Report from the Front

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THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL: TWO GOOD PLUS TWO HALF GOOD ARTISTS

June 1, 2017

Tags: Carrie Moyer, Shara Hughes, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Aliza Nisenbaum

Aliza Nisenbaum (b. 1977), La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, 2016. Oil on linen, 68 x 88 in. (172.7 x 223.5 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy T293 Gallery, Rome and Mary Mary, Glasgow.
Over the years, I have learned the hard way not to expect too much from the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art (which will be with us until June 11). Nor have my expectations ever been far wide of the mark. This time around, though, things were slightly different...

I found two representational painters who managed to hold my attention, one abstractionist who made me interested enough to go back for a second look, and another abstractionist whose work was marginally better than that at her last gallery show – all along with the usual froufrou and its accompanying persiflage….

You know the old story about the four blind men and the elephant, I suppose – how each blind man gets hold of a different part of the elephant, and all four come to different conclusions as to what it actually looks like.

I got something of this same feeling from a) attending the media preview on Monday, March 13, and b) reading the review of the show by Roberta Smith in the New York Times on the following Friday, March 17.

My first reaction was that she and I had managed to carve out two completely different shows from the displays by 63 participants (mostly individual artists, but with a sprinkling of collectives among them).

Then, upon re-reading her, I realized that she had devoted a few lines to the two abstractionists, and a passing mention to one of the two representational artists I’d liked.

But the fact of the matter was that she devoted far more space to the installations, videos, and above all the political art (as conveyed through paintings, photographs and various other media) that all the speakers at the media preview had clearly been proudest of.

As organized by Christopher Y. Lew, of the Whitney, and Mia Locks, an independent curator, this show reminded me of an old song (dating from the 1930s), “Sing Me a Song With Social Significance.”

Nowhere did it apparently occur to anybody connected with the show that politics can be a crutch, as well as an enabler, and that old wine in new bottles may turn into vinegar that much faster.

Needless to say, Smith, too, celebrated all of this social consciousness in her lede, saying that “Many of these artists confront such American realities as income inequality, homelessness, misogyny, immigration, violence, hatred, and biases of race, religion and class.”

Then she added, hastily, “But they are equally committed to the artistic exploration of media and materials” (sort of half a saves-y), “and to creation of bold things to see and think about.”

Notice: the only response she accepts as valid is “to think about” this art. Nowhere does she talk about being moved by it. But that is suiting her style to her audience with a vengeance.

Postmodernist art is not supposed to move or inspire the viewer, it is to stimulate an intellectual response—and that is why so many people, especially younger ones, will flock to this exhibition.

They don’t want to experience any deep emotional response from the art for its own sake – though they may well enjoy feeling virtuous outrage or equally virtuous pity upon the basis of the political issues being illustrated by this show.

Very few people are going to be aware of how fundamentally familiar all this art is, as art. Smith would have you believe that all 63 of these participants are working “at the intersection of the formal and the social,” but from the formal standpoint, I guess I’ve just been at this game too long, because nearly everything – especially the installations – reminds me of earlier work by earlier artists.

Not that anything is identical, of course, it’s just that it shows its ancestors too much.

Consider, for example, two works that reminded me very much of splendid “Mirrored Room” by Lucas Samaras of 1966 (pictured by me in Time a couple of years later).

One, “The Meat-Grinder’s Iron Clothes” (2017) was by Samara Golden, and required the viewers to bend over an open space and gaze down – or up – at seemingly endless repetitions of furnished rooms, either right side up or (reflected) upside down.

Phillip Greenberg was responsible for the brilliant photograph in the New York Times that showed far more of this artwork than I ever saw (though still not enough to persuade me that it wasn’t deeply indebted to the Samaras).

Another form of homage was paid by an artist who calls himself Pope. L aka William P. L in the form of “Claim (Whitney Version)” (2017).

This is a large pink box with doors so that you can walk into it (as one could with the Samaras). But instead of mirrors, the walls of this box (inside and out) are covered with a grid of what looks like little fried eggs on brown plates.

They are actually pieces of dried baloney (bologna, if you want to be highbrow about it) with white paint the middle and in the middle of that, a little black speck.

This black speck is supposed to be photocopy of a portrait of somebody who has been suffering (a minority?) but in most cases the faces are indecipherable and all you can see is the black speck.

Soft sculptures of furniture (sofas, chairs) by Kaari Upson (b. 1972), reminded me of the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, likewise a mainstay of the ‘60s, although Upson’s were upended and stained and discolored.

“Root Sequence, Mother Tongue” (2017) by Asad Raza (b. 1974) consisted of a room-full of 26 small trees, each in its own wood-enclosed box of dirt, most of them with a small figure or toy stuck in the dirt, and a crew of “caretakers” eager to explain how they water the trees, etc.

“It’s a process!” one of them brightly pointed out, thus establishing a lineage that goes back not only to the “earthworks” that Robert Morris was showing at Dwan in the later 60s but also to 60s process art and yes, even the performance art of the 60s.

A lot of people were shocked by all this back in the 60s, but it’s pretty old stuff by now.

