An intoxicating Whitney Biennial relies heavily on abstraction

The work of gathering, planning and preparing for the 80th Whitney Biennale began in 2019, in the “times before”. Before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold and before the murder of George Floyd by a police officer on duty. And it comes back with a ground war in Europe playing out in the streets and on social media, a Twitter storm of blood and dust. Disorientation is now commonplace. And if you’re looking for order or solace, a boisterous group survey of contemporary American art isn’t the place to find it. Nor should it be.

Curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards of the Whitney, and featuring the work of 63 deliberately diverse artists – mostly emerging, a handful established and a few dead – the latest biennial is tagged “Quiet as it’s Kept”, a title taken from a 1960s album by jazz drummer Max Roach and a phrase covered by Toni Morrison. This suggests telling stories that were previously hidden or suppressed, although evidence of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement is limited. (Curators insist, however, that relationships and relationships with their chosen artists, started IRL, deepened on Zoom as they were engulfed in threat and calamity.) There’s also little things that deal with the climate crisis. Here, the politics – explicit and abstract – is primarily one of identity and belonging.

Ellen Gallagher, Ecstatic draw of fish2022. Oil, pigment, palladium leaf and paper on canvas, 89 3/4 × 118 1/8 in. (248×300cm)

The staging, however, speaks loudly of its moment. The exhibition takes place over two floors of the gallery, the lower floor flooded with light, patterns, colors, textures, textiles or what could be textiles. There are no interior walls, just “temporary structures”. It feels both composed and peppered with improvised rhythm, about cumulative effect as much as quiet one-on-one contemplation.

The curators say they didn’t organize the exhibition into themes but followed a series of ‘intuitions’, and intuition here favors the abstract and the conceptual, and a variety of forms. Edwards says the exhibit is about the state of contemporary art making in America and there’s no sign of figurative retaliation here, as much as commercial galleries might push. There are many sculptures, hangings, banners, ready-mades, photography, beading and crafts, as well as images generated by the technology of the game, and many works represented by the artists under of multiple forms.

Jacky Connolly, still from Descent into Hell, 2021. Multi-channel HD video, color, sound; 33:57 min. Courtesy of the artist

Duane Linklater’s hanging tipi covers somehow anchor the space and set the tone, while those by Alejandro Morales Juareza series of hanging magnifying keychains, each containing a slide of the artist’s hometown of Ciudad Juárez, is where the show comes closest to being playful.

Alejandro ‘Luperca’ Morales, Juárez Archive (7512 Maravillas Street), 2020–. Novelty magnifying keychain containing a 35 mm slide, 2 5/16 × 1 1/2 × 1 3/8 in. (5.9 × 3.8 × 3.5cm) each. Image courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Michelle Lartigue

There are stories here, although they require a bit of research and background checks to uncover. Kitchen, as its name suggests, is a translucent kitchen with countertops set 5 feet 9 inches above the floor, the average height of an American man. It has a touch of Do Ho Suhs about it, but it’s also a gripping commentary on disability as a design issue. The artist, Emily Barker, uses a wheelchair. Elyse Smith’s Sand A clockworkmeanwhile, is a miniature Ferris wheel or giant desk toy for Darth Vader, rolling blackened prison furniture.

Emily Barker, Kitchen, 2019. PET plastic, 15 × 15 × 15 ft (4.6 × 4.6 × 4.6 m). Collection of the artist; image courtesy of the artist and Murmurs, Los Angeles. Photograph by Josh Schaedel

One floor above is a deadly black maze, suitable for Vader, made up of mostly dark rooms, housing mostly video art – the video’s central staging is another curatorial hunch – much of it is almost a live documentary. The contrast with the air and light in the room below perhaps suggests polarization, or wild collective mood swings from optimism to despair.

A star is In your eyes will be an empty world by Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco. The piece is mostly made up of drone footage of Hart Island, New York’s “potter’s field.” In 2020, unclaimed Covid-19 victims were buried here in mass graves. From above, the island looks overgrown and abandoned, full of derelict, derelict ruins and struggling nature. Fusco drifts around the island in a rowboat, an act of remembrance and homage. The piece is sad, haunting, elegiac and immediate, but it also alerts you to the state of mechanical reproduction in contemporary video art. The screen is large, the colors pop, the definition is ultra sharp. There is little grain or texture, pixelation or flow. It’s not a good or a bad thing, but it’s a choice. And in this maze of projection rooms, every screen, whatever the subject, whatever the story being told, has the same clarity and sharpness. It’s starting to feel like a multiplex for non-engagement, a place of constant distraction rather than sharp focus.

Moved by the motion, always from MOBY-DICK; or, The Whale, 2022. Directed by Wu Tsang, Schauspielhaus. High definition video, color, quiet and performance. Courtesy of the artists

The Whitney Biennials are pretty much guaranteed to generate controversy (the 1993 show lives in infamy). A group show of this size and ambition, the claims and choices made, are bound to rub you the wrong way one way or another (too many zombies and post-humans in my taste). And sure enough, it’s loud, tedious, and crowded (and that’s before the actual crowds arrive). Charles Ray’s big metal men, rusty, painted white, silver-surfer silver, take advantage of their space and seclusion on the outdoor terrace, whatever their inner desperation. However, it all suggests something new and different is happening, a ramshackle, earthy formal invention (there’s no AR or VR here, nothing too technical or promising immersion). And voices and stories, hitherto unseen, that demand to be told. §

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