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Wednesday 03.05.14

« Tuesday Links | Main | First Thursday Picks March 2014 »

Whitney Biennial Links


Well the Whitney Biennial has opened and the reviews are starting to come in. I'll track them here, so check back for updates. Thankfully or sadly there are no Portlanders in it this time (*correction former Portland Dash Manley is) but with its focus on the midwest I understand... Portland is very popular with midwesterners as a relocation spot and we have already had a lot of presence in recent previous shows. I'm personally over these giant surveys that always do more for the institution than the artists or the discussion of art (though the flailing attempt to do "something" is nearly always worthwhile as an institutional barometer rather than satisfying/challenging statement). Not to say they can't be good, they often seemed rigged to mildly placate, rather than discover and promote new talent by giving the uncertainty of the present a voice. Instead, they ingratiate themselves to the art world choir creatures they serve (artists and gallerists) and or keep at arms length. Ideally, they spotlight some new faces and trends that keep things from being stagnant... not certain this one achieves that goal. I haven't heard the word "fresh" much.

Jerry Saltz found it bland with some energy on the 4th floor. I think this is an amplitude problem... ie. how to achieve escape velocity for an art world exerting such gravitational force, especially in NYC? It incentivises a kind of bland punting (choosing 3 outside curators etc, I discussed it yesterday). It is very predictable because so much is at stake and anything embracing the radical becomes a massive threat. NYC's art world is easily threatened these days. Accepting threat or the uncertainty and amplifying the shifts that the unknown demands is a far healthier way (an essay I penned in 2002 that Jerry liked a lot gets to the point). Also, Jerry may love the camera obscura(curated by Elms) but I've seen so many of those over the past decade + it just seems like it stood out because it was a reprieve from the anxious index of familiarity he described in the rest of the show. Interesting that he liked Sterling Ruby's ceramics... a similar vibe to the 2012 standout by Portland's Jessica Jackson Hutchins... both are steeped in West Coast 60's arts and crafts grottyness.

Hyperallergic starts with images and a discussion of the 4th floor, which most everyone seems to be liking the best. Ah, so the big standout artist of 2014 is one of the curators... That is good because Michelle Grabner is an old Wisconsin grad school dayz friend but does any of the work suggest or demand a shift in the art world the way Forcefield did in the 2002 Biennial? I'm not hearing anything like that... but then again 2002 was the last time anyone heard such things. My sense is that the art world and real world are both still waiting for work with enough historical teeth imbedded deeply into the present to draw fresh blood. New York used to be the place for that.

One question is how is this any different than what we have experienced and expected in the past? How is this Biennial's ear tuned? I sense a certain academicism creeping in as a response to the market. Not a bad thing but it always impedes any true shock of the new.


An interview with Michelle Grabner indicates why she is "winning" this thing... (though she would never see it that way). I think it is very important for artists to curate and the trend during the 80's-90's was bad for art. Murakami and Hirst reversed the trend for a while but then the rise of art schools kinda made the practice bland. Though an academic Michelle isn't an academic at the core... she cares more about ideas and work than institutional career building. Hopefully the lasting effect of this Whitney is to condone artists as chief instigators again. That's one nice thing about Portland that few talk about... institutional curators don't exert much power over the scene... no non profit org is much of a driver. They all lag from several years to decades behind the developments in the artist's studios and their artist run spaces.

Artinfo is in apology mode... and gives the kind of obligatory art writing travelogue review we have come expect from an art world in danger of losing its critical edge. Still, it serves a purpose... it is a brochure guide and this is the only such review of this ilk that I will link to, one is enough.

Gallerist NY makes their picks but are mostly disappointed... in chief because they felt it was an abdication of responsibility. Oh and they do mention a Portlnd person... Dash Manley, son of PNCA president Tom Manley gets a negative review. I remember Dash as a kid walking around Portland and generally you don't get the negative kick in the head unless you did something right.

Hyperallergic's take Part II

Matt Gleason has a LA perspective on the show. I agree, these shows are never horrible but always seem to earn scorn... often just an index of things the art world has had a recent infatuation with. The payoff is the sifting out of those whose work can endure beyond that moment of infatuation. Whitney Bi's take a swing, whiff a few and even more they index a series of presentation and curatorial moves that will be copied or avoided from this point forth. It does seem like everyone wants something a bit bolder and more shocking than the show was designed to deliver. Familiarity does breed contempt and Im pretty sure where this show is running aground critically... Next time avoid the cliches and let a few artists really shine when they have something original to say. It is what everyone wants from these things.

