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Whitney Biennial 2002

Whitney Museum of American Art

March 7 through June 26, 2002

"Bluff" by Roxy Paine

"Bluff," stainless steel tree, by Roxy Paine

By Carter B. Horsley

If the Whitney Biennial is a good reflection of what is exceptional in contemporary art, then the state of contemporary art in 2002 is pretty sad as the vast majority of works exhibited this year are puerile and without much merit.

The biggest show in two decades, this biennial highlights the works of 113 artists in a variety of media and there is more architecture, performance, Internet and "sound art" in this biennial than ever before. If the overall verdict for the biennial is disappointment and ennui at what mostly is a ghastly mess, a few works, nonetheless, are outstanding and memorable.

The finest work is Roxy Paine's "Bluff," a 50-foot-high, stainless-steel tree that is being exhibited on the eastern edge of Central Park's Sheep Meadow as well as in a much smaller model at the museum. The highly realistic but leafless tree, shown at the top of this article, is wonderful and is deserving of remaining permanently on exhibition at its location in Central Park and hopefully some patron of the arts will acquire it for that use and the museum will somewhat finagle the necessary permissions.

The tree's stainless steel trunk supports more than 5,000 pounds of cantilevered branches welded together from 24 different sizes of steel pipes and rods and, the catalogue maintains that "Standing among other trees in Central Park, the sculpture reminds us that the park itself is an artificial sanctuary, a product not only of natural forces, but primarily of city planners." '"Through this juxtaposition, Paine asks us to reconsider distinctions made between the natural and the artificial, which are increasingly difficult to discern in a world filled with genetically engineering substances and products. Bluff's monumental proportions and glistening surfaces serve as both a wistful reflection on the tenuous state of the natural world and a foreboding harbinger of things to come," the catalogue entry for this work continued. Why the catalogue suggests that it might be "a foreboding harbinger" is not very clear as this is a work of considerable beauty and elegance that glorifies the nature of trees and human craftsmanship. The artist was born in New York in 1966 and has had exhibitions at the James Cohan Gallery in New York, the Galerie Thomas Schulte in Berlin and the Grand Arts Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2001 and the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York in 1999.

It is one of five sculptures that the biennial is exhibiting in Central Park.

"Gray Scale" by Evan Holloway

"Gray Scale" by Evan Holloway, photograph by Michele Leight

Another work that takes inspiration directly from nature is Evan Holloway's "Gray Scale," which consists of tree branches, paint and metal. The catalogue provides the following commentary on this work:

"Evan Holloway's work exemplifies a strong tendency in contemporary Los Angeles art-making. Inspired in part by influential local figures such as Liz Larner and Charles Ray, a new generation of young artists is creating sculptural works that combine formal rigor with an irreverent, playful use of materials. Holloway's highly idiosyncratic works have several key features in common: formal succinctness, the acceptance of change, and the overlaying of diverse systems and media. Gray Scale alludes to the gray scale of colorless tones that photographers are often at pains to accommodate in their black-and-white prints. In this piece, Holloway applies a rudimentary version of the gray scale, which runs from white to black with various shades in between, onto a structure made from a single tree branch. Following a self-imposed system, Holloway reconstructed the limb, breaking off each branch exactly halfway before the next branch began and then reattaching it at a right angle."

The 78-by-30-100-inch work, which is in the collection of Kenneth L. Freed, conjures some of Giacometti's early Surrealist sculptures. Its pronounced rectilinearity is in stark contrast to the nature of tree branches and the "gray scale" denotes an absence of liveliness, a cold remembrance of past life, but the work's structure also reminds the viewer that trees provide the wood for a lot of human shelter. The wiry and fragile appearance of the work belies its rigidity but also reaffirms its individuality. The artist was born in La Mirada, California, in 1967 and has had exhibitions at The Approach in London in 2001 and Marc Foxx in Los Angeles in 2001 and 1999.

"Matrix IV" by Redl

"Matrix IV" by Erwin Redl at the entrance to the museum at night, photograph by Carter B. Horsley

Visitors to the Whitney are confronted by "Matrix IV," shown above and below, a light installation by Erwin Redl that has three curtains of small bright lights, red and blue, hanging from the cantilevered floors the museum into its moat. The lights are LEDs and their use in such a large-scale installation is lovely.

Detail of "Matrix IV" by Erwin Redl

Detail of the "Matrix IV" installation by Erwin Redl, shown during the day, photograph by Carter B. Horsley

Sculpture, indeed, fares better in this biennial than painting. One of the most striking works is "Payphone," by Robert Lazzarini, a 108-inch high street phone booth, shown below, that is very askew, as if a photograph of it had been dramatically tilted and shifted to a crazy perspective. The artist works with three-dimensional computer models of his subjects and distorts them in software and then fabricates them. The artist was born in Parsippany, New Jersey in 1965 and has been exhibited at Pierogi in Brooklyn in 2000 and 1998.

