What Makes Art “American” in 2017?


Howling Dogs isn’t so much a video game as a genre-mash, redolent of choose-your-own-adventure books, an unwritten Black Mirror plot, a poem, a depressive spiral, a manic flight. You “enter” its “rooms” via hyperlinks leading to pages of text. The construct starts you off in a cell that gets dingier by the day, your only escape temporary: a series of dreamy virtual realities accessible via hardware. You can pretend to be a Joan of Arc type on a pyre or an empress learning to die. But like a sad person self-medicating with drugs or sex or work — the game is a commentary on trauma — you cannot escape your recursive state. When the v/r fun ends, you’re back in the cell (the page describing it, that is), locked in a reality you badly want to leave.

The game’s creator, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, is an unlikely entrant into a hoary museum. And yet this week Heartscape steps into her glitziest gig by many miles, as one of 63 chosen artists showing at the 2017 Whitney Biennial — the first at the museum’s dramatic new site. The 29-year-old Oakland resident is known best in the furthest reaches of the internet. Off it, the trans artist — in the tradition of LGBTQ kids kicked out of their homes, as she was — battles chronic homelessness. She wrote Howling Dogs in under a week soon after starting hormone therapy, in a friend’s barn; by phone, she says the hormones leached into the work in a “furnace-like process,” full of “temperature shifts…feverish sweating and chills and reds and blues and oranges flushing through your body. It’s like when you’re taking metal and tempering it into a different shape. It was a molten experience, and that sweat a lot into the work.”

Her presence is a signal, a promise kept, by curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks. When the thirtysomethings were announced as this year’s gatekeepers of American art, much was made of their youth and backgrounds. Lew, a 36-year-old Brooklyn native, sports a mohawk, looks like a kid, and is Chinese American. Philadelphia-born Locks, also preternaturally youthful, also Asian American, is 34. They are the latest reps for a museum forever locked in a battle with itself, to change its own game every round. Every few years headlines surface about curators different from, and seemingly more exciting than, their predecessors: non-Whitneyites for 2014; an embattled alum for 2012 (Elisabeth Sussman, whose then-infamous, Anglo-skewering 1993 curation job has since become the stuff of myth); an odd couple for 2010, in the form of a Gen X’er (Gary Carrion-Murayari) and a 53-year-old (Francesco Bonami).

Lew and Locks signify, perhaps, the most committed departure yet, anomalies as they both are in a world still sheltered from first-gen, non-European tastes. Lew, a staffer at the Whitney for almost three years, met Locks at his previous job, at P.S.1, where the pair shared a desk in the MoMA offshoot’s open-plan office. He’s not a practicing artist, but he grew up in the museums of the city — MoMA, the Whitney, the Met — and shared with his deskmate the love of a viewer. “We never collaborated, but we were always working in tandem,” Locks says, describing what sounds closer to a friendship than a business relationship. “We’d go see shows together, stuff we were excited about.”

When the Whitney tapped Lew, he went with his gut in selecting a partner. Wary of the “forced marriage” rut curatorial duos often find themselves stuck in, he chose “someone I wanted to be on the road with, Airbnb’ing with.” If the approach seems looser than expected for one of the biggest art events in the world, it’s maybe predictable for a museum going hard on the path of reinvention. This will be the first Biennial at the Whitney’s buzzy new Renzo Piano–designed home, which has shifted an institutional center of gravity from the midtown museum block to the Chelsea gallery scene. The lineup suits that downtown trajectory. Better than a third of the artists showing this year were born in or after 1980 — four of them in or after 1990. To compare, post-1980 babies were far scarcer in 2014: Out of more than a hundred artists, they numbered eleven (none in that edition were born in the Nineties).

So Lew and Locks got to play out a buddy-comedy art film. En route to Berlin, they lunched in Amsterdam with Jo Baer, the Seattle-born octogenarian paintress, whose minimalist canvases Locks fell in love with at a viewing in London. A rare “studio visit” with the anonymous artist Puppies Puppies played out in an L.A. dive bar, where the three huddled around a laptop looking at images of art. “The waitress who was serving us was like, ‘Is it pornography?’ ” Locks remembers. Lew chimes in with a stab at what the server might have been thinking: “Why are you in an old punk bar in Los Angeles looking at art?”

Aily Nash, a curator for the New York Film Festival who helped Lew and Locks build the show’s video offerings (the duo relied on a team of supplementary curators from the moment the process began, in 2015), says she was surprised at how “casual” it all felt. She invited the two to her home in the Hudson Valley one weekend, where the three spent a day and a half curled up on her couch, watching videos she was into at the time. “It felt like the right thing to do, to have them come up. It wasn’t like we were always meeting at the museum,” she says. “They’re lovely, and they made the experience informal and friendly.”

