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2008 Whitney Biennial

The good, the not so, and the I don't get it? That pretty much sums up this year's Whitney Biennial. That's not a complaint either. Every two years the museum undertakes the impossible task of giving us a survey of the contemporary art scene. It will never be perfect, or inclusive enough, but it's totally worthwhile, at times profound, and I'm often left thinking, what? I find it best to arrive with an open mind and watch your step; so many artists, so little room, and lots of fragile art.

The 2008 installment valiantly shows the work of 81 artists, covering three floors of the museum and also using the Park Avenue Armory as an annex. In addition to exhibits the Armory will have a 24-hour dance marathon/endurance piece, in which the public is welcome to join, and a sleepover with ambient sound and a DJ. There will also be portrait sessions by artist Ellen Harvey, or if you're at your wit's end, a therapy session with artist Bert Rodriguez in a cube space of his design. Tequila from the Eduardo Sarabia-designed bar may be more effective.

A favorite of mine at the Armory is MK Guth's Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, an interactive sculpture that asks the question, What is worth protecting? Visitors can write a response to this question on a piece of fabric that will be woven into an ever-growing braid, a wonderful heartfelt inclusive piece.

At the entrance to the museum is a project by Fritz Haeg entitled Animal Estates. The project examines the effect of displacement on wild animals by human development and is essentially an experiment in creating structures that enable resettlement of species in neighborhoods by experimenting with habitat design. In addition to the Whitney, so far the project has commissions in six other cities, including here in Baltimore. Check out the huge eagles' nest over the entrance: there are already birds chirping away inside.

Other standouts this year are Charles Long's thin sculptures of mixed media, papier-mâché, and found objects, reminiscent of Giacometti. Steven Prina's sound room packs away into custom crates that also double as seating: great sound. Amanda Ross-Ho creates very cool patterns and designs and the largest cat box ever!

Mika Rottenberg's barn yard with video monitors playing scenes of goats and girls still has me scratching my head. Jedediah Caesar has formed a huge block of resin material that resembles rainbow-colored candles melted together after a long night of partying. In addition to her portrait sessions at the armory, Ellen Harvey also has an installation at the Museum that I liked, titled Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects & Invisible Self-Portraits: it has to be seen.

Familiar to New York gallery-goers, Mathew Brannon's clever word and image works are fun and spotlessly executed, not easy. A surprise in this whirlwind of video, sculpture, and installation is a painter who is a master of his craft, California artist Robert Bechtle. I rarely get to see his work, and the four pieces here are a real treat. They have a somber, introspective, Hopperesque feel to them; great painting.

There are many ways to fault this show, and in the next few weeks we'll get to hear many opinions. The point that bothers me most about this and other biennials has to be the quality of the work. This is a chance of a lifetime, and in many cases the work is sophmoric in execution. This is show time, folks! Thousands of visitors will descend on this one event, and too many of the works pass as a senior thesis. I feel like Simon on American Idol, but there is a responsibility for the curators and above all the artists to present their absolute best -- no dogging it.

The Whitney Biennial runs from March 6th through June 1st, so enjoy! Visit my Flickr site for many more pictures and content about the art and artists. I'll add to it over time.

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