"Payphone" by Robert Lazzarini

"Payphone," by Robert Lazzarini, photograph by Michele Leight

Another sculptural work of "distorted reality" is "Band," a group of musical instruments fashioned by Christian Marclay for an imaginary band of goliath musicians. This highly amusing work, shown below, is, like Lazzarini's, immensely impressive for its craftsmanship.

"Band" by Christian Marclay

"Band," a group of distorted-size musical instruments by Christian Marclay. Photograph by Michele Leight

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Trained as a visual artist, Christian Marclay has been an influential figure in the experimental music scene since the 1970s, when he made pioneering turntable works that paralleled the rise of the hip-hop 'scratch' technique. In addition to his great contributions to DJ culture and improvisational music, Marclay has created a large body of related work in video, installation, and sculpture. Much of that work has been concerned with the relationship between imagery and sound. Marclay's installation Band consists of a group of fantastically distorted instruments arranged on a stage under theatrical lights. Sculpturally, these objects at times embody the performative or sonic effect of the instruments they present, while at other times they wittily deflate the instrument's conventional image. Drumkit, for example, is a complete set of drums that has been elongated into a towering monument to the drummer's stereotypically inflated ego. Virtuoso is a sinuous, twenty-five-foot long accordion that visually captures the respiratory nature of the much-maligned instrument." The artist was born in San Rafael, California in 1955 and was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York and the St. Louis Art Museum in 2001, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 2000 and ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art in San Antonio, Texas, in 1999.

"Payphone" and "Band" are works that show that Surrealism has not lost its power.

Like many works in the Biennial, they have a sense of humor as does the work of Hirsch Perlman, who is represented by numerous photographs of a room in which he has created "figures" out of moving material and the "figures" have seemed to have suffered from at least a hangover in the best traditions of Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist in the great movie, "Dead of Night." His figures "occupy the room with him like imaginary companions," the catalogue noted, added that "the photographs that document these performances are shot - with a pinhole camera also made form the packing materials - from the figures' perspective as well as form Perlman's, creating a sensation of fluid subjectivity." "The fact that he has brought these figures to life doesn't stop Perlman from tearing them apart again or even subjecting them to primitive forms of torture.the work.has a dark undercurrent. Perlman's ambiguous, often violent relation to his figural subjects recalls his own earlier work concerning methods of interrogation.this work is extraordinarily visceral, spontaneous, and direct." The artist was born in Chicago in 1960 and has been exhibited at Blum & Poe in Santa Monica, California in 2001 and the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York in 1997.

"Untitled (Web)" by Vija Celmins

"Untitled (Web), by Vija Celmins, oil on canvas, 15 1/4 by 18 inches, 2000, collection of Lyn and Gerald Grinstein. Photograph by Michele Leight

Structure is a theme also explored in delicate fashion by Vija Celmins in her lovely painting, "Untitled (Web)," an oil on canvas, 15 1/4 by 18 inches, shown above, executed in 2000 and in the collection of Lyn and Gerald Grinstein. A depiction in limited gray palette of a spider's web, this is a rather mystical painting. "Over the past thirty years, Vija Celmins's art has been concerned with a narrow range of subjects: darkly radiant night skies, mesmerizing ocean surfaces, and finely detailed desert landscapes. Based on photographs, her paintings, drawings, and prints present a vision of the natural world distinctly devoid of human presence. Although her subject matter inspires a sense of wonder, Celmins's artworks do not exploit the landscape's easy sentimentality or romanticism. Rather, in their quietude and restraint, her painstakingly crafted works magnetically compel the viewer to move closer to investigate the artist's remarkable technique and artistry," the catalogue gushed. The spiderweb here is a bit like some of Gerhard Richter's candles, realistic and a bit overpowering, curious, fascinating and mysteriously wondrous. Clemins was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938 and has been exhibited at the McKee Gallery in New York and the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst in Basel, Switzerland, in 2001, the Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles in 2000 and the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London in 1999.

"Mirror" by Tim Hawkinson

"Mirror," by Tim Hawkinson, 76-inch high polyurethane sculpture

Another work that has a strong organic sense is Tim Hawkinson's "Mirror," a 76-inch high polyurethane sculpture, shown above, only 2 inches deep, that has the appearance of having been eroded and excavated from some ancient Egyptian tomb. The work has an eerie but very tactile quality.

