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Whitney Biennial 2010

Whitney Museum of American Art

February 25 to May 30, 2010

"Untitled (The Year We Make Contact)" by Uklanski

"Untitled, (The Year We Make Contact)," by Piotr Uklanski, woven, entrance to Third Floor

By Carter B. Horsley

It would be easy to surmise from getting off the elevators at the the main exhibition floors of 2, 3 and 4 that the 2010 Whitney Biennial was about very big, overwhelming works, especially since the works that confront visitors disembarking from the elevators are enormous and impressive. Bigness, however, is not the theme for this exhibition but rather a raw confrontation with often unpleasant reality, as well befits the times.

Piotr Uklanski, who was born in Warsaw in 1968, borrows from traditional Polish textile manufacturing techniques, according to the catalogue, "and the deliberately crude aesthetics of Art Brut." "Conceived by Jean Dubuffet in 1945," it continued, "Art Brut characterizes a loose group of European artists who turned to the artwork of children, the self-taught, and the mentally ill to define a space outside bourgeois culture in which to register the fallout of the war. Overshadowed in many art historical narratives by the triumphalism of American painting, Art Brut's conflicted pscyhosexual imagery and rustic modes of production return in Ukanski's work not as a site of subjective expression but as a market of forgotten alternatives and lost possibilities."

"Smoke Knows" by Pae White

Large detail of "Smoke Knows," by Pae White, swirls of smoke woven on, contton, at the entrance to the third floor.

"Smoke Knows," by Pae White, who was born in Pasadena, California, in 1963, swirls of smoke woven on cotton, confronts entices visitors trying to exit on the museum's third floor. A very modern and most topical tapestry, this work is the most traditional beautiful in the show, conjuring the great clouds of smoke that use to make movie-going a truly art experience.

The fourth-floor is the only disappointment as it is divided into two separate and unequal depictions by James Casebere of Ameican suburbia based on simplistic single-family house models of new distinction or style. It is American ugliness and destructiveness of its environment personified of absolutely no redeeming social benefit. Casebere was born in 1953 in East Lansing, Mich.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about Casebere's work:

"Since the 1980s, James Casaberes's photography have transported viewers into architectural environments that are at once ambiguous, evocative, and surreal. Informed by an interest in architeture, Conceptual art, painting and film, Casebere share sensibilities with other photographers of his generation, including Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons, whose stage still images to suggest an attractive and explore the medium's capacity for sleight of hand. To create his images, Casebere constructs tabletop models out of modest materials, including styrofoam, plaster and cardboard, he sources his subjects from diverse actual structures, ranging from the mundane to the econoimc and encompassing schoolhouses, prisons, the Berlin sewage system, and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. In his studio the artist adds dramatic lighting to this model and carefully positions the camera to manipulate composition and mood. Devoid of human figures, the constructions invite the viewer to project into and inhabit the space.....For Landscape With Houses (Dutchess County, NY)(2009), Casebere has constucted his grandest, most detailed sculptural installation to date."

"Mrs. Jessica Drummond's ("My Reputation," 1945) by Dawn Clements

A far more successful work is "Mrs. Jessica Drummond's ("My Reputation," 1945)," A 2010 work by Dawn Clements (born in Woburn, Mass., in 1958). A pen with ink on paper, it measures 87 1/2 by 240 inches.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Dawn Clement's painstakingly renderened large-scale drawings explore interior, often domestic, spaces - both her own and those imagined by Hollywood. Working largely from her surroundings and from time-based media, with a particular interest in the spaces that women occupy, Clements reconstructs spaces of melodrama as they unfold and displayed in movies or soap operas. Her interest in these, Clements explains, lies in their contradictory nature: 'They are the places, no matter how beautiful or wonderful they may appear they incarcerate characters. The doors maybe unlocked, but somehow no one can walk out the door.' Noticeably absent are the characters that inhabit the spaces. In omiting the future, the artist has allowed the interiors to deiven narrative - and to become active forces....Notes that mark the time code of the corresponding scene or make reference to the sounds of the studio - for example, radio broadaasts and phone conversations - dot the margins serving as a soundtrack to Clement's filmic spaces. Cloement's drawing Mrs. Jessica Durmmond's My Reputation," 1945) (2010) depicts the bedroom of the main character in the film, My Reputation, rendered in ballpoint pen. In a departure from her previous work of interiors, Clements includes the character in her environment, depicting Jessica Drumond (played by Barbarba Stanwick in the film) lying awake in bed, face partially obscured by the dark, on what we learn is the day after her husband's funeral. The drawing (and the viewer's eye) follows the camera's pan across the room, shifting in scale as it moves from a sitting area to a close-up of Drummond's face. A composite of several scenes, the drawing reveals the room at different moments and from different camera angles in a flattening of space and time that appears seamless but uncannily distorted. The result is a work that allows the viewer to inhabit and explore the physical and pyschic space of melodramaand is also a space where artist, viewer and subject and meet in the middle."

