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April 2010, Breaking Through Cultural Amnesia: A Review of 2010, the Whitney Biennial


Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Couch For a Long Time, 2009. Couch, newspaper, ceramic, 76 x 29 x 35.5 in. (193 x 73.7 x 90.2 cm).
Collection of the artist; courtesy Small A Projects, New York, and Derek Eller Gallery, New York. Photograph by Dan Kvitka

 


Breaking Through Cultural Amnesia: A Review of 2010, the Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
February 25 through May 30, 2010


2010 opened with two noteworthy features beginning with the smallest number of participating artists and the reduced allocation of exhibition space, that changed from five floors to three. Two months before, the Whitney released the list of participating artists, making this the first Biennial to represent women as a majority. These factors combined led many art aficionados to believe that contemporary art was still moving forward despite the drastic fall in the market. In fact the previous 2008 Biennial Exhibition was seen as the representative of America’s souring economy. 2010, by contrast, answered the demands of many art critics. Two of the harshest, Charlie Finch and Jerry Saltz, turned out to be some of the nicest. For all the happiness, 2010 shifts its focus away from the glitz and glamour of the playboy spectacle and, instead, stands as a critique of hedge-fund America, the American Dream and the American way of life.  â€¨

James Casebere’s two 6-foot by 8-foot photographs titled Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #1 & #2 (2009) capture a suburban neighborhood made from construction paper. Appearing very similar to a scene from the television series Weeds, Casebere emulates the deep-seated American desire that evolved out of the 1950s when every middle-class family had children, a house, a yard, and a car. This economic ideal gradually falls apart in the succeeding rooms, which are divided by Robert Grosvenor’s two untitled sculptures. Both objects look rather militaristic, blocking space rather than framing it. The symbol of the America ideal surfaces again in a series of four small oil paintings by Maureen Gallace titled Summer, (2009-10) where a white house is seen quietly among green foliage with a strip of ocean in the background.

However Robert Williams’ small-scale series of gouache paintings throws the pillar of the American middle-class into a new comical uncertainty. Astrophysically Modified Real Estate (2009) for example, portrays a group of houses swept up by a wave. This caricature initially seems too simplistic but quickly falls into perspective in a subsequent room where Nina Berman’s photographs of an injured marine sargeant, Ty Ziegler, punctuate the walls of a faux family-room setting. Since 2003, Berman has followed the daily lives of injured soldiers due to the fact that the American government has pushed their individual struggles into the margins. This series in 2010 explores the various angles of Ziegler’s life, revealing the limits that drastic physical injuries have placed upon his personal freedoms. Similarly, Jessica Hutchins’ Couch for a Long Time (2009) presents a series of limb-like ceramics resting on a couch that is covered, seamlessly, with imagery of President Obama, implicating his new title with the tragedies that American soldiers continue to face. The body further battles the aberration of abstraction in two paintings titled Tool (2009) and Piece of Barbara. (2009)

 


Nina Berman, Ty With Gun, 2008
From Marine Wedding, 2006/2008
Pigment print, 10 x 15 in. (25.4 x 38.1 cm)
Collection of the artist



Charles Ray, Untitled, 2009.
Ink on paper, 47 x 31 1/2 in. (119.4 x 80 cm)
Collection of the artist; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

 

Mariam Vitale’s 8-minute video titled Patron (2009) features the artist yelling commands to the viewer while Hannah Greely’s reconstruction of two near-identical restaurant booths titled Dual (2005-9) capture the sameness that characterizes America’s melting pot of diversity. The United States is a country founded on mimesis. Younger than Europe, the American government has adopted procedural elements from countries such as England and France. But it is a country that continues to identify itself with the new. The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010) by Lorraine O’Grady consists of four diptychs that portray Charles Baudelaire and Michael Jackson, two icons of popular culture who left a strong impact in the wake of their unexpected deaths. Both artists were part of a vanguard that consumed their lives.

Performance art has been key to upholding an identity that is fresh yet antiquated. Videos by Rashaad Newsom and Kelly Nipper focus on patterned movements and the connection these have with individual conscience. Newsom’s Untitled (New Way) (2009) shows two different vogue dancers throughout the span of six minutes. Both move lyrically and fast, almost unexpected. Nipper’s Weather Center (2009) however, is a metaphor of slow motion and features a masked female dancer who moves to a numbered count that transmits into the room.

Kelly Tribe’s video titled H.M. (2009) is a double-projection that captures the a-historical zeitgeist that now characterizes the entire hedge-fund era. An elderly man discusses his experience with short-term memory loss that developed after undergoing an experimental surgery in the 1950s. Unable to remember several significant events that occurred during his life, a cube begins to fall and unfold through space as a narrator says, “What would it be like if we had no memory of anything and were only aware of the present? Perspective will become flat.” Mrs. Jessica Drummond’s (“My Reputation,” 1945) (2010) by Dawn Clements is an expansive drawing that flattens out a cinematic moment when a widow grieves the loss of her husband as a movie camera pans the room.


Jesse Aron Green, still from Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, 2008
Hi-Definition video projection, color, sound; 80 min. loop
Collection of the artist

 

Arztliche Zimmergymnastik (2008) by Jesse Aron Green shows fifteen men within a large exercise room. Their movements become part of a large, conformism yet billed under the heading of good health.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s fourth floor installation We Like America and America Likes Us (2010) is a riff off of Joseph Beuys 1974 performance in New York titled I Like America and America Likes Me. Once Beuys had arrived in New York he was driven in an ambulance, currently on view in this installation, to the René Block Gallery where he isolated himself in protest against the Vietnam war and the stifling uniformity that had dominated American art. BHFQ includes a flashing siren light on top of the vehicle while a video plays clips from the Summer of Love across the front window. A woman’s sulky voice narrates about an America who is an attractive but disloyal lover.

Large-scale abstract paintings by Sarah Crowner, Suzan Frecon, Tauba Auerbach and Pae White, including Piotr Uklanski’s monolithic untitled installation, return the viewer to the expanse of nothingness, a characteristic that once symbolized the American frontier. What does any of it mean now? Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs of Afghan women who had attempted and survived self-immolation are just as disturbing as Berman’s. However Babette Mangolte’s How to Look (2009) consists of 441 vintage photographs, taken between 1977 and 1978, that reduced the portrait of individuals into a simulacra of anonymity. Installed floor-to-ceiling and frame-to-frame, Mangolte’s work overwhelms through its physical density and elicits the challenges of individuation in a media-saturated society. As Charles Ray’s multicolored, untitled flower drawings close out 2010, these comparably quiet compositions question who one is and where exactly does one locate the sense of self. America is still a young country of individualism that is often conflicted against its own desires of conformism. Using less, 2010 said more than most of the previous Whitney Biennials.


Babette Mangolte, Composite for How To Look…, 1978/2009.
Black and white photograph composite, 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm)
Collection of the artist; courtesy Broadway 1602, New York.
© 2009 Babette Mangolte (All Rights of Reproduction Reserved)


Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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