Biennial serves its purpose Art: The Whitney's Biennial exists to show us worthwhile art by mostly new artists, and this year's succeeds better than many.

April 06, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

NEW YORK -- Like all of its predecessors, the 1997 Whitney Biennial isn't perfect, nor could it be. But like most of its predecessors, it's an interesting show with a lot of thought-provoking art.

Its strength lies largely in its conception. The curators have eschewed a grab-bag approach in favor of a theme: narrative and often psychological work that frequently deals in what the catalog calls "the surreal of the everyday."

But the show doesn't look narrow of focus. The curators -- the Whitney's Lisa Phillips and Louise Neri, U.S. editor of the art magazine Parkett -- have interpreted their theme broadly. There are more than 200 works by about 70 artists, including not only painting, sculpture, drawing and photography but also video and installations.

The works have been installed on the Whitney's five levels with a nice sense of variety. The fourth floor, for example, proceeds from installation to painting to installation to photography to video to installation to drawing and painting.

In all, it's one of the better Biennials, an alternate-year show that since 1932 has been devoted to finding new American art of high caliber. It's not comprehensive (and never claims to be), and, while there's a sprinkling of big names, including Louise Bourgeois, Francesco Clemente and Edward Ruscha, most of the artists here are younger and less well-known.

Among the artists' names that will no doubt become better known because of this show are Sharon Lockhart, Paul Shambroom, Antonio Martorell, Kerry James Marshall, Cecilia Vicuna and John Schabel.

These and other artists have taken their inspiration from everyday life. It's not always an everyday life that's like yours or mine, but it's somebody's everyday life. By skewing it a little, or even by throwing it in our faces, the artists made us think anew about our lives.

Some of these artists find common ground with artists whose work is superficially quite different. Sharon Lockhart's color photographs and Chris Burden's huge installation constitute a case in point.

Lockhart's untitled photos picture people in familiar surroundings: a young woman asleep with her head resting on a glass-topped table, three women sitting in a big window of an urban office building. These people are separated from their surroundings -- the girl asleep, the women with mask-like faces that look as if they're intent on their own thoughts. It's as if these people are withdrawing from the life around them.

Burden's "Pizza City," a huge tabletop conglomeration of toys and models (buildings, ships, trains, smokestacks, etc.), looks absolutely frightening. It amounts to a model of the modern urban cacophony, and it makes you want to withdraw, as Lockhart's characters have done.

But the ultimate effect of the works is quite different. Burden's makes you feel insignificant and powerless to improve what's wrong with cities. Lockhart's makes you wonder why people with apparently comfortable middle-class lives can't manage to enjoy them (and by extension, whether you appreciate your own comfortable middle-class life). Burden's says there's every reason to withdraw, Lockhart's says there's every reason not to.

Escapism

Escapism, or what might be called withdrawal taken a step further, finds a home in several artists' works. Paul Shambroom's richly colored photographs of nuclear missile stations at first look as if they have nothing to do with you and me. But when you notice how the people in them calmly go about their jobs, you see how living with weapons of mass destruction can become ordinary, normal. Escapism of a kind.

Francesco Clemente's erotic drawings represent another kind of escapism, the fantasy dreams of our desires (and perhaps our fears as well). The artist's felicitous use of pastel echoes the subject matter in its soft richness.

Ilya Kabakov's installation "Treatment With Memory," one of the Biennial's most thought-provoking works, brings us still another kind of escapism -- a kind that's imposed. It's about a treatment for the old and ill in nursing homes, inaugurated several years ago in Russia, where Kabakov comes from. The nursing home, with the help of a patient's family, puts together a narrated slide show composed of old photographs from the patient's life. The slides are then shown to the bedridden patient. The combination of the semi-darkened room, the slowly changing slides and the soft-voiced narration is supposed to "help to lull the patient into a deep sleep."

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