The Whitney Biennial 2017: From the Perspective of a Radically Unqualified, Overly Opinionated Non-Critic
By Rachel Kubrick
Do a quick Google search for reviews of the 2017 Whitney Biennial and you’ll find a collection of headlines littered with the adjective “political” along with such hyperbolic words like “revelation” and “triumph.” This non-critic would not go so far as to laud the exhibition with similarly exalting nouns, but to describe it as political is certainly accurate by any opinion. Are the politics shown in the Biennial, however, the right ones?
(Side Note: One may also want to note that the grand majority, if not all, of the reviews run by the most prominent sources of art criticism are by white, primarily older, critics. [Side, side note: this reviewer happens to also be white, but is also young, Jewish, and female so maybe that counts for something?])
Now obviously the concept of a correct political stance is ludicrous, but the overtly political overtones of the exhibit do point to the fact that curators Christopher L. Yew and Mia Locks (both Asian-American!) were looking to represent a progressive, leftist perspective, especially in the context of Trump’s America. Issues from rising sea levels to debt, and most notably, race, are addressed. The Whitney Museum of American Art has proven itself as a force in exhibiting art that echoes the political climate of the United States. This time, however, it has done so in a strange fashion.
If you are an art nerd like myself, you are likely already thinking of Dana Schutz’ controversial painting of Emmett Till, entitled Open Casket. If you’ve been living under the art world rock and don’t know the dealio with this major oversight, here’s a summary: Dana Schutz, a white artist, painted an image of Emmett Till’s open casket. Till was brutally murdered at 14 by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman falsely claimed he had made sexual advances. His mother famously chose to have his casket open at his funeral for all to see the terrible mutilation and violence her son had endured simply due to his race. As the Black Lives Matter movement revitalizes the fight for civil rights, it is this moment that Schutz has chosen to portray.
Since the show’s opening, much criticism has been thrown at the Whitney and Schutz for this painting, bringing in protests and even calls to remove and destroy the work. These protests have been successful in sparking conversation about the piece. Is it wrong for a white artist to paint (and therefore, profit) off of black pain? Is Open Casket perpetuating the systemized racism that allows for white people to use black voices for themselves?
While both sides may have legitimate arguments, the painting itself, as well as the statement accompanying it, are rather weak. Schutz brings nothing new to this painful moment in American history. If the curators had simply put up a reproduction of the photograph of Emmett Till’s open casket it would have been far more powerful. Schutz’ abstraction dilutes the emotional effect that the original photo brings, and her statement in the wake of the controversy fails to adequately address the important concerns of the black artists and activists who have criticized the painting. Frankly, it is surprising that anyone thought Open Casket was a good idea, from its conception to its installation in the gallery.
Violence like that of Open Casket’s subject seems to have been a theme for the Biennial. Just look at the aptly named Real Violence by Jordan Wolfson, perhaps the second most talked about piece in the show. To experience this work, one had to wait in line (and be at least 17 years old) for a virtual reality video in which the artist would be seen beating another man on a city street. The audio was a recording of the Hanukkah prayers on top of the sounds of the violence you’re witnessing.
Watching people go through this 90 second experience was as interesting as doing it yourself. Viewers would gawk at the imagery, tear off their VR goggles in disgust, and storm away grunting about how “unnecessary” the violence was. In the respect of eliciting a reaction, Wolfson’s work was a success, but that raises the question of whether art is good simply because it makes you feel something. Similar questions have been brought toward works like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, for example, which ignited anger for its imagery of a crucifix submerged in urine.
The Whitney fails to help the viewer understand Wolfson’s work and his intentions in the wall text. Wall text is frequently an undervalued element when evaluating an exhibition. Especially for the conceptual works that dominate the contemporary art world, wall text can make or break a viewer’s experience of an art work. The text for Real Violence fails to increase the understanding of the artist’s intention or the curators’ interpretations. This is especially troubling when considering that the artist has chosen to associate such raw, savage violence with a prayer from a religion that has been fraught with growing prejudice and hate crimes against its followers in recent years. A work balancing such sensitive subject matter requires an adequate explanation. Otherwise, one must conclude that the artist’s choices were arbitrary, which is difficult to believe.