Sumi ink on paper by Flexner

Series of Sumi ink works by Roland Flexner

Even more meticulous in style and execution is series of many Sumi ink on paper works, each 5 1/2 by 7 inches, by Roland Flexner. The series is untitled and was executed in 2009. Each drawing is remarkably dense and highly detailed and superbly drawn and seem to depict an animated dark world.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about the artist who was born in Nice, France, in 1944.

"Roland Flexner navigates between a Conceptualist's interrogration of medium and a traditionalist's devotion to artistry by expanding upon and distilling the fundamental characteristics of drawing. Although Flexner's drawings are often simply ink on paper, he uses an almost sculptural method to coax images out of air, space and water, using his breath, chance, and gravity as tools. Flexner has been creating intricately detailed 'bubble drawings; since the mid-1990s by blowing a a mix of spray water and ink through a hollow paintbrush. Using a breath or utterance, he expanded the bubble and lays it on paper at the moment a desired effect has been achieved. During a residency in Kyoto in 2004, he became proficient with another technique utilizing ink and water: the art (inkflating), in which a marble effect is achieved by playing paper of ink floating on water or getalin and flowing on it. Flexner maniupulates the floating ink before laying paper on top of it However, once the ink starts to get absored he artist has only a moment to alter the composition with titling, flowing, or blotting. With a meditative understanding of the media he is able to affect pictorial spaces that oscillate between illustrationist landscape and pure abstraction. Both series reference Flexner's interest in two seventeeenth-century European traditions - Dutch still lifes in which a group of objects such as skulls, extinguished candles, timepieces and bubbles convey the fleeting nature of life. By exploding the ephermeral nature of the buddloe, Flexner replaces the metraphor of the vanitas paintings with a physical projecces. His sumi drawings also recall the popuplar seventheetn-century pratice of collecting and displaying geological samples selected for their resemblance to landscape or figurative images. The collections were inspired by similar parctices in Asian cultures in which contemplating those stones was meant to inspire mediation on nature's transformations. In both cases, Flexner is more interested in creating a space for the viewer's shifting mental projections than in asserting any singled fixed intepretration."

Flexner is creating black-and-white illuminations of modern-man's spiritual universe carrying on the great traditional of illustration medieval manuscripts.

"Every Girl Loves Pink" by Gilmore

"Every Girl Loves Pink," by Kate Gilmore, video, 2006

Kate Gilmore, on the other hand, is a thoroughly-modern Lady Kate/Gaga performer intent on putting on a great, energetic how. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1975, she is represented in the exhibition by "Every Girl Loves Pink,"a 2006 video.

The catalogue provides the following commentary on Ms.Gilmore:

"Armed with her signature high heels,sheer muscle power, and desperate determination, Kate Gilmore is the sole protagonist in her performative videos, as she kicks, flails, strikes, hurls, and (sometimes) breaks through self-constructed obstacles. With metamorphic depth and formal sophistication, Gilmore's videos explore issues of displacement, struggle, and identity as a modern woman. Straightforwardly shot in one take, Gilmore's videos are primarily concerned with the process of undertaking Sysyphean tasks rather than with the end results. Thus, goals are sometimes achieved, sometimes abandoned, and sometimes ultimately just beyond the artist's grasp. Designed for a night on the town, Gilmore's attired is at odds with the brute physical labors she performs. In her incongruous high-heeled pumps and cocktail dresses, sheil dresses, she smashes through drywall in Walk this Way (2008) pounds on wood and cinderblocks with a sledgehammer in Down the House (2008), and heavy-lifts bales of hay in Blue Ribbon (2008). Working through these limitations, shes grunts, perspires,and sighs, sometimes falls down or drops a shoe in High Horse (2008), and then carries on intrepidly."

