On the edge, but not exactly a sensation

Whitney's Biennial show, which caused a protest before its opening, comes off as pretty tame.

March 26, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

NEW YORK -- The renowned Biennial show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is famous as a venue for cutting-edge artists who aren't afraid to stir up controversy.

The show that opened last week may have wanted to live up to that reputation, but in the end it seemed unlikely to provoke many howls of protest. Even the piece that inspired the most pre-opening publicity turned out to be pretty tame.

Hans Haacke's "Sanitation," an installation about censorship prompted by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt last year to close the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, was loudly denounced when the New York papers reported that it criticized Giuliani and others by comparing them to Nazis.

Two weeks ago, Marylou Whitney, daughter-in-law of museum founder Gertrude Whitney, announced she was withdrawing her support from the institution in protest over the work's inclusion in the show.

Yet on Thursday, few of the curious viewers who visited the small enclosed gallery containing Haacke's work emerged visibly upset.

Inside the darkened room, viewers could dimly make out rows of plastic garbage cans in front of a wall, on which quotes from Giuliani and others are printed in the Gothic-style Fractur typeface favored by Hitler.

Laid diagonally across the floor is a lighted case containing an enlarged facsimile of Article Three of the First Amendment of the Constitution and its opening words, "Congress shall make no law ..." Meanwhile, loudspeakers inside the garbage cans emit the rhythmic tramping sound of marching boots.

It is all very cerebral -- "conceptual" in art world lingo -- hardly the sort of visceral, visual invective that gets people's blood racing.

The lone protester standing outside the museum's front door waving a placard depicting political and entertainment figures wearing swastika armbands must not have bothered to see the exhibit first.

Blunted blade

And so it went with this show of cutting-edge art whose blade seemed blunted.

To be sure, there were any number of pieces that inspired mild wonder, such as Sarah Sze's gigantic installation of thousands of everyday objects -- pins, cups, Q-tips, candy, whirring fans, ladders and plants. The total effect of this fantastic miscellany is that of a household gone haywire.

There were also pieces that proved provocative in unexpected ways. Rina Banerjee's "Infectious Migration" is a monumental abstraction of a woman's body made out of nontraditional materials -- incense sticks, Vaseline, fake fingernails, light bulbs, rubber gloves, feathers, foam and fabric. The work simultaneously explores issues of gender, identity and the worldwide impact of the AIDS epidemic.

Al Souza's "The Peaceful Kingdom" is a mural-size collage of thousands of unrelated, ready-made jigsaw pieces depicting New England landscapes, Austrian mountains and Southwestern canyons. Glued together in whirling, seemingly random splashes of color and texture that comment obliquely on popular culture's picturesque banality, Souza's work recalls both early Pop art and the chance juxtapositions of abstract expressionism.

Previous Whitney Biennials have come under fire for emphasizing installation art, photography and video at the expense of traditional media such as painting and sculpture. In this show, the painters are definitely a minority, and they seem moreover to be fighting what looks to be a losing, rear-guard action.

Kurt Kauper's series "Diva Fictions" consists of exquisitely rendered paintings of imaginary opera singers posed against vivid monochrome backgrounds. The pictures have the glossy formal elegance of an Ingres portrait updated with contemporary costumes and a color palette out of Vanity Fair magazine.

Kauper sees a parallel between painting and opera, since each appears to him to be an imperiled art in the digital age. But his response to the perceived crisis, a sort of hypertheatrical photorealism, seems unpersuasive and not really distinguishable from the platitudes of routine commercial illustration.

Ingrid Calame achieves a bit more vitality in her unpoetically titled "b-b-b, rr-gR-UF!, b-b-b," a large-scale work on translucent Mylar that records what the artist delicately calls "the lacy stains left by the evaporation of nameless liquids."

Calame traces the patterns left by such stains on Los Angeles sidewalks and then meticulously transfers them in enamel paint onto Mylar, where they mimic the spontaneous gestural drips and daubs of abstract expressionist painting.

Her piece evokes themes of crime and detection as well as the babble of fluids associated with human bodily functions.

One senses John Currin's desire to provoke in his unnervingly seductive paintings of women that confound the technical virtuosity of Old Master nudes with the vapid allure of pinup magazine models. Currin's brilliant sendups of Lucas Cranach, Sandro Botticelli and others are beguiling and luminous but too self-consciously academic to have much emotional resonance.

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