Another odd choice of Jewish themes in this exhibit is seen in Pope.L’s Claim. To be honest, my friend and I both thought that this work was a pink wall of vaginas until reading the letter by the artist. The piece consists of a four wall installation, with the interior and exterior covered in a grid of old bologna, each with a miniature portrait photograph in the center. On further inquiry, my friend and I discovered that these misshapen cold cuts were not meant to represent genitalia-- in fact this piece had nothing to do with gender or sex at all. Shockingly, it’s about Jews, and, not shockingly, the artist, with a name like Pope.L, is not Jewish (perhaps I am wrong about this, but in all my research I have found that he is an African American artist who frequently does work about race-- at least Jordan Wolfson is Jewish).
To be frank, I did not appreciate this work. Sorry Mr. Pope.L. The amount of bologna is supposed to be proportionate with the number of Jews in New York City (it’s not). Worse, the photographs are meant to represent Jews, and yet the artist states that he did not take these photos with regard to any of the subjects’ faith or identity! Furthermore, why in the world would someone making a piece about Jews choose bologna as the representative cold cut? Was there no salami or pastrami on hand?! All jokes aside, bologna is made from pork, a meat forbidden in Jewish law, so the inclusion of it is rather insensitive and ignorant. It’s careless, and reminds one of a certain Schutz painting also featured in this exhibit, no? Obviously, the subject matter and its consequences are very different, but the parallel of a discussion of a culture’s experience that the artist has nothing to do with and clearly does not understand, is striking.
The curators’ choices become increasingly bizarre when one arrives at The Island, a short film by Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Pause. Read that sentence over. Vietnamese? In “the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States?” His video is beautifully filmed and engaging, but it simply does not belong in an exhibit about American art.
Although there is much work here that does not necessarily succeed, there are also quite a few gems in the Biennial, that do champion the progressive political climate of New York City. Postcommodity’s video installation A Very Long Line immerses the viewer in the experience of a Mexican immigrant confronted by the border. The viewer is overcome by the overwhelming stress of the border, its meaning, and its controversy.
Another highlight is Occupy Museums’ installation Debtfair. The work itself is well conceived, exploring the issue of debt with today’s artists and how that debt is exploited in the art world. Visitors can get involved in the work and fill out a survey on the accompanying screens. What is perhaps most interesting about this work is the inclusion of a group like Occupy Museums in such a long standing, institutionalized exhibition. Is Occupy Museums conducting the ultimate occupation by being in the Whitney Biennial, or have they “sold out?”
Many artists in this exhibition have contributed wonderful and exciting works. The window installations of Samara Golden and Raúl de Nieves are both pleasing for the Instagrammers in the crowd as well as the esoteric art aficionado in their meticulously constructed spaces. Golden’s infinite interior spaces exploring inequality and de Nieves’ stained glass and costumed figures on the nature of death. Chemi Rosado-Seijo’s collaboration with public school students, entitled Salón-Sala-Salón (Classroom/Gallery/Classroom), serves as a beautiful beacon of inspiration and helps to heighten art education. Asad Raza also provides a happy moment for viewers among much emotionally heavy work. His in-museum forest provides a respite for visitors, reminiscent of Monet’s serene paintings in the Musée de l’Orangerie as a calming space for busy Parisians.
The exhibition soars in its photographic and videographic selection as well. Oto Gillen, Maya Stovall, and An-My Lȇ provide comprehensive imagery of New York, Detroit, and Louisiana, respectively. John Divola’s photos of abandoned paintings in abandoned spaces in Southern California are hauntingly lovely. Finally, John Riepenhoff’s miniature gallery, The John Riepenhoff Experience, is at once a clever take on egotism in art, and a very enjoyable work to take part in.
Although I would not describe the 2017 Whitney Biennial as a “revelation” or “triumph,” it remains a crucial exhibition, bringing up important questions and creating waves in the art world. This review is written and published as the Biennial comes to a close, like a post-mortem review, or perhaps even an obituary. Therefore, although I can no longer recommend you go see the exhibit and decide whether or not my criticisms are valid for yourself, I can implore you to continue keeping up with the legacy of the Biennial. There is no doubt that, good art or bad, the works and artists of the 2017 Whitney Biennial will continue influencing the art world in the months and years to come.
Photographs courtesy of the Whitney Museum