The Whitney Biennial, 2002
by Scott Speh

What could I possibly say about the Biennial that Saltz, Smith, and Schjeldahl (respectively the Village Voice, NY Times, and the New Yorker) haven't already said? Not that I put myself in their league but I concur with their consensus that it's boring and bland. The Biennial is always the show everyone loves to hate except that this year no one hates it. They all feel sad for it. This line of criticism is more damning than an expletive-laden rant for at least a show that inspires an expletive-laden rant is inspiring on some level. The current Biennial inspires merely a shrug. There's some nice stuff but (shrug), there's some bad stuff but (shrug). This show is ridiculously difficult for me to review for I operate on the rave-and-rant system. Since I'm beholden to no larger public like Saltz et al, I'm free to choose who and what to critique on my obscure website and I opt for the extremes, so damn that Pedro Velez for making me review this infernal show.

Where to start - good or bad? Let's go bad first and then try to end on a positive note. Again nothing is so terribly bad as to engender some withering bon mot, unlike Julian Schnabel's current unbelievably horrific show at the Go-Go-Gagosian, who, although he's the biggest easy target in the art world, continues to prove he is the world's worst painter, possibly the worst painter of all time. In the uber-kunsthalle that is the Chelsea Gagosian, Schnabel is showing ten elephantine canvases all with the same ugly, ham-fisted image - a portrait of a young, honey-haired girl with a violent band of purple obscuring her eyes. Not only is the image offensive, the paint handling is even more offensive. Who the fuck is going to buy these things? What a waste of canvas and paint! We could build a modest refugee village with the materials with the materials in this show. But anyway, I digress. The worst stuff in the Biennial is the Destroy All Monsters paintings about Detroit. DAM is a band started by Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and a couple of lesser lights that came of age in late-'60s Detroit. These larger banner paintings, painted in Social Realist mural style, are populated with period Detroit icons like Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, the MC5 etc and the sum total of the works seem to say, "Detroit was really cool. Seriously dude, it was cool!" Seems like boosterism or worse, anthropology and there's too much anthropology in this show and it ain't interesting: Janice Gordon photos of white males in a mosh pit - we've been seeing these kind of photos in Spin for 10 years now, who fucking cares? Ari Marcopolous photos and videos of snowboarders - again Mountain Dew drinkers have seen this kind of shit in scores of Xtreme sports magazines and videos; Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Zackin had a mildly interesting video installation comparing and contrasting their respective middle-class Black and Jewish upbringings, but it's no more enlightening than an article in Harpers or the New Yorker; and finally Chan Choa's photos of Burmese rebels was photojournalism, maybe they would work better in Time or Life? Seriously, why are the above works considered art? I know why - I'm sorry to interject this ages-old argument into this review. But other media outlets do this stuff better - where do artists get the hubris that they can transcend the techniques of other disciplines? Dilettantism at it's worst.

The painting simply sucks. Over the past 10 to 15 years, painting's, especially abstract painting's, resurgence has been ignored in the Whitney Biennials and in most of the international art festivals. Just of the top of my head, I wonder where are Laura Owens, Ingrid Callame, Monique Prieto, Linda Besemer, Steve Charles, Diana Cooper, Jennifer Reeves, James Hyde, Kevin Appel, Tom Moody, Aaron Parazette, Dave Muller, Carl Fudge, Claire Corey, Michelle Grabner, Ryan Humphrey, Caren Goldman, Dennis Hollingsworth, Rebecca Morris, Tad Griffin, Jay Davis, Giles Lyon, Tim Gardner, Julia Fish, Steve DiBenedetto, Steve Hurd, Michael Bevilacqua, Matthew Benedict, Jessica Stockholder, James Siena, Bruce Pearson, George Stoll, Karen Kilimnik, David Reed, Enrique Chagoya, Fred Tomaselli, Kerry James Marshal, Elizabeth Cooper, Chris Finley, Glen Ligon. OK, that wasn't just off the top of my head. And maybe some of these artists have been in past biennials and maybe some of them don't need the career boost of the Biennial, but couldn't a couple or three of these types of painters have been included? Museum curators and international art festival curator's antipathy towards painting must be addressed. Galleries, critics, collectors, magazines and the viewing public seem to be okay with painting. Why do these dogmatic curators have such a chip on their shoulder? More of the fall-out from the pat acceptance of conceptual art in the academy - these overly ideological motherfuckers have drained the VISUAL from visual arts. And it's just bullshit.

