The Whitney Museum has this go-round revisited some of the same thematic territory as 2008’s Biennial though to better effect and reception; the last was criticized as prosaic, political, depressing, familiar and while the same adjectives could be applied to the newly opened 2010 Biennial, the applications and extensions of these themes is strikingly dissimilar. Much ado has been made that over 50% of the artists here represented are women and I do not want to undercut the significance of that statistic– especially in a medium such as a Biennial which tends toward the realm of phallocentric, overreaching, esoteric contemporaneity; however, it is the tenor of this year’s Biennial with its correlative imaginings emphasizing interiority, accountability, domesticity and mutability that distinguishes the show as more cohesive, less alienating, “feminine” than past offerings. To be sure, the requisite abstractions–largely paintings– round out the survey, but they are scattered and not particularly distracting or lessening to the impact of so much psychological, questioning art which comprises this relatively small Biennial.
“My Life Without Me”: Paintings, drawings and photographs of homes confront ideas of distance between people and their places: the concept of the unheimlich, transience, subcultures, domesticity, the balancing act of fixing one’s identity through environs without dissolution. Paintings like George Condos’s “Integrated Forms” which depicts the human form melding into the forest behind and Maureen Gallace’s series of Hopper-esque, New England homes with the details and people erased contrast the human need for attachment to the material without the inherent devaluation and homogeneity. James Casebere’s chromogenic prints of elaborately modeled communities have the subtext of the recent “foreclosure epidemic” and Dawn Clements’ intricately rendered drawing of a “fallen” woman’s room illustrate the restrictions of identity and class, the imprisoning aspect of domestic spaces and societal norms.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: Note-worthy sculpture inclusions–as with several paintings on the second floor, like Aurel Schmidt’s oft-shown minotaur interlaced with trash and random objects, “The Master of the Universe/ Flexmaster 3000” and Robert Williams’ series which combines popular art elements from California subcultures like auto-body shops and R. Crumb’s comics from the 1960s into works such as “Beyond Ferocious” and “Tommy Tomato Horse Knife (A Forest Apparition)”–play up the absurdist aspect of our fears of the unknown and herald man’s transformative aspect and beauty in ugliness. Huma Bhabha’s totemic sculpture manipulates detritus to illustrate the mundane, dead/static objects reconfigured into a new form, reborn. Thomas Houseago’s “Baby” reveals himself to be forlorn, white-washed and groping, an inchoate creature, helpless despite his size.
“Ecotropisms”: Some of the abstractions, both large- and small-scale, explore the instability and unknowability of our natural world, and the tendency to project the familiar onto it in order to ameliorate destructive or unfamiliar elements. Roland Flexner’s series of small landscapes (made by floating sumi ink on water or gelitin to result in the marbled, random images) functions like an old-fashioned sampling while being wholly modern in its timelessness and chaotic nature. Piotr Uklanski’s massive “textile painting” of layered jute and other natural fibers invites the viewer to contemplate the dystopian facade: the aggressive red, bubbling circle against the neutral backdrop, the shroud-like layers transforming the durable jute into something more intricate, web-like, a storied space like one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells. This expressionism is also present in works like Lesley Vance’s abstracted still-life painting series and Pae White’s “smoke tapestries”, her fabric “Still, Untitled,” belying the longing for permanence, the process of becoming.
“Americanisms and the Final Frontier”: Two particularly impressive and arresting works rounding out the Biennial are the collaborative pieces by Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, “Better Dimension”, and Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “We Like America.” The first is a free-standing structure with paintings and words (borrowed from the “polemical broadsheets” of the 1920s magician, Black Herman, and his influence on Sun Ra’s jazz) covering the exterior walls, sliding partitions opening to reveal an interior with seats for the viewer to sit and watch the abstract, glass-slide paintings projected around the perimeter while in the center JFK’s head floats, revolving around an lp. The latter plays with American iconography by commandeering a hearse and projecting Youtube videos on the windshield, the voiceover intoning our resilience despite our weaknesses, the postmodern exegesis of our collective history. Uncertain but hopeful pioneers of alchemy, mythology, music, nature, technology, history, space.