"Marine Wedding" by Berman

"Marine Wedding," by Nina Berman, color photograph, 10 by 15 inches, 2007

If there is an a rather admirable, good-natured, headstrong, strong, determined destructive sense to Ms. Gilmore's efforts, however, it is buy petty busy, worker-bee drudgery compared to the absolutely riveting, scary, unbelievable optimism manifest in Nina Berman's incredible photo essay "Marine Wedding" from 2006-2008. Ms. Berman was born in New York City in 1960 and in her series and first book "Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq" (2003-4), and in subsequent works, she, the catalogue notes, "has sought to make the war 'more intimately felt by a civilian audience." People magazine commissioned the Marine Wedding series to accompany an articl that focused oj the marriage of former Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, then twenty-four, to his high-school sweetheart Renee Kline, twenty-one.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Severely disfigured during a suicide bomber's attack,Ty underwent fifty operations, leaving his face almost completely reconstructed and unrecognizable, a plastic dome replacing his shattered skull, with holes where his ears and nose used to be. Without any staging or direction, Berman photographed Ty and Renee in the weeks leading up to their wedding day and accompanied them as they got their wedding portrait taken. A disturbing and iconic image taken by Berman at the wedding portrait studio conveys an air of alienation and disconnection between the couple, who separated a few months after their wedding. Berman returned to photograph Ty in 2008 and describes the later images as suggestive of a "comfortable acceptance with military culture despite the cost....Applying her sharp observational powers to lives interrupted and off-kilter, Berman forces us to engage in a more intimate way with a disturbing subject that is not often covered in depth in the popular media."

The color photographs measure only 10 by 15 inches and are generally dark.

The portray a horror story that cannot be erased from memory. Ty's head is a ghastly pink balloon and his unimaginable suffering through so many operations is either heroism or sadism of the greatest degree. Forget about waterboarding and even forget about the magnificent sailor who lost both his hands in The Best Years of Our Lives. Even the perverted tortures of Hannibal Lechter or the Crucifixion of Christ are relatively kid's play compared to Ty's suffering, both before rejoining Renee and after her suing for divorce.

This is totally unconscionable heartbreak for Ty, his wife, is family, and ultimately for the country that sent him to war. This series of photographs should be forced study for every high school in the world, for every politician in the world, and for every artist in the world.

Some people have squeamishly turned away from some of Francis Bacon's flesh-eaten visages. They were pretty. This is the real thing. Really.

Our hearts go out, rather easily, to those poor souls who have suffered amputations in the recent earthquake in Haiti and our outrage at heedless stonings and lynchings and immolations, all gorily glorified in many movies, does not last too long especially when our youth insist that really violent video games are just games and fun.

Perhaps President Obama should appoint Ty Ziegel as the Surgeon-General or the vice-president for human affairs or the Secretary of State for massacres. No kidding!

Nina Berman's photographs make a mockery of the Biennial, unfortunately.

We might think of the distraught war photographer in "We Are Soldiers," forced to carry the burnt but living body of a comrade to a helicopter. In this "category" comparisons don't count for much, but it must give pause when we look at most of the other dreck in Biennial or in the auction houses and art galleries where they pass off Contemporary Art as something important, wonderful and precious. Goya and Bosch are artists who certainly confronted horrors and one of art's most important virtures is that is reminds of the importance of beauty. Not all art need by ugly, nor beautiful. Hopefully, however, Berman's series will raise the bar a bit.

The Elephant Man may have a sensitive feel for poetry but he probably would like a hug too.

One of the things that makes misery a bit bearable is humor.

"My Skull is Too Small" by Huma Bhabha

"My Skull is Too Small," by Huma Bhabha, clay, wood, wire stryofoam, aluminum, cast-iron, acrylic paint, paper, charcoal, 93 by 28 by 92 inches, 2009

"My Skull is Too Small" is a work by Huma Bhabha who was born in 1962 in Karachi, Pakistan, The catalogue notes that "her figures and masklike heads project an ineffable pscyhological intensity as they take shape from scraps and detritus. While drawing upon deeply ingrained sculptural acrhetypes, Bhabha's works comprise fragments that coalesce uneasily, as if still in the process of being formed or already in a state of decay."

"Big Baby" by Houseago

Side view of "Big Baby," by Thomas Houseago, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron, rebar, wood, graphite and charcoal, 84 by 40 inches, 2009

"Big Baby" by Thomas Houseago may not be as cute as Jeff Koon's flower-power Big Puppy, but its got a Pandaesque, Sasquatchesque posture that is endearing. Made of Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron, rebar, wood, graphite and charcoal, it measures 84 by 40 inches and was created this year by Mr. Housego who was born in Leeds, England in 1972.

Perhaps his selection denotes a softening by the curators.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Thomas Houseago creates figurative sculptures that are at once physically imposing and emotively powerful in their scale and positioning yet purposefully disjointed and vulnerable in their construction. Houseago's roughly finished and fragmented creatures stand in pointed contrast to the macho and indestructible nature of traditional monumental sculpture."

