“2017 Whitney Biennial” at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Review by Robert Ayers

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Installation view of Raúl De Nieves, “beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end,” 2016. at the Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 17-June 11, 2017. Photo: Matthew Carasella, Courtesy: Company Gallery, New York.

The last few Whitney Biennials have demonstrated how challenging it can be to give a sense of what is happening on the current art scene that is both coherent and compelling. All the more reason to celebrate the present show, which has been put together by Christopher Y. Lew (associate curator at the Whitney) and Mia Locks (formerly assistant curator at MoMA PS1), and which manages to be both a joyous funhouse and a hotbed of sharp creative intelligence.

The show’s energy is palpable. Perhaps it is just that this is the first biennial in the Whitney’s new building, but it feels like everyone here seems to have been fired by a genuine excitement for exploring every nook and cranny of the place and filling it with lively and eccentric stuff. Ajay Kurian has suspended his five-part Childermass (2017) in the open stairwell that links the basement with the third floor. It comprises a series of strange hybrid creatures hanging from ropes or climbing up and down them. Two have crescent moons for heads; another has the head of a dog that it carries in its hands. At the top is a grotesque chrome-plated chameleon that Kurian describes as “simultaneously open, changeable, and tyrannical—an appropriate allegorical figure for today’s political climate.”

Raúl de Nieves’ spectacular installation beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end (2016) is really worth the admission price alone. Ranged against the Whitney’s floor to ceiling windows that de Nieves has transformed with tape, beads, and colored acetate to resemble the stained glass windows of some insect-worshipping resurrection cult, is a procession of bizarre personages. Two of them are strange efflorescences of brightly colored beads, the other three are similar bead-creatures who have decked themselves out in remarkable embroidered, crocheted, tasseled, and tapestried finery. One of them appears to have a religious altar on her head. Another is being led by a leash. Neither artist should be unhappy with the suggestion that they look like rather more ecclesial versions of Nick Cave’s sound suits.

The estimable and perennially undervalued William Pope.L (or just Pope.L, as he now calls himself) is given full rein here. His Claim (Whitney Version) (2017) is a huge wooden enclosure festooned inside and out with regularly spaced slices of baloney [sic]. Each slice is attached with a pushpin and carries a tiny, mostly illegible, black and white photo portrait. Inside the enclosure is a framed page of somewhat nonsensical explanation: each of the 2,755 slices of baloney stands for one of the 0.25 percent of the 1,086,000 Jewish citizens of New York City. But actually the number of slices is off by two and, “several slices have been removed …” Pope.L’s real subject is statistical sleight of hand, and the way in which bogus but authoritatively stated numbers are used every day to make some political point or other, few of which are well-intentioned.

As is now happily ubiquitous in exhibitions of this sort, there are plenty of darkened rooms to peer into to find out what’s going on in there, and plenty of occasions when you might wonder, “what the hell is this?” or even, “what’s this doing in an art exhibition?” Perhaps the best of these is Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference (2017), a six movement, half-hour long jazz suite with two accompanying videos, but Oto Gillen’s New York (2015-) , which is effectively an almost two-hour slide show, is also well worth seeking out.

In the face of all this interdisciplinary excitement, you might imagine that painting would be overwhelmed, and it is a reflection of the quality of the painters that Lew and Locks have selected that this is anything but the case. Indeed many Whitney visitors, professional as well as public, have seen this Biennial as a celebration of painting, and a reaffirmation of its relevance and power. (And of course it was a painting, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), an interpretation of the iconic photograph of 14-year old African-American lynch mob victim Emmett Till, that sparked the main controversy of this year’s biennial.)

There is excellent painting to be discovered at every turn: Shara Hughes’ positively weird views into a strange landscape that is both painterly and hallucinatory, and which—in a painting like We Windy (2016)—manage to evoke William Blake and David Hockney in equal measure; Carrie Moyer’s intelligent, exuberant, multi-layered, and variously-wrought abstractions; Aliza Nisenbaum’s large-scale portraits that are as politically engaged as they are pictorially intriguing; and Dana Schutz’s crammed surfaces and equally pressurized psychological content that reveal her, in a tour de force like Elevator (2016), and 15 years after her feted debut, to be a genuine major figure of contemporary painting.

The 2017 Whitney Biennial abounds in crowd-pleasers—a term which art world insiders generally employ somewhat pejoratively but which here describes some of the best work that has been seen in contemporary art surveys (in or out of the Whitney) for a long time. It may be that this Biennial, even though it appears during a period of political darkness, will be remembered as pointing in a new and positive direction for contemporary art and its relationship with a broader public.