The sucky painters in the Biennial include Outtara Watts "outsider Schnabels," John Zurier's wan Ryman imitations and some other stuff too bland to even remember. Decent paintings include two (only two!) Vija Celmin's spider webs, Arturo Herrera's elegant Robert Morris by way of Disney cut felt wall hanging, Chemi Rosado Seijo's photos of his project where he painted mountain village houses to match the color of the surrounding vegetation and Lauretta Vinciarelli sublime watercolors fronting like photo-real mixtures of architecture and Rothko paintings. The best two sculptors in the show, Rachel Harrison and Evan Holloway, seem to have as much to do with painting as sculpture. I love Harrison's clumsy and winsome conglomerations. She mixes Stockholder, Charles Long, Warhol and John Waters in understated, quirky constructions celebrating abstraction and scandal-ridden celebs like Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. Modest and evocative. Holloway's handsome twig sculpture mines gray in three dimensions and he paints psychedelic patterns on the underside of an elegant piece of found wood.

What else? Tim Hawkinson, one of my faves, is poorly represented here. The Forcefield installation resembles a Parliament-Funkadelic concert. the Peter Sarkisian video installation is beyond bad. Christian Jankowski's video is long but actually worth it and truly interesting. Jeremy Blake is a striking visualist hampered here by some narrative hoo-ha. Chris Ware's stuff is handsome but probably more effective when sitting in your easy chair at home. The stuff in Central Park was cool if inconsequential: Roxy Paine's aluminum tree is neato and so are Brian Tolle's scattered splashes in the Lake near the bow bridge. I didn't seek out Kiki Smith's stuff because I just don't need that crap in my life but Keith Edmier's memorials to his grandfather were surprisingly moving. I liked Hirsh Perlman's scary-funhouse pinhole photos of his terrifying sculptures and Omar Fast's video installation, Glendive Foley - handsome, understated and funny but inscrutable without reading the wall text.

The single most striking work in the show is Robert Lazzarini's distorted phone booth - an amazing feat of technology (CAD) and labor (he distorted the booth by hand). I've debated with others and myself whether or not this is just a neat gimmick. One thing we all can agree on - you can't believe your eyes. I liken it to Andrew W.K.'s new album "I Get Wet" an album that Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield remarked "you can't believe your ears!" Loud, fast hook-laden metal that mixes non-aggro metal with ultra-cheesy keyboards played at triple speed and songs concerning partying, killing, fucking and partying. In fact, there are three songs with party in the title. It's so totally AWESOME and exhilarating but leaves you a little empty after the last song, like coming down off not just a caffeine high, but a caffeine, sugar and goofball binge. Lazzarini's sculpture does similar things with your visual sensibilities but I don't find it as effective as Andrew W.K.'s achievement. W.K.'s form and content mesh perfectly (check out the back photo - those jeans have never been washed). Lazzarini can mess with your vision, but ultimately one might ask, "Why a phone booth?" I dunno.

Also - I did not look at any of the internet stuff. I surf at home not in a fucking museum. Interactive art - ugh. And I didn't sit through any of the film program. Experimental film - ugh. And it must be noted that the Whitney is an ugly bunker of a building with ugly galleries with low ceiling. The lighting is dim and unflattering and the organization of the Biennial is piss-poor - claustrophobic and insular. Connections can rarely be made.

--from FGA (click on Apr. 3, '02)

- tom moody 4-24-2002 4:36 am