"After the Dust, Second View (Beirut)" by Mann

"After the Dust, Second View (Beirut)," by Curtis Mann, synthetic polymer varnish on bleached chromogenic print, 65 by 153 1/2 inches, 2009

In recent years, appropriation has been sanctioned in the art market despite the fact that in most instances it was merely a "rip-off." The work of Curtis Mann, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1979, is a healthy exception. According to the catatalogue, his "photographs contain partially hidden scenes erased and obscured by areas of blankness. Mann starts with images taken by others - journalists, tourists, or citizens - mostly culled from on-line sources and ordered as printed photographs. He then applies batches of regular household bleach to the photographs, initiating a process of distortion and manipulation of his found imagery. When the artist first started to alter prints with bleach, he used images of family and friends, dealing with familiar, everyday subjects. However, he has recently turned to more foreign and unfamiliar subjects....Mann adapts candid and casual snapshots from a stranger's Flickr album documenting the thirty-three-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. He explains: 'I question what I've learned about these places, and I realize I usually have to erase most of that knowledge and begin again - more open-minded, more curious, and more hopeful than before.'"

This very large work is quite luminous and beautiful.

"The Crossing" by McDonald

"The Crossing: Passengers Must Pay Toll to Disenbark (Michael Jackson, Charon & Uncle Sam," by Danield McDonald, modified action figures and models, plastic, fabric, foil, plexiglass, copper, acrylic, glitter, wod, light-emitting diodes, water, and mist, 60 by 22 by 7 1/2 inches, 2009

A ghoulish, if not macabre sense of humor about pop culture seems to be a steady ingredient of these shows and this year that honor fell to Donald McDonald, an artist born in 1971 in Los Angeles for his "The Crossing: Passengers Must Pay Toll to Disenback (Michael Jackson, Charon & Uncle Sam." Prominently displayed on a pedestral just inside the museum's tickettaker, the workd displays the late Michel Jackson holding a large Penny to give to Charon, the legendary ferry keeper, and drunken, besotted Uncle Sam wretching over the side of the boat in a sea pitching with mist. One half suspects that this a new enlarged version of the antique penny mechanical banks rather than a political commentary on the nation's sorry state of affairs.

"Patron" by Vitale

"Patron," by Marianne Vitale, video

A work that makes no bones about its aggressiveness and contempt is "Patron," an 8-minute and 36 second video by Marianne Vitale, who was born in 1873 in New York. The artist issues a litany of commands, it mimics a penchant for rhetorical aggressions. The catalogue notes that "while insisting on compliance with her videotaped instruction, Vitale also parodies authoritarian posturig, especially when her abusive demands border on the surreal."

"Tool" by Lutes

"Tool,"by Jim Lutes, tempera and oil on linen, 78 by 36 inches, 2009

The catalogue notes that the paintings of Jim Lutes, who was born in 1955 in Fort Lewis, Washington, "of figures, objects, and landscapes overlaid with painterly abstractions defy easy categorization. He has been compared to a 1930s Pablo Picasso and a 1970s Philip Guston, annointed an heir to the Chicago Imagist and 'Bad Painting' traditions and both dismissed and celebrated as a regionalist. In more than twenty-five years as a painter, most of them in Chicago, Lutes has created a highly personal body of work wholly his own, developing what he calls his 'own private postmodernism.'"

"Untitled (12)" by Vance

"Untitled (12)," by Lesley Vance, oil on linen, 18 by 15 inches, 2009

One of the loveliest paintings in the exhibition is "Untitled (12)," by Lesley Vance, born in Milwaukee in 1977. An oil on linen, it measures 18 by 15 inches and was created in 2009.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Lesley Vance makes dark, luminous paintings that are as much about process as result. Her early work focused on fantastical, romantic landscapes and sparse still lifes, often blurring human and natural forms and referencing seventeenth-century Spanish painters like Francisco de Zurbarán and Sanchez Cotán in palette and mood. Vance's paintings now explore new territory while preserving these historical references. Representations of carefully lit natural forms anchored amidst backgrounds with visible brushwork have given way to measured abstractions glowing quietly from within. Vance uses the creation of a still life as the point of entry for formal and spatial exploration. Initially, she photographs arranged and deliberately lit compositions of natural forms and works from these photographs to paint the still life. At a certain point, the work begins to evolve as Vance applies and scrapes paint, working wet on wet with palette knives and brushes to form fluid layers that are alternatively lush and delicate, revealing patches of the canvas's linen weave in places. The earth and vegetal tones of earlier painting remain, as do forms that vaguely suggest leaves, blooms, and branches. The still life endres, as Vance describes it, only as "the feeling of a memory - not a specific memory, but just that feeling a memory can produce.'"

