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.
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.)
Other artists, though, prove exceptions to the rule of diminishing conceptual and aesthetic returns. Consider folks including Liz Deschenes (impeccably realized if dry photograms), Jutta Koether (handsome paintings as critiques of the medium), Vincent Fecteau (elaborately realized gypsum sculptures), Andrew Masullo (brightly balanced abstractions), LaToya Ruby Frazier (prints documenting the collapse of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania), and Wu Tsang (an installation and film starring immigrant transsexuals).
Unlike the remaining artists in the show and all advertisers, their work does not rely on marginal differences to conceal basic similarities—they get by on a whole lot more than vibe. This is especially true of Tsang’s installation: A genuinely eerie re-creation of a “green room” in a tranny bar, it includes revealing interviews with the performers. The sole Biennial artist to participate in the much better, more original, and thoroughly political New Museum triennial 80 blocks south, his authentic weirdness vibrates with real life—the kind capable of transforming lived nighttime ideas and experiences into substantial, relevant art for our times.