The catalogue provides the following commentary on this work:

"Tim Hawkinson's art combines an almost childlike naiveté with a very accomplished sense of craft and technical prowess. Each of his works springs from a comparatively simple concept that is played out to its most fantastical conclusion. The end results are propelled by the artist's fascination with gadgets and gizmos; he often creates new tools to produce his images and forms, and many of his works are themselves rudimentary, albeit extraordinary, machines. Hawkinson's intense, unrelenting focus on mundane subjects pushes his work to the point of strangeness, much like the children's game of repeating a familiar word over and over again until it starts to seem incomprehensible and weird. Mirror is a self-portrait in which Hawkinson represented not how he imagined he looked, but exactly how his image appeared in a mirror. 'I produced my reflection in three dimensions by sculpting my self-image onto the surface of a mirror exactly as I saw it reflected,' writes Hawkinson. 'The result was a three-foot-tall 'gnome,' seemingly grotesque and distorted but, from my original perspective, quite accurate. I made four of the figures, cut them into small cubes, and spliced the cubes together to 'grow' the figure to life size. This accounts for its somewhat digitized appearance.' While Mirror is a kind of practical experiment in spatial perception, it is simultaneously a glimpse into the distorting powers of an obsessive psyche. Alternately humorous and disturbing, Hawkinson's work demonstrates the remarkable images and forms that may arise when the material world is infused with an unbridled human imagination."

While this work would not appear to have anything whatsoever to do with machines and the ghostly "gnome" would appear not to be an anatomically accurate, mirrored image of the artist, it has considerable charm and its rubbery, scaly surface seems to be something that Issey Miyake might fashion, which is a very high compliment. The artist was born in San Francisco in 1960 and has been exhibited at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution in 2001, MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and the Power Plant in Toronto in 2000 and the Ace Gallery in New York and the Akira Ikeda Gallery in Nagoya, Japan in 1999.

"Emoter" by Tim Hawkinson

"Emoter," a mechanized face, by Tim Hawkinson. Photograph by Michele Leight

Hawkinson has another work in the exhibition, "Emoter," shown above, a mechanized face that changes expressions. It is one of the more macabre but interesting works in the show.

Another mechanized work that changes as you view it is "If/Then" by Ken Feingold, one of the more popular works in the show. It consists of two hairless talking heads jutting out of a box of styrofoam. The heads are side by side leaning backwards and facing in opposite directions. The heads talk about their own existence and identity and their gender is unclear. The artist was born in Pittsburgh in 1952 and was exhibited at the Postmasters Gallery in New York in 2001 and 1999.

A different take on talking heads is 'When I Close My Eyes," a performance by Karin Campbell in which she sits in a gallery with her eyes closed but her eyelids are painted with eyes. The artist, who converses with visitors during her "performance, was born in San Diego, California in 1962 and exhibited at the Courtroom Project Space in Brooklyn in 1998.

Another work that is concerned with intricacy is "Topologies (3-5.02)," by Anne Wilson, which consists of fragments of black lace strewn about a very large white tabletop. In the catalogue, the artist makes the following statement:

"I am deconstructing the webs and networks of found black lace to create large horizontal topographies, 'physical drawings' that are both complicated and quite delicate. This project is a constantly unfolding process of close observation, dissection, and recreation."

The artist also used a computer to scan and alter lace patterns and the art work abounds in elegant tracery and has a randomized structure that is organic but made stark by its blacks and whites. The artist was born in Detroit in 1949 and has exhibited at the Aurobora Press in San Francisco and the Revolution Gallery in Detroit in 2001, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2000 and the Museum for Textiles Contemporary Gallery in Toronto in 1999.

As pleasing as Clemins's spiderweb is and charming as Hawkinson's gnome is and as romantic as Wilson's is, Jeremy Blake's "Winchester" video is much more beautiful and intriguing. It combines film, digital video and special effects to represent the San Jose, California home of Sarah Winchester, widow of the founder of the Winchester rifle company. The catalogue notes that after her husband's death in 1881, Sarah Winchester "believed that she was being pursued and punished by the phantoms of those who had been killed by Winchester guns." "In order to accommodate friendly spirits by providing them with their own quarters, and to ward off evil ones with the noisy activity of construction work, Winchester continually added new rooms, stairs, and chimneys to her home over a thirty-eight-year period, resulting in a sprawling architectural oddity," the catalogue continued. It quotes the artist as stating that his "intention in pursuing this work is to gently confront by example the way in which American culture grieves and mythologizes violence." The work is complied on a DVD and is shown courtesy of the Feigen Contemporary, New York. It is very mesmerizing work that in parts is like a vibrantly saturated and very animated Morris Louis painting. The artist was born in Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1971 and has been exhibited at Feigen Contemporary in New York in 2001 and 2000 and at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Schusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow in 2000 and Works on Paper, Inc., in Los Angeles in 1999.