One work of “art” that managed to shock me was “Real Violence” by Jordan Wolfson (b. 1980).

For this one, I had to put on a video headset and earphones. At the media preview, a sweet little helpful museum attendant helped to rig me out in this gear, and warned me that it might be “disorienting” so I should hold onto a railing.

First I saw an aerial view of a street looking down it and moving above it. I took this to be considered “disorienting” and had no trouble with it.

Then the film showed one man knocking down another and kicking him in the head so hard that blood spurted from his mouth. I ripped the headset off. I just didn’t feel a need to see that.

To me, it was a particularly graphic example of the Duchampian version of “épater le bourgeois” -- the notion that new art must be shocking at first, and that this was only proof of its newness.

But when the impressionists shocked Paris, it was because of their technique, not their subject matter. In terms of technique, there was nothing new about Wolfson’s work. Even in terms of its subject matter, I can see violence and sadism anytime I want to by turning on my TV set.

I guess that’s as much as I want to say about what may most charitably be called the postmodernist aspects of the Biennial, except that one political painting by Dana Schutz, “Open Casket” (2016), seems to have attracted a storm of controversy about which the NY Times has run at least two stories.

The painting depicts the corpse of Emmett Till, an African American teenager who was lynched by a couple of white men in Mississippi in 1955.

According to Randy Kennedy in the Times for March 22, an African American artist and a black British-born one have been conducting protests and rallying support for their position online by arguing that because Schutz is white, she had no business painting the picture and it should be taken down or even destroyed.

Although I didn’t think much of this painting in terms of its formal values, I’m opposed to anybody telling anybody else what they should or shouldn’t paint.

And I noted that on my third visit to the Biennial, the week after the show had opened, all this publicity about the Schutz seemed to have attracted hordes of art lovers to it—most of them with smart phones at the ready, busily snapping pictures of it.

Now to what I liked – or anyway, disliked less – I would include two abstract artists, Carrie Moyer & Shara Hughes, and two representational ones, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer & Aliza Nisenbaum.

All four got reasonably-sized galleries to themselves, with enough space to show a selection of their work, and the order in which I’ve listed them is the order in which I liked them, from least to most.

Carrie Moyer I last dealt with a year ago, when she was showing at DC Moore and being showered with praise by all your edge-conscious critics.

I didn’t like that work at all, but I do think the Moyers at the Whitney were better – not a whole lot better, but somewhat better—if only because the work on view was not as drippy and pseudo-Pollockian.

The paintings were simpler, despite an evident urge to get away from Greenbergian “flatness” and create an impression of depth.

This impression was created by superimposing large shapes with good-sized holes in them above differently-colored fields.

The holes, which were irregular, made me think of huge pieces of Swiss cheese – and to judge from the image at the artist’s home page, this analogy has not escaped her – it’s titled “Swiss Bramble.”

I thought the best Moyer on view at the Whitney was a painting named “Glimmer Glass” (2016). It had a black layer on top and a red field beneath, plus some small orange blimp-like shapes leading in and out of the holes in the black layer, rather like slugs on a rotten log.

These shapes and colors were all that was apparent when I looked at the painting from a reasonable distance, and it was enough to create a moderately good picture.

Moving up closer, though, which I had to do in order to read the label, I could see little blue marks scattered on top of everything, and the label also said that it had been made with glitter—which I couldn’t discern, beyond a slightly shiny surface.

I would have been happier without these additional “enhancements.”

Much has been made of Moyer’s supposedly Frankenthaler-y color sense. I don’t see this. I felt the color schemes of Shara Hughes were considerably more melodic and harmonious and quite attractive, really.

Where she got into trouble was with her drawing, her compositions. Not only is she determined to place shapes on top of each other, but (according to the literature on her) beyond that she wants to meld abstraction and landscape—as if this has not already been done hundreds and thousands of times before!

The result is an uneasy mix of central forms and “borders” that may run straight through the center of her paintings, all in an idiom that hovers somewhere between Edvard Munch and art nouveau.

The best was “Beautiful Truth,” which was predominantly vertical yellow and green tree trunks, with some dots of leaves at the bottom – blessedly simple & uncluttered.

Second best was “Cascade,” which employed blues, whites and greens to depict a waterfall in the center, plus foliage on cliffs to right and left.

As with Moyer (and, for that matter, de Kooning), Hughes doesn’t know when to stop —“Cascade” suffers from a wiggly, cloudy line across the bottom.

Now, to come to the two representational artists who did the most for me – Celeste Dupuy-Spencer (b. 1979 in New York, now living & working in Los Angeles).and Aliza Nisenbaum (b. 1977 in Mexico City, now living and working in New York).

Roberta Smith managed to work in no more than a phrase about the former, and made no reference that I could find to the latter, but for me these two were the admittedly modest standouts in the entire Biennial.

Not that they were the only representational painters – indeed, there were almost a slew of them, but none of the others managed to mount a comprehensive group of works that demonstrated talent as artists (as opposed to talent as fun-lovers or political crusaders).

In general, a certain style dominated not only Dupuy-Spencer and Nisenbaum but also all the other representational painters— simplified, flattened and at times almost deliberately crude, with a minimum of modeling and shading.

