Whitney Biennial discards notions about what artists should be doing

April 14, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | By Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

A lot of critics have complained about this year's Whitney Biennial, but I had a lot of fun at the show.

This exhibit is amazing simply because initially it seems so underwhelming. Think about it: We're so used to sensational art scandals -- animal parts floating in tanks of formaldehyde, nude Jesuses -- that if a show doesn't shock, insult and offend right away, we're apt to think it must not be the real thing.

Curator Lawrence R. Rinder has come in for a lot of criticism on this score. People are openly wondering whether he couldn't have found better art to represent the current moment.

Maybe, but it's also possible that Rinder has gotten it just right. He seems to have chosen works by a group of artists who will go to practically any lengths to frustrate viewers' expectations about what an artwork can or should be. And maybe that's the salient fact about where art is at the moment.

There are 113 artists in this year's biennial. They have been selected from across the country, and they work in a variety of media, often with nontraditional materials -- film, video and computer art, photography and performance, "sound pieces" and even robots of varying degrees of sophistication. Like most Whitney shows, this one is uneven, but, in its adventurousness and iconoclasm, it at least seems uneven for the right reasons.

New mood, new methods

Rinder writes in the exhibition catalog that diversity is America's greatest strength, and this show is designed to celebrate that idea. He also notes that "fundamental states of existence -- often represented by imaginary or, sometimes, mythological 'beings' -- seem to have replaced the focus on identity and the body of the recent past." The show documents how artists have moved on to a new mood as well as new methods.

Take, for example, Hirsch Perlman's weird performances (documented in a series of pinhole camera photographs). In them, the artist created a series of oddly expressive surrogate companions out of the cardboard packaging and duct tape left over from the move into his Los Angeles studio four years ago. Each day since then, the artist has fabricated a different creature out of these humble materials, sometimes embellishing them with plastic garbage bags and other studio junk, before dismantling the work so that the materials could be reused the next day.

Perlman's artwork is the performance rather than the cardboard figures, which survive only in the photographs. It is a notion of sculpture that would have baffled Michelangelo, and a modern viewer spying these objects unattended on the sidewalk might well dismiss them as something that had fallen out of a trash bin.

Or take Julie Moos' large, color portraits shot in Birmingham, Ala., which for all the world look like standard glossy magazine spreads. Moos interviewed students at a local high school along with their teachers and guidance counselors to find out which kids were best friends and which were worst enemies, then photographed the students in pairs against a neutral background without indicating whether her subjects are buddies or antagonists.

Because we know there's a relationship, we scour these spare photographs for clues in the smallest details of clothing, posture and facial expression. Yet in the end we can never be quite sure of what we are really seeing. The picture, which at first seemed so ordinary, suddenly is transformed into a surpassing mystery simply because we know it contains a significance that we can't make out -- even though it's literally staring us in the face. Thus Moos neatly dispenses with the modernist assumption that photographs bear a privileged relationship to truth.

Some of the works, like Ken Feingold's deadpan fiberglass talking heads, or Javier Cambre's curious tropical shelters whose architecture mixes primitive shanties and high-tech modular units, are not much more than one-liners -- you get the point and quickly move on.

Ditto Robert Lazzarini's computer-generated distortions of telephone booths and other common objects, or Christian Jankowski's video documenting the artist mugging with a San Antonio televangelist and his gospel band, which was broadcast as one of the preacher's regular shows on cable TV. All these pieces explore new relationships involving space and time, but I can't say I found them emotionally compelling.

The curator had courage

Still, I admire curator Rinder's imagination and the courage it must have taken to put stuff like this in his museum. Because what he is showing is a cultural moment in which the idea of art has been stretched so far beyond what we've grown comfortable with in recent years that it's almost unrecognizable. One gets the feeling these artists are in total revolt not only against the art of the past but also against the art world of the present as well.

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