Installation by David Adamo

Installation by David Adamo, who was born in Rochester, New York, in 1979.

The catalogue notes that David Adamo has created a series of installations that feature "the blunt force and aggression of conventionally masculine tools and implements - sledgehammers, axes, and baseball bats - rendered fragile and useless by the artist as he hacks and whittles hefty items into mere spindles before delicately leaning his handiwork in taxonomical groupings along gallery walls. In a wry nod to early Conceptual art, Adamo carefully pools wood chippings and shavings around each of these serially arranged and equally spaced out abused objects in self-conscious acknowledgment of his artistic proecess and the literally dematerialized art on display."

"Artzliche Zimmergymnastik" by Green

"Arztliche Zimmergymnastik," by Jesse Aron Green, video projection, 80 minutes, 2008

Jesse Aron Green gives the title of his 80-minute video in the exhibition, "Artzliche Zimmergymnastik," a reference to an 1858 book by the German physician Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schredber and the catalogue notes that "by activating Schreber's text as a 'score,' Green situates a seemingly innocuous series of movements within a social history of psychoanalysis and a narrative of family crisis." "Schreber's directives for maintaining the 'health and vigor of body and mind,' which included sexual restrictions, proved influential amidst the cultural malaise of fin de siecle Germany.

"Untitled" by Grosvenor

"Untitled," by Robert Grosvenor, fiberglass, flocking and aluminum, two units, red unit 48 by 48 by 192 inches, aluminum unit 48 by 312 by 1/2 inches, 2009

One of the oldest artists in the exhibition is Robert Grosvenor, who was born in New York city in 1937. His work is often quite site-specific and the catalogue notes tht it often has "an emphasis on visual impact over critical theory." "In the mid-1990s Grosvenor shifted from using materials evocative of urban detritus to those of a more suburban vernacular, incorporating lawn ornaments or flagstgones into increasing expansive arrangements. These vaguely familiar forms are arranged in spare tableaux that maximize the disparity among the objects, pushing the viewer toward cascading associations that refuse to resolve into a single representational image. Grosvenor's Untitled (2009) comprises a plane of hand-wrought aluminum and a bridge-like structure. As with all of Grosvenor's sculpture, the negative space within each element, as well as the space between the two, is unusually charged."

"Dolores" by Tharp

"Dolores," by Storm Tharp, ink, gouache, colored pencil, and gold leaf on paper, 67 3/4 by 42 inches, 2009

Storm Tharp, who was born in 1970 in Salem, Georgia, has a couple of large portraits in the exhibition that are quite riveting.

The catalogue notes that "each of his portraits is remarkably unique: some pop from the page with a blinding palette of yellows and pinks, whil others emerge from dull tones of gray." "Whatever the approach, one aspect of these portraits stands out above all the rest: the face. It is within the charged landacpae of the face of his subject - whether entiredly smudged out, layerd with puddles of watery gouaches, or sharply outlined with strong black strokes - that Tharp transfixes us. Like the desperate and lonely figures of a Francis Bacon composition, Tharp's portraits haunt the page. Although, at times, there is something subtly tragic about these washed out characters with dark, depressed, and furrowed eyes, they are not beyond beauty."

In the catalogue, the show's curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari talk about "Regeneration Through Art":

"It feels as though artists all across the United States are reaffirming the importance of the individual gesture in order to produce a collective change. To a large degree the past eighteen months of artistic production have centered around a reconsideration of the distrinction between collection and individual action. The grass roots activism and political organization that defined the Democrats' political triumph in November of 2008 contrasted sharply with the reckless individualism that defined Wall Street and the Attentant financial ruin it precipitated...At first glance, a lot of the work in 2010 appears intensely personal and concerned with simple gestures and everyday actions - depictions of individual bodies and stories, which might seem at odds with a sense of community and social responsibility. More accurately, however these artists are constructing models that can serve as the foundations of lasting communities and sustained critique....The individuals depicted in much of this work, whether real or imagined, bear the scars of war, discrimination, and hatred; they are attacked, controlled, and disfigured. Visualizing this attack on the body, however, is not cynical or hopeful but rather a new form of regeneration and hope, providing an entreaty to individual dignity."

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