This generic “modernism” goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, and has for ancestry the cubists (before they were cubists) and the fauves (from the time they became fauves).

It’s a style that Ben Shahn, the American social realist, practiced in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the style of Dupuy-Spencer in particular reminded me of his style.

Considering that her own interests appeared to lie close to (though not identical with) social activism, she might even feel flattered by the comparison, although her style also reminded me of William Hamilton, the New Yorker cartoonist who died in 2016 at the age of 76.

True, the subjects of Dupuy-Spencer were, for the most part, working class or artistically-inclined subjects that could be of almost any class, whereas Hamilton specialized in lampooning blue-blooded lawyers, stockbrokers and the like.

Just as his cartoons required captions, so too Depuy-Celeste used a lot of writing in her paintings, everything from slogans on T-shirts and chest tattoos to street signs, newspaper headlines, placards at rallies, book titles, album covers, and so on (she did stop short of speech balloons).

The mystery is where she is coming from, both geographically and emotionally. Most (though not all) of her subjects are white people, so she herself is probably white.

One image, showing white blue-collar types, is titled “St. Tammany Parish,” and this suggests a familiarity with Louisiana, but another, showing a group of Northern women looking slightly like 60s hippies, is titled “Matriarchs of the Hudson Valley.”

Another typical group of white blue-collar squares is shown at what must be a rally, carrying signs saying “Trump – Make America Great Again” and massed beneath a banner reading, “Trump: ‘cause We Don’t Know What the Hell is Going On.”

Yet a similarly seemingly satiric watercolor is entitled “Art Party,” and portrays uptight upper classes being served canapes by a black person. Is this a critique of Los Angeles or New York?

Further mystification is provided by the few scraps of bio available to those who google the artist’s name. One reference suggests that she is part Cajun, and Cajuns are a group of French-descended people native to Louisiana, but another source mentions a “Rhinebeck childhood,” and Rhinebeck is a prosperous town on the Hudson River.

The simplest conclusion to draw is that Dupuy-Spencer has been around, and that is all to the good, since it appears to mean that she can be equally sympathetic to persons of widely varied backgrounds and outlooks.

Aliza Nisenbaum doesn’t use a lot of writing in her paintings, and there is less of a mystery about her past. From an article by Dodie Kazanjian posted at the Vogue website on January 31, I learned that Nisenbaum is the daughter of a Scandinavian-American mother and a Russian Jewish father.

Raised in Mexico City, she moved to the U.S. when she decided on a career in art, earning a BFA and an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

She developed what Kazanjian calls “a highly personal, intimate style of painting,” with bold compositions and flat planes influenced by such Mexican painters as Rivera, Orozco, & Maria Izquierdo (all near-contemporaries of Shahn, and as artists descended from common Parisian ancestors).

Nisenbaum came to New York in 2008, settled in Harlem, got a job teaching painting and drawing at Columbia, and a second job teaching English to immigrants at a community center in Queens.

Soon she began painting portraits of her students, and became known as a painter of portraits of immigrants (though she is also not to be sneezed at as a still-life painter).

Because of her immigrant subjects, both she and Kazanjian consider her a “political” painter, but fortunately no hint of politics intrudes upon the paintings themselves.

They are simply very well painted, sympathetic figure studies—in style not unlike that of Dupuy-Spencer and most of the other representational painters in this show, but with greater proficiency, ease and likeability.

Perhaps her nearest equivalents in previous American painting would be Alex Katz or Will Barnet, but not really very like either.

The fact that she depicts immigrants may help with getting publicity for her work, but this is one painter who can rely for her effects upon her native talent and the skills she has developed; her work doesn’t need to be justified upon the basis of its politics.

Of the Nisenbaum paintings on view at the Whitney, I noted four in particular.

One was “Latin Runners Club;” it showed a five-person track team--four guys in blue-and-white uniforms, one girl in a red-and-white one.

“La Talaverita: Sunday Morning NY Times” presented a father and his teen-age daughter reading the papers. He was sitting up, while she was lying in a rather implausible position, her head leaning back over the end of the daybed. An affectionate note was provided by the fact that one of her feet was resting in her father’s lap.

“Loteria, Letters, and Masks: El Chapo, Bush, Clinton, Fox, Castro, Donkey and the Devil” was a still-life with roots both in Ensor and John F. Peto, the 19th century American trompe l’oeil painter.

It centered on a series of masks of famous people, a clown, a devil, a donkey and so on.

But the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the large group portrait of the Women’s Cabinet of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. It showed 15 women in a wild variety of figural and facial types, plus lots of different colors and styles in their clothing.

There were two black women in turbans, one black woman with slicked-back hair; one Latino-looking woman; one Hindu woman with a bindi on her forehead; and 9 Caucasians (plus the artist herself, who turned out to be a blonde).

Presumably these were all portraits, and (considering the difficulty of getting 14 people to sit still together for a protracted period of time) the whole thing may – for all I know – have either been based upon a photograph, or composed in the studio out of sketches made of the 14 subjects individually, but hey--who cares?