"Dinner at the Forbidden City" is s 54-by-67-inch mineral pigment on rice paper painting by Yun-Fei Ji that has a Boschian-cartoon-like imagery in the style of early Chinese paintings but which also has an inconsistency of treatment that is both intriguing and humorous. The artist was born in Beijing in 1963 and exhibited at Pierogi in Brooklyn in 2001.

The exhibit is not all fun and games. A. A. Bronson has a large lacquer on vinyl portrait of Felix Partz, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1994, a few hours before Bronson made the photographic portrait of him. Bronson and Partz and Jorge Zontal had been the members of General Idea, a Canada art group. Zontal also died from similar causes in 1994 and Bronson then decided to retire the group and move to New York City making art under his own name. With its very large scale, bold patterning, asymmetrical composition and the staring eyes of the reclining, robed Partz, this is a stunning work. The artist was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1946 and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2001, The Balcony in Toronto and Plug In in Winnipeg and Secession in Vienna in 2000 and 1301PE in Los Angeles in 1999.

"Untitled (Three Asian Cheerleaders" and objects by Luis Gisbert

"Untitled (Three Asian Cheerleaders)" by Luis Gisbert, 2001, Fujiflex print mounted on aluminum, photograph by Michele Leight

Luis Gisbert has a rather delightful work that shows three cheerleaders in green space and it is exhibited in front of numerous objects fabricated by the artist that the catalogue notes resemble "a cross between low-rider sound systems and luxury furniture." "Set off from the surrounding world, they look like spectacular swap-meet or car-show fetish objects. 'They're a unique mix of ghetto-style and Danish Modern design,' observes Gispert."

Detail of Chris Johanson work in staircase

Detail of "This is a picture about a place we live in called Earth that is inside of this place we call space," by Chris Johanson, wood, acrylic paint, latex paint, and wire, 2002. Photograph by Michele Leight

Chris Johanson has converted Marcel Breuer's great staircase at the museum into a rickety, cartoon-like sculpture, entitled "This is a picture about a place we live in called Earth that is inside of this place we call space," a detail of which is shown above, that is amusing and folksy, but without the artistry that Red Grooms might have brought to the space.

The $45 catalogue for the exhibition includes a CD on the front cover with 13 recordings of "sound art" that are part of show. Track 1, excerpts from "A Step Into It" by Marilyn Amacher (b. 1946) is rather ominous but has a great spatial sense. Track 3, "World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd" by Stephen Vitiello (b. 1964) has an intriguing creakiness that is eerie and fascinating; Track 9, "Their Wildest Dreams," is an amusing and shocking dialogue by Miranda July (b. 1974).

In his introduction to the catalogue, Lawrence R. Rinder, the exhibition's curator, wrote that "The events of September 11, 2001, have accelerated a process of self-reflection and debate that has been integral to this country since its founding." "Americans have been blessed with a remarkable capacity to imagine the unimaginable and, more than that, a determination to achieve it. We desperately need to call on that imagination and determination now....Even before the events of September 11, I was convinced that there was little need for works of art that lack a powerful sense of conviction. It has not been fashionable to speak of sincerety as an important attribute in works of art, yet nothing seems more urgent than to know one's own heart and to speak one's own mind as directly and honestly as possible. Perhaps beauty and irony are luxuries of peacetime, something to cherish as much as unrestricted travel and life without gas masks. Yet for many artists I encountered over this past summer, there seems to have already been an awareness of the need for art to perform some greater role than mere decoration or ironic critique....Stylistically, the American art world is as eclectic, or pluralistic, as it has ever been....I noticed a number of intriguing tendencies. Especially among the younger artists, the recent fascination with super-high-end production values has been supplanted by a more spontaneous, do-it-yourself aesthetic. In addition to the ongoing influence - both in content and form - of the Hollywood film industry, comics have become a major inspiration to artists of every generation. Much as many young artists play in bands as well as making visual art many also self-publish their own comics, zines, or graphic novels...." he continued.

The lead article of the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times March 31, 2002 was an article by Roberta Smith whose subhead read "The Whitney Biennial is a sign that museums are becoming irrelevant to new art." This provocative article maintained that that the exhibition was "bleak, pious, naive, monotonous, isolated and isolating" and included "little in the way of painting and photography, and not much color anywhere." "It's the diffusion biennial, populated by artists who just want to have fun, hang out, do good or promote a mild-mannered social agenda," Smith continued, adding that "The result is an exhibition that is largely devoid of visual excitement" and "underscores contemporary art museums' ever warmer embrace of late-late-late Conceptual Art and conceptual-based-object-making" and "how much of this art tends toward exhaustion and extreme derivateness."

Despite Smith's diatribe, museums are not irrelevant and while much of "new art" is not capable of sustaining deep metaphysical reflection the biennial's huge net does capture some interesting fish and even one choice morsel can make joy and as indicated above this biennial does have some nice morsels.

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