Whitney Biennial: The View From LA

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Still image from “Belle Captive I” Video installation with audio
2013, Victoria Fu
Photo: Courtesy the artist

Theme Time — Friends & Neighbors
2013, Karl Haendel
Pencil and enamel on cut paper
37″ x 52″ x 2″
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer; Courtesy: Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

American Megazine #1 (installation view with mega-girls, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery)
2013, Lisa Anne Auerbach
Ink on paper, 60″ x 39″ x ½”
Photo: ©Lisa Anne Auerbach
Courtesy Lisa Anne Auerbach and Gavlak Gallery, Palm Beach

There are many salient ways to parse the roster of 2014 Whitney Biennial artists–by gender, ethnicity, generation, medium, or subject matter; by which of the curators selected which artists; and, of course, by geography. Roughly one-third of the exhibition is comprised of artists from the LA area–and within that California third is a rich and varied array, stylistically diverse enough to confound sweeping generalizations about contemporary West Coast art. All three curators spent quality time here; and the painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video, performance art, and interdisciplinarian adventurism they selected does justice to what Angelenos already know. One notable aspect is the undeniable influence of CalArts on the landscape. CalArts grads keeping it real at the Whitney include Laura Owens, the late Allan Sekula, Zackary Drucker, My Barbarian member Malik Gaines, the late Channa Horwitz, and alums Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins curating works by their late friend, Tony Greene. art ltd. speaks to three members of the home team–Victoria Fu, Karl Haendel, and Lisa Anne Auerbach–about why they love LA, how they ended up at the Whitney, and what they’re bringing to the party.

Victoria Fu (who went to CalArts) makes mysterious, sumptuous, engrossing, hybrid works using the forms and languages of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, and video. “I work with images–whether in stillness or in time–as objects in space, and as all of those things at once. It’s a questioning of our role as spectator/user, and I ask the viewer to engage simultaneously with cinema and the Internet as sculptural objects.” Within her videos, photos and installations, she frequently ends up translating digital spaces back into the material world before re-rendering them. Along these lines, Fu will be showing a video installation at the Biennial of new work riffing on conventions of advertising and cinema, mixing stock and original 16mm footage. “At this point, it’s harder to maintain categories; convergence and fluency between media is the default mode; and separating them at an institution of learning feels forced. CalArts reflected an attitude of openness, where I could wander down the hall and encounter writers or film and theater students.” In fact, several of the CalArts grads in the Whitney studied film, theater, and even dance.

Michelle Grabner is the curator who selected her, and whose writing, practice, teaching, and curating Fu has long admired. So it was “a bit of a thrill” to have her at the studio. Last spring, Grabner flew to San Diego as the first stop of a marathon West Coast studio-visit tour. “LA reminds us that there is still really distance to be negotiated in the world,” Grabner says. “This distance works for artists, protecting them from the initial smudging from the free market’s greasy fingers, but it also makes the circulation of the fullness of LA art and ideas onto a global stage a bit more difficult.” Fu, an LA native, concurs with Grabner’s sentiment, adding, “I think there can be a diversity of communities and practices made possible by the sprawling spaces of the city.”

Lisa Anne Auerbach also feels a resonance with the LA story. “I’m representative of LA in that I went to school here and stayed; I think a lot of people did that. And a lot of people here teach, which I also do.” Auerbach is most widely known for what could be thought of as radical craft–politically charged knitting, textile, and uniform-based work, in which she approaches clothing as a site of individual and group identity as well as social messaging both encoded and broadcast. Her curator was Stuart Comer, and her work focuses on what she calls her publications. “My sweaters are a kind of publication, I don’t see much difference between them and a ‘zine, except there aren’t as many copies.”

For the biennial, she is showing three knitted outfits; the earliest piece, from 2005, involves a skirt with Minor Threat lyrics. The most recent is a sweater made in 2013 from the wool of black Norwegian sheep. “It’s kind of about anti-social practice. Around the neck it says ‘You can have your kumbaya I’ll take the darkness.'” She’s also showing a new issue of her ongoing American Megazine project, a series of absurdly large and hyperlocal printed editions. “The new Megazine is full of photographs of storefront psychics that I shot in LA and transcripts of meetings I had with local psychics. So in that way it seems incredibly Californian, and I’m curious to see how it plays in New York.”

Karl Haendel (who is part of Susanne Vielmetter Gallery’s impressive five-part Whitney delegation along with My Barbarian, Shana Lutker, Dave McKenzie, and Amy Sillman) makes drawings, but drawings that take every opportunity to overturn conventions of what the genre typically means in fine art. Their exuberant physicality, disrupted form, confrontational scale, and sociological/semiotic tenor recommend themselves as elements of architectural-scale installations, even as their patient, personal, labor-intensiveness still speaks to the intimate narrative intentions of drawing as a language. Haendel will show selections from his new series Theme Time Radio Hour, based on Bob Dylan’s satellite radio show of the same name. “These works are about classification systems, the relational quality of images, how understanding is context-dependent, and how mercurial the things we know can turn out to be. The scale encourages the viewer to use their entire body, not just their eyes, to take it all in. I also rip, cut, fold, pin, and staple because malleability is one of the essential material qualities of paper often neglected in a drawing practice.” Haendel had this Theme Time project in mind for a few years, because by making a work about someone else’s classification impulse (in this case Dylan’s), he could also explore his own interest in categorization and the production of knowledge in society Ñthe same impulse that inspired his previous work with celebrity portraits and less savory documentations of less savory historical events.

“Also, Dylan’s Radio Hour themes are particularly American, and his music in bound up with the actual history of our nation. So the Whitney seemed a perfect place to first show such a thoroughly ‘American’ work. Michelle Grabner has been very trusting, and has not ‘picked’ certain works. Once she gave me the okay, I was left alone, which has been great. Michelle is an artist first, and I think her approach to curating is informed by this. In my experience, she chooses artists she believes in and lets them do their thing.” As for classifying himself as an Angeleno, Haendel is cautious about the amped up presence of LA in the Biennial. “What appears to be a positive should be a warning, I think. There are those of us who still believe that art should not try to be fashion or pure commerce. The fight against these tendencies can be better fought from outside of New York, where this sad transformation of art is most on display. It’s why we moved here–
so we could make art, not deal so much with the rest of the bullshit. However, LA is changing quite fast, in that we have now our own homegrown young art stars, our powerhouse galleries, our mega-collectors. So the outsider is now the insider, and perhaps our increasing profile means it’s time to move.”