The Whitney Biennial 2012—Caution: Dead End

America's big art show trades the real world for conceptual clutter

In the art world, there are those who have money, those who don't, and those who ignore the economy altogether. The last are thinning but insist on making their presence felt. Still, they look cool in their casual chic. Like Bible-quoting, "values voters," one can always count on this Arty-Go-Lightly group to have its head firmly up its weird end.

A case in point: the Whitney Biennial 2012. Last week, after publication of an open letter by Occupy Wall Street's Arts & Labor group calling for the cancellation of the next Whitney Biennial in 2014 ("It upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers") and a clever e-mail hoax perpetrated on the morning of the current show's preview (which claimed the show had broken with corporate sponsors Sotheby's and Deutsche Bank), the Whitney Biennial 2012 convened for business as usual. Obviously, neither the global recession nor the Occupy movement were able to keep the museum from feeling roundly self-satisfied with the status of its quo. (As of this writing, OWS and locked-out Sotheby's art handlers are planning more protests and pranks.)

Helmed by Whitney veteran Elisabeth Sussman and newcomer Jay Sanders, this 51-artist, officially non-thematic biennial is inspired by something the two curators call "old, weird America." A rumpled idea that is as icky as shag carpeting, it has collected threadbare work that evokes the world of hoarders. A&E could film a certain TV show in there. Yet the Whitney's conceptual clutter doesn't just amount to an aesthetic mess. More egregiously, it provides five floors of evidence that the museum has wantonly ignored the country's biggest news—its ongoing economic pain (at a time when artists are hurting especially badly). With the "real world" relegated to the mental attic, this particular Whitney Biennial has chosen to instead turn its ziggurat-shaped building into Uncle Fester's skeevy basement.

An eerie exception: Wu Tsang goes to the tranny bar.
© Wu Tsang, courtesy the artist
An eerie exception: Wu Tsang goes to the tranny bar.

Details

Whitney Biennial 2012
The Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
212-570-3600, whitney.org
Through May 27

Composed of arty ephemera, light musings on decades-old conceptual processes, and bogus curatorial gestures that conflate sculpture with performance and installation with music—the mind boggles at the notion of turning over most of the museum's fourth floor to genre-mixing "free collage," i.e., choreographer Sarah Michelson's noodling at preview time—the 2012 biennial promulgates a dark sensibility as an artistic foil to America's Tim Tebow culture. Not merely curating for the converted, the show moodily promotes art as another creepy niche pursuit (like collecting Wayne Newton records or YouTubing nut racks to get on Tosh.0). The misfire is decisive. What Sussman and Sanders were after was Blue Velvet; what they get instead is Portlandia—a show that refuses to acknowledge how lame it is when artists and their public share the same superiority complex.

No artist exemplifies the many obscure objects of narcissism pervading this exhibition more than the pseudonymous Lutz Bacher. Represented by a functioning pipe organ with missile shells for lungs, the artist also spreads her gnomic spirit throughout the entire show in the form of 85 framed book pages of galactic images. Loftily titled The Celestial Handbook, these standard-issue reproductions of stars and galaxies—they are no more than that, plain and simple—provide black holes (or mirrors) for the fill-in-the-blank pretensions of with-it audiences. Self-love (or self-abuse, its needy opposite) also animates multimedia-ist Dawn Kasper's bed-in. The thousandth instance of an artist living inside a museum gallery—complete with mattress, messy studio, and work on the wall—Kasper's old experiment inadvertently captures the curators' ethos while providing a pitch-perfect definition for many of the artworks of her co-exhibitionists: Its title is This Could Be Something If I Let It. Maybe, if the piles around the museum were not such inner-directed dead ends.

Sublimation—the basic transformation of raw, untutored stuff into art objects, videos, films, happenings, whatever—proves a remarkable challenge for many of the artists on view. Take Matt Hoyt's assemblage sculptures: Featuring objects created from materials including clay, putty, wood, and paint, his fussily handmade bric-a-brac resonates with all the vibrancy of dryer lint. There are photographs and sculptures by fashion maven K8 Hardy: Without the wall text, they distinguish themselves chiefly by being colorfully inarticulate. There's Michael E. Smith's oatmeal-encrusted objects and clothing—hobo-inspired, sculptural non sequiturs for the slacker set. And then there's Lucy Raven's po-faced "infinite duration" projection of test patterns and calibration charts. The description, yawn, speaks for itself.

It's not clear—to me, at least—whether any of this work represents or reproduces anything whatsoever—besides its own weblog-type, look-at-me, playground anxiety to be noticed. Collectively, this selection illustrates an anti-craft sensibility so strong the art nearly disappears from view. The work of these artists and others—among them Cameron Crawford (bumptious mixed-media sculptures), Moyra Davey (folded-up prints stuck to the wall), Richard Hawkins (messy Francis Bacon–obsessed collages), Kate Levant (droopy sculpture made from found materials), and Tom Thayer (collection of vaguely surrealist 2- and 3-D origami)—reveals plenty of nerve but little in the way of achievement. It truly is a wonder that these artists were rounded up for such an important show in the first place. (One assumes their grouping might be a product of the organizers, typically, curating with their suggestible ears as opposed to their own discriminating eyes.)

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10 comments
James Merrigan
James Merrigan

As someone that didn't get to see the Whitney Biennale due to geography my perception on the event where through the positive reports from Roberta Smith and Peter Schjeldah, who I read avidly. Christian Viveros-Faune take is in stark contrast to their opinion, but it is his opinion, which I enjoyed reading immensely and will be a return reader of his reviews in the future: keep them coming CVF!!!

Zombie
Zombie

I couldn't agree more. I did find Laura poitras' film very engaging though. As for the rest.. The Times gushed over it, and it was disappointing. Very.

MKL
MKL

One, of many, things this review misses about the show is that the work is notably and refreshingly non-commercial - thus in its own way commenting on the sorry state of our economy which is often the best thing that can happen to the artworld.

Ginger Snacks
Ginger Snacks

I think this is what you get when you have a guy who champions Lisa Yuskavage write on an interesting show. Feeling small excluded and out of touch he attacks. It's too bad that the Village Voice has a reactionary bully rather than someone perceptive to the possibilities of our moment. I'm also shocked a guy who loves James Siena would say anything bad about noodling. Claiming that things have been done 1000 times, what's worse an artist re-engaging with historical performance and duration, or hearing that same criticism slobbered out of a well trimmed goatee yet again. There is your cliche.

Lance Carson
Lance Carson

Despite his championing of the steadily devolving OWS, Christian Viveros-Faune is like the Rush Limbaugh of art critics. Eager to hastily slam something in order to draw attention to himself.

Lowell Mafer
Lowell Mafer

I would venture to say Bacher's Celestial handbook may have been inspired by the recent passing of her husband who was one of the world's foremost radio astronomers.

Poolhigher
Poolhigher

Who cares. The framed pages of a book did not work conceptually or visually amount to anything without An extensive rant of verbal interpretations to give it some dubious significance? Sorry, no explanation needed! Bad!

 
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