Lew, she says, fumbles his way to the light: “He goes on an instinct, not knowing exactly why something is interesting, but kind of being able to sense innovation or newness.” It’s a characterization Locks echoes. She calls her partner a good “early talent scout.” Meanwhile, he says she holds the flashlight. “Mia will say, ‘Why is this interesting? What’s going on here?’ She makes us take that time to process it,” Lew says.

Working with “a shared brain” made it easier to “hunt around in the dark,” he adds. Ergo the inclusion of Heartscape, rooted in a 2014 New York Times article on the Gamergate controversy that rippled through the outer rings of gaming sites. That article, with its lengthy look at the fringe pioneer, stayed in Lew’s mind, and at one point he found himself, as if possessed, making “Mia play a lot of video games, or at least attempting to. I didn’t know why.” Locks — “the opposite of somebody who’s played video games” (“the last one I played was Duck Hunt,” she says) — became equally enthralled. Together they formulated a theory, on humanism. Heartscape’s games, directional forces in the indie gaming world, are “intentionally circular,” Lew says, “frustrating.” Enter a Heartscape creation and expect to feel a simulation of mental distress. “They’re about issues of trauma and PTSD. It locks you into something, the way depression does. It enacts [depression], in a sense.”

Interactiveness became what Lew calls an “accidental schematic.” Not in the Disneyfied sense (à la Rain Room), but a quieter sort. The building will be a participant. Built for “transparency,” as Lews describes it in the Biennial catalog, the museum will absorb installations, even in corners not associated with art. A room-size structure of adobe bricks by Rafa Esparza will offer new space in the lobby gallery for artists at his invitation; above the admissions desk will hang a piece of signage by Park McArthur, while an “exciting but troubling work” by Ajay Kurian winds up the central staircase, commenting on “upward mobility.” Fight in an Elevator, by Dana Schutz, links viewer to work and vice versa, via a cram of subjects meant to vivify the canvas itself — to “embody the claustrophobia an image may suffer if it had feelings,” as one reviewer put it. Schutz’s blurring of thing and person, feeling projected and feeling felt, led Lew and Locks to ask the Brooklyn-based artist to create a new Fight in an Elevator. This one will teem with both insects and political allegory. It’ll also, they promise, be funny.

The show’s start and end fall on either side of a major shift. “When we started, we were in the fall of 2015,” Locks says. “The presidential election wasn’t on the radar. There was an openness.” The artist list gelled before the election, but angles of interest sharpened afterward. “The lens shifted,” Lew says. “It’s not like we radically shifted gears, but what we were doing felt more urgent.” Issues at hand aren’t likely far from any American mind: “mass shootings, violence, complexity around immigration and the economy,” Locks says. “Moving through the landscape and having conversations with artists sculpted the conversation for us, about what issues are at stake and what’s happening in the world. And the role of art. Much of the way artists are thinking and working right now is partially about tackling those issues, and also about modeling new ways to do so.”

Locks cites a “collective” sensibility, seen in the empathy of Heartscape’s and Schutz’s work. This she distinguishes from “collective action, or even a formal [art] collective.” Her and Lew’s interest is in its broad meaning, against isolation. She contrasts earnestness with irony. Recall our near past: a collage of selfies and, in a trash heap somewhere, a pile of Time magazine Person of the Year issues, the gimmicky 2006 ones with a reflective surface as the cover. In the age of Trump, Locks argues, in a catalog Q&A, artists are no longer into “just trying to make it alone,” having come to favor “the communal and collaborative endeavor” and not “career as much as…the things a community needs.” Earnestness also stands in contrast with the predictability biennials typically get called out for — in 2014, the critic Jerry Saltz memorably judged most of the Whitney’s to be “dead art” — but this year’s catalog teases the absence of what has come to be central: the “slick, pop” cadence of biennials worldwide.

Of course, contemporary art arrives dying, or half-born, by the rule of time. Currency is a fallacy, Lew argues. “We’re all blind to the present. You can’t back up and look at the moment we’re in, trying to connect certain thoughts, when the context doesn’t exist yet.” It’s an admission hard to imagine from curators past — being unable to bottle time. But ours is a strange one. The president tweets policy, and what is urgent veers by the second. Information arrives in a flash and fades just as fast. It’s perhaps most timely, then, that Lew’s mission statement echoes the language not of the gardener but of the predator, who chews and moves on: “to digest something quickly,” he says, “to synthesize the moment as it’s unfolding.” Or, to quote Mark Zuckerberg, another catabolizer of the present — done is better than perfect.

Read more from our coverage of the Whitney Biennial:

The Bold Groups Tying Art History to Political History at the Whitney Biennial

A Brief History of the Whitney Biennial