant, so that you can read the plant as you look at it. A few of the leaves read “a drawing of a sunrise is just a drawing/ a photo of a sunset is only a photo.” I’m not totally sold on the poem itself, but the gesture comes across as a quiet attempt to sneak meaning in, rather than just announcing it.

In the social department, though, nobody rivals Alicia Grullon, who begs the camera for spare change in her video Five Speeches. Regular MTA riders know them all: defensive, apologetic, hopeless, uplifting, and entertaining. “I live in a homeless shelter and need some food for me and my kid,” she explains in the first speech. “No, I don’t qualify for social services, I don’t have an address.” In another, she tries hopelessness, reading off a piece of scrap paper: “I was just released from prison ten months ago, and my mother has recently died.” By the end, she’s strumming a guitar and singing an off-tune Amazing Grace. “Nothing’s keeping me warm,” she says, “Except for that smile.” She smiles. It had the power of Adrian Piper flatly telling us “I’m black” in her video Cornered: she scrutinizes a situation with such cold directness that neither viewer nor artist has anywhere left to hide. In this version, art’s not a job, but something closer to life.

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