While the Whitney Biennial focuses on messages, they don't always get through

March 29, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

New York -- For years critics have been complaining that the Whitney Biennial Exhibition of contemporary art is too sprawling and unfocused, that it looks as if it's organized by a committee because it is, and that it is too tied in with dealers, hot trends and art as a commodity.

For the 1993 version of this always-controversial event, the Whitney's new director, David Ross, has changed all that. There was a curatorial team involved with this biennial, but it was under the direction of Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman, and that shows.

This biennial is focused on the socio-political issues that have become so great a concern in today's art world, and in particular issues of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual identity.

And far from promoting art as a commodity, the show is filled with art that's either too temporary, too big or -- and this above all -- too bad as art to find a ready market. Although the show's introductory text proclaims its "commitment to aesthetic concerns," questions of aesthetics are far from the first thing that occurs to the visitor.

The first thing tends to be simply finding one's way through this maze of videos, installations, writing on the wall, simulated tears and simulated vomit on the floor, while wearing one's button emblazoned with part of the motto "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white." (If you are white, don't worry that you'll look ridiculous -- most buttons contain only a bit of the sentence; mine said "imagine," which seemed fine for a museum visit).

The conception of Daniel J. Martinez, these buttons make every visitor to the show a collaborator in creating a work of art, which is appropriate to a show in which the artists seem to have been selected on the basis of what they wanted to say more than for how well they might be able to say it.

Surprisingly, however, the major problem with the biennial lies not in the matter of how good or bad the art is. By subordinating all else to message, (even though it may claim otherwise), the Whitney makes a statement that is not out of keeping with the current direction of the art world. The real problem with this show lies in the fact that so many of the messages don't get across.

All too often these works are either obscure, boring or trivial, and even when the message does get through, we wonder at times how someone so concerned could have made such an unarresting work.

Take Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald's installation "Untitled," which deals with sexuality. Hanging from the ceiling of the installation's space are branding irons with words that refer to sexuality, only they're not recognizable words but shorthand symbols.

On the walls are pieces of muslin in bed frames, into which these symbols have been burned. As the catalog quite clearly points out, "Without

knowledge of this [shorthand] language, the viewer reads these symbols as merely visual marks bereft of meaning."

One must consult the accompanying text to get some idea of what's going on, but even then the work remains visually so austere that it subverts its subject matter.

Or take "Re: Claiming Egypt" the installation by Fred Wilson, late of "Mining the Museum" fame in Baltimore. By combining artifacts from ancient Egypt with T-shirts and other items that reveal the influence of Egypt on contemporary black culture, Wilson apparently seeks to claim, or reclaim, Egypt as a part of black heritage.

The validity of such a claim may be argued, but that's not the point. The point is that the whole thing falls flat. It doesn't long engage our attention, much less our emotions, and it's hard to believe that the Wil

son of "Mining" has done something so weak as this.

Or take Donald Moffett's "Gays in the Military" series, in which he takes photographs of 19th-century military men and attaches mocking nicknames to them -- "Truffles," "La Treen" (latrine, get it?), etc. Really, must we descend to such silliness? Remembering David Wojnarowicz's moving photo and text combinations on the subject of homosexual love from the 1991 biennial makes one all the sadder.

But, as always must be said sooner or later about the biennial, the above doesn't mean it's useless. It was a good idea to do an exclusively socio-political show, both as a break with the past and as a reflection of current directions, and some of the work is effective.

Pepon Osorio's ironic installation "The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)" manages to be both angry and funny as it indicts the movie stereotype of Latinos as casual murderers who live in surroundings of unbelievably bad taste. In a setting that might be called the apotheosis of the tacky, a family (represented by pictures on chair backs) sits calmly around the dining room table, while nearby in the living room lies a bloody body.

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