The 2017 Whitney Biennial Fails to Connect, and Dana Schutz Doesn’t Have a Thing to Do With It
What a difference a month can make. When the first reviews of the 2017 edition of the Whitney Biennial came out before the exhibition was open to the public, there was a curious univocity or single voice at play among most of the critics who initially reviewed the show. Everyone stated in one way or another that this year’s edition was “the most politically charged” Biennial in decades, and the 1993 edition was held up as this year’s less successful analog. Additionally, the Whitney’s desire to attract a young and diverse crowd through the “fresh” appointment of the curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks was typically noted. Both Asian-American curators are in their mid-30s, and their curatorial take appeared to be an unmitigated success. Of course, this being 2017, the homogenous praise over the nearly half non-white and half-female artist selection soon gave way to cultural angst and public arguments about appropriation and censorship when a group of artists grew offended and outraged over the inclusion of a white female artist’s--the painter Dana Schutz--portrait of slain 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose body was mutilated for Till having supposedly made improper comments to a young white woman in 1952 in the American South, an accusation she later recanted long after it could make any difference.
It bears worth noting that Schutz’s decision as well as her very ability to paint The Wake was due to Till’s mother Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley’s refusal to hide the mutilated body of her son, having it shipped to Chicago where she held an open-casket funeral, inviting scores of photographers to capture and share an unspeakable horror. Within a week of the Whitney Biennial’s opening in March, African-American artist Parker Bright made headlines by standing in front of the painting wearing a shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle.” He was soon joined by a number of artists who seemed to recoil at the very notion that such a painting exists. This reactionary wing was embodied in British-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black who took things considerably further beyond mere protest without even seeing the painting in person (and within the context of the show itself), by penning a letter signed by herself and around twenty other artists condemning the Whitney for allowing “a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” What has caused concern amongst critics like myself and others is that Black and her co-signers did not simply call for the work of art to be removed but to have it destroyed so that it could no longer cause the pain it did to these self-appointed cultural censors.
If this narrative sounds familiar--a person of one race being impugned for appropriating and exploiting another culture in the name of art and potentially profit--that’s because it is. This current decade has seen a new breed of young and politically-minded individuals coming together to decry the cultural exploitation perpetuated by those implicated in the white capitalist patriarchy, often in the name of “wokeness.” With the laws of cultural physics calling for an equal or greater reaction, those who support Black Lives Matter and similar movements have become targets for the alt-right for what they see as an attack on good ol’ (racist) American values and the entitled snowflake culture of the millennial generation that all too often tends to mistake feelings for political positions. And both the alt-right and Generation X liberals have found plenty to quibble with, such as the dreadlocks controversy symbolized by the video of a young black woman haranguing a young white male with dreadlocks for his insensitive cultural appropriation or author Lionel Shriver famously donning a sombrero while delivering a keynote speech at a writer’s festival to mock a group of Bowdoin college students for their protests over fellow students donning sombreros while drinking tequila (and while Shriver’s actions might have been a tad shallow, reading the full transcript of her speech yields a number of keen insights into the dangers of over-reactive political correctness).
What has kept our country’s current cultural rift continuing to grow is the fact that the students mentioned above or Black herself aren’t entirely wrong, which makes constructive arguments rather difficult. Not to validate those on the alt-right, but Black embodies the exact type of short-sighted arguments that do in fact strike upon a rich vein of truth--the appropriation of any culture in the name of profit and exploitation should be monitored and harshly criticized when warranted--while failing to take into consideration the greater cultural and historical contexts or even the self-awareness to understand why their arguments might be met with derision. But it was after seeing this year’s biennial in person that I started to wonder if the controversy that Black has become a major figurehead within actually provides a much more engaging way to talk about such relevant topics, or at least more engaging than exhibition itself. For while Lew and Locks valiantly attempted to capture the many “conversations” occurring throughout the country about identity, politics, race, gender, and so much more, much of the art itself fails to really give the audience anything to hook into, making the Schutz controversy all the more attractive.
As an art fan born in 1984 who attended this so-called “millennial biennial” in the midst of an all-too millennial cultural imbroglio, it turned out to be rather fortuitous timing as the critical amnesty seemingly in place only a couple of weeks earlier had given way to protest and think pieces (which ranged from the illogical to the enlightening and poignant). One thing I noted about the handful of reviews I read before actually seeing this politically-minded Biennial was the not-so-subtle projecting of cultural and political anxieties by often older (white male) art critics such as Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine and Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, onto this year’s biennial. These reviews seemed to boil down a cautious yet unfounded optimism that in essence said, “Hey, ain’t it cool that all this art that was chosen in 2016 when a Trump presidency seemed impossible is still hyper-relevant and politically-charged and super diverse?” Or, in Saltz’s own words, this was “the first, last, and only Hillary Clinton biennial.”
And that narrative sounded all well and good a month ago before the general public gained both physical and virtual access to the show and a controversy that to this reviewer seemed, on paper, practically inevitable took over. Was this just a matter of curatorial short-sightedness or cold and savvy calculation? Questions to the curators both from this and other publications have been met with evasive non-answers endlessly touting the racial diversity of the artists and political nature of this year’s biennial. And, as I familiarized myself both with Black’s arguments and the surrounding discourse, it seemed inherently shortsighted to cast any kind of judgment before viewing the exhibition in person. Although I'll be the first to concede that as a white cis male I am making that statement from a position of privilege of which I must always be aware.
For as extensive as the above preamble might seem, it also speaks to how essential context is for evaluating the work of sixty-seven artists work in both established and new mediums. This so-called “millennial biennial” stems from art created during an extended period of political and social unrest, something Lew and Locks have been keen to emphasize in their introductory text. But this is also the first biennial I’ve attended where so much of the work takes on a different context depending on who is viewing it; your reactions to Deanna Lawson’s unflinching portraits of black life in America or Dana Schutz’s painting of Till will vary depending on your race and upbringing. To pretend otherwise is simply naive. However, most of the work on show tends to either over-rely on ambiguity in lieu of actually saying something or tends to make its message so clear as to border on didactic. Even more disheartening, the show’s few moments of true beauty and political profundity are neutered by both the curators’ short-sightedness and/or numerous overly facile juxtapositions. Going through the 2017 Whitney Biennial is tantamount to traipsing through a self-parodying fun house of artistic vacuity that seems hellbent on symbolizing every uninformed and nasty piece of criticism lobbed at the millennial generation. Or put another way, if Black was American-born, she likely would have been invited to participate.
After taking in this year’s biennial and mulling it over for a solid two weeks, feelings of irritation and hopelessness have only grown as any review or write-up of the show now focuses primarily on the Schutz controversy. (A notable exception being the excellent history lessons from the likes of Roberta Smith and Coco Fusco who have put both Schutz’s work and the controversy within historical perspective and an art historical context.) It remains that so many other critics seem so happy to fixate on the show’s “diversity” but fail to acknowledge that nearly half of the artists were born after 1980 and over two-thirds were born after 1970.
By not acknowledging this failure on the curators’ part they reinforce reverse ageism. So yