Whitney Biennial 2019: Nests, Runes, Babies, S&M Ballet

Nicole Eisenman, Procession, 2019 (detail)


Golden eagles, unlike their bald familiars, prefer nesting en plein air, usually on cliffs and the occasional windmill. The sixth floor terrace of the Whitney is then a hospitable venue for the lax eaglet in a miniature crate-nest in Nicole Eisenman’s clubbable and Boschian Procession (2019). A puddle of gold oozes beside the bird, marking the ledge of the parade of creatures. It is not the loudest figure onstage and has no parlor tricks (fog or otherwise) up its wing, but it nevertheless rings like a mascot for the larger Biennial project both conceptually and materially. Nests, which balance on branches of both the generational past and the ephemeral future as they are continually reinforced, also stand-in for the manual labor evident in this showing.

You have probably read the statistics which quantitatively verify a particularly young and diverse artist demographic in this year’s Biennial. In their curatorial statement, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley reflect on the intensity of affect in the spanning work. They write, “Although much of the work presented here is steeped in sociopolitical concerns, the cumulative effect is open-ended and hopeful.” This snippet alone alludes to the institutional perspective that art itself is a tunnel out of alleged darkness and not just one more anvil shaped like a chandelier. The vulnerability of the present is encapsulated in hand-worked, found-object, detailed pieces. Much of the work, rendered in insecure studio space in L.A. and Brooklyn, parodies outsider art in all its scrappy glory. If this grouping is a snapshot of the present, it is a time of nesting: for survival, aesthetics, and market profit. Unlike with the 1993 Biennial, as Jerry Saltz has written about in hindsight as revolutionary, the zone of identity politics is now commodified. What differentiates this Biennial from others? The wide curatorial statement, which reads as if assembled by a bot generator when set against prior years, unsurprisingly offers no clues. Maybe its uniqueness dwells in its historical rifling, which is at once archaeological and journalistic, and the modern Hydra of luxury folk art. 

Ragen Moss, Bullfighter (with one other Bullfighter), 2019. Acrylic, polyethylene, aluminum, and steel hardware

In lieu of conjuring curatorial advice and counting names, I prefer to spotlight a few projects in which I simply saw beauty, sincerity, and importance. I recommend starting at the base and working your way up: the first floor showing of Diane Simpson is some combination of natural grace and strict form. Lambrequin and Peplum (2017), both a garment and a window, emphasizes intention in design which lends a shape or strategy or attention for viewing the rest of the Biennial. From there, it’s up to you. Heji Shin’s Baby series documents, at face value, labor as it is known in childbirth. The portraits of wrinkled baby heads at their first exposure to this side of the veil are heroic and eruptive. Simone Leigh’s ceramic sculptures of Black women interrogate the stereotypical representation of form and utility of African bodies and architecture. Leigh’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition “Loophole of Retreat” at the Guggenheim is absolutely worth seeing for a larger survey of this work. Ragen Moss’s gauntlet of transparent, hovering sculptures are like nesting dolls, with smaller yet fully-developed sculpture hearts (“interiorities”) beating within the larger torsos. A favorite of these embedded pieces is titled Bullfighter (with one other Bullfighter) (2019). 

Maia Ruth Lee, LABYRINTH, 2019. Steel and printed key

Maia Ruth Lee and Gala Porras-Kim explore cryptography in their work, both excellently. Lee’s Bondage Baggage Prototype 4 (2018) featured on the brochure cover, resists unpacking, so to speak. The personal experience of diaspora and migrant worker travel maintains a level of privacy or preservation while still self-evident of identity experience as a complete work. Propped up on the wall, beside an electrical outlet, it rests casually without aloofness in presentation. LABYRINTH (2019), a window-facing blue wall upon which eclectic steel runes are affixed, distinguishes itself from a maze on the wall text by its meditative rather than anxious path. Although the hardened material is referred to as “armor,” the blue is soothing and the shapes are closer to domestic kitchen utensils than shields. On a print-out legend, falling graphically somewhere between an astrological star chart and a restaurant menu, each shape is assigned a vice from which you may protect yourself. 

Gala Porras-Kim, La Mojarra Stela 1 incidental conjugations, 2019. Ink and holographic paint, plexiglass, oil, water, LED light, lens, electric motor, transformer, electricity, and mahogany wood

Porras-Kim’s work explores the relationship between linguistic translation and visual interpretation through her juxtaposition of material (obsidian) and ancient language. The motorized La Mojarra Stela 1 incidental conjugations (2019) colorizes and scrambles the shapes in the indecipherable script behind it, rendered with graphite. 

Brendan Fernandes, The Master and Form, 2018/19. Steel scaffolding, ropes, audio recording, and performance

As for performance, Brendan Fernandes’s The Master and Form (2018/19) lays out S&M stretching “devices” which are simultaneously functional and sculptural on black carpeted discs—they are like hardcore Noguchi sculptures—that a quintet of ballerinas use to stretch out and submit to at regular intervals. The perverse devotion to form in dance is exaggerated by the architectural devices. One may think of the operational use of ballet in film, which lends itself to the horror genre particularly (Black Swan, Suspiria, Us, Innocence). It is a tense, but rewarding piece to sit through. 

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, I prayed to the wrong god for you, 2019

Finally, Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s installation, including video, audio, and sculpture, titled I prayed to the wrong god for you is a decolonization travelogue centering objects of spirituality and nature. She travels with a helmet as her witness, marked with cascarilla chalk. Each prong of this work is equally weighty.  

The artists I felt most drawn to maintained a level of secrecy or ambiguity in their messaging, but the cumulative internal ethos of the 2019 Biennial maze almost echoes that of the protests organized externally. The Whitney effect is something like a cracked mirror or, to draw a metaphor from Porras-Kim’s display, a translation that is not quite one-to-one. And how could it be? The Freudian fortress of the Whitney has a flopped eagle in its attic, commemorative varsity jackets in its ground-level gift shop, and the resistance knocking on the door. I mean that no individual piece is a Trojan horse, although Eisenman’s comes close. WM 

Correction: June 5, 2019. An earlier version of this review incorrectly described Tiona Nekkia McClodden's helmet object as "shit-stained." The white material used on the top of the helmet is cascarilla chalk and is not intended to signify bird droppings. 

Cori Hutchinson

Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn. 

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