In the NYT's Holland Carter thinks this version is cake and mostly a lot like the art fairs (short attention, confectionary and not much context?). To be sure this is familiar but it also seems to be an intentional feint.

Ok so the verdict is pretty much that the 2014 is too distracted to like... one critic focused to pick 10 artists who struck them as ones to watch. This is something that biennials are best used for and why introducing new names is crucial.

Pictures pretty much say it all, here is ArtFcity's slideshow.

More Updates:

Timeout gives this Whitney Biennial faint praise but does give some praise.

Artlyst visits from Great Britain... with pretty much the same take as Jerry Saltz's but with some different faves and some nice photos. The fact that nearly all the reviews were the same constitutes a kind of consensus. Grabner as artist/curator gave her floor a bit of a charge and sense of discovery... rather than the typical curatorial gambit where surprise and a sense of discovery are mitigated. Really it is that sense of discovery that all biennials live or die of.

One reviewer rightly points out that it is the same as it ever was.

Yes, Grabner has that Wisconsin thing. It is true the Midwestern ethic is powerful... you see it in artists like Dana Schutz too, basically it is less "which east coast school did you go to?" and more open to problem solving. The midwest has a roll up your sleeves and fix it attitude. On the West Coast those who grew up in say Carmel CA. practice a kind of studied passive aggressive attitude that usually aims to be good rather than great. Still it is a big country and there are exceptions to these regional types.

About all that text at the Whitney... generally a little text goes a long way and by using it so frequently in the show it asserts an institutional voice that becomes didactic. There has been a lot of this sort of thing lately.

Artnet points out that the 3 curator format was a way to diffuse critical reaction... kind of like system redundancy. Yes and no.... I think it lets people divvy up the show a little more. That is a good thing but it also keeps the show from achieving full force as a failure or success. Frankly these things are built to fail and sprawling group shows are mostly about who is memorable and new. Also, it is wrong that most artists in survey shows like the Whitney Bi do not get a stipend. Everyone from the curators to the installers get paid and so should the artists.

Has the art world become so investment grade that it can no longer speculate freely? No, but it seems to be getting harder to do a big group survey that doesn't feel like the fix is in or at least a hedge has been made. The talent is out there but it requires a different approach where the institution sticks its neck out. In most ways the Whitney Biennial and the New York art marketing machine are just suffering from their own success. Usually, that is when things change for the better. Perhaps it isn't the Whitney's job to find the change in the air that everyone seems to be waiting for/sensing. Something that would be focused, in depth, historically aware, with stipends and a need to be great and or terrible rather than good to unsatisfying. Something which lets the artists chosen clear their throats a bit more? Some institution which is doing more than damage control and risk mitigation. A museum shouldn't act like an investment fund and the Whitney has become a hedgefund of penny stocks. To be fair it has rarely been more than that (which does have value) and the 2 year cycle makes such shows difficult to do any other way.

Any major institutional survey kinda like an NTSB plane crash investigation... you get this giant sprawling tangle and you try to tease out what failed and or how/if anyone survived. It tells you more about the state of the institution than anything else. All big institutional art shows are like this but smaller/younger institutions have less to protect. That is in theory though as they often ape the big boys mistakenly thinking it makes them look more grown up.

Overall, any institution is judged by its programmatic backbone and the sustained quality of its curators. So by choosing 3 outsiders the Whitney basically punted and told us they didn't want torisk their fundraising for the move across town. They had to know at least one of the 3 curators would resonate to avoid a political disaster (like 2002 which was actually very influential).

Which is why thinking that the Format is in Crisis, the format is a kind of exploration of crisis. It happens too often and is too politically loaded to have the freedom, research and historic contextualization a real survey would require. What it told us is that people have grown weary with collections of books, familiar strategies and truncated installations. People want jarring moments and strange coherence and that means taking chances and a desire to upend the order. That takes leadership, digging and a sense that some veins have been mined to the point of diminishing returns. The crisis was a lack of crisis when people sense something is impending.

There is an intense fatalism to Artforum's take.

The Whitney Biennial through the artist's eyes... though curator Stuart Comer's, "non-hierarchical multiplicity," comes off more as utopian wishful thinking and curator speak than anything observed in reality.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on March 05, 2014 at 10:41 | Comments (0)


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