Exhibit has something for all

Whitney Biennial seems to reflect recovery from 9/11


March 16, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The curators of this year's Whitney Biennial say the exhibition of 108 artists that opened Thursday in New York reflects "a reinvigoration of contemporary American art at a moment of profound change in our cultural landscape."

Viewed as a whole, the show appears largely to justify that description. There are a lot of works in the exhibition that exude a self-confidence and expressive vigor that really do seem like an advance over the rather repressed, demoralized and alienated 2002 show.

Painting, which in recent years seemed to have taken a back seat to the newer media of photography, film and video, is well-represented in strong works by younger artists Cameron Martin, Julie Mehretu and Tam Van Tran, as well as by older, established painters like David Hockney, Fred Tomaselli and Robert Mangold.

Martin's mural-scale minimalist landscapes are inspired by images of nature that he finds in 19th-century photography, commercial advertisements and Japanese prints. After stripping all the incidental detail from these images, he re-creates them in nearly monochromatic compositions that imply rather than depict the original scene.

Mehretu's equally large-scale works are meticulously organized, collage-like paintings in various media that combine architectural plans, newspaper clippings, cartoon fragments, maps and graffiti in a kind of crazy-quilt abstract composition.

In Empirical Construction, Istanbul (2003), for example, which is hung in the first gallery visitors enter, Mehretu layers her motifs of scientific, documentary and fantasy imagery in a composition that looks utterly fresh and engaged with the polyglot visual universe of contemporary mass culture.

The first gallery also displays a knockout sculpture by Erick Swenson, whose surreal, out-of-scale acrylic deer cavorting on a Persian carpet offers a delicate grace note of exuberant fantasy amid the monumental gravitas of the paintings.

Several artists seem involved in creating imaginary worlds visualized as apocalyptic prophecies. Robyn O'Neil's large (approximately 7 feet by 12 feet) drawing of a landscape covered in snow and populated by disoriented groups of tiny human figures suggests an ominous, unsettled dystopia. Robert Longo's powerful graphite drawings of cresting ocean waves have a menacing undertone that belies their beach boy and surfboard exuberance.

At the other end of the scale, Emily Jacir creates naively optimistic photograph-and-text installations about her efforts to help Palestinians who, under current laws, cannot move freely about in the West Bank and Gaza.

Jacir's artworks propose admittedly modest but humanistic alternatives to the current cycle of Arab-Jewish violence.

A Palestinian-American whose U.S. passport allows her to travel throughout the region, Jacir contacted Palestinians in different countries and asked them, "If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?"

Her photographs and texts document her performing such unpretentious personal services as paying someone's telephone bill, visiting a relative's grave, going on a blind date in someone's place and kissing the mother of an absent child.

The curators comment that "the work's intimacy and specificity runs counter to the anonymity of media images that portray violence in the Middle East, and it poignantly communicates how political borders currently demarcating Gaza, the West Bank and Israel fragment and stifle the lives of individuals and families in unexpected and profound ways."

One of the most arresting works in the show is a five-channel video installation by the performance-endurance artist Marina Abramovic, who made a reputation in the 1970s by publicly subjecting herself to such bodily trials as cutting herself with razor blades, ingesting toxic substances and, more recently, fasting for 12 days in a tiny cubicle set up in a gallery.

I was moved and mystified by the artist's latest piece, to which viewers are summoned by the plangent voices of a Serbian children's choir wafting through the adjacent galleries.

On entering the darkened space, one sees four video projections of children singing on an auditorium stage, sitting on the ground with their bodies arranged in the shape of a pentagram, or standing alone in front of a heavy curtain.

The fifth video shows the artist beside a heavy metal rod that emits powerful electrical sparks which her body seems to absorb.

The children are singing a hymn to peace and the United Nations - a somewhat incongruous juxtaposition given the relentless bombing Serbs were subjected to by U.N. forces in 1999. Abramovic, who appears in the videos dressed in a skeleton costume, seems to take in that punishing irony as the bolts of electricity course through her body.

While I was there, the artist made an unexpected appearance in the darkened room, during which she cheerfully announced that she had hardly felt the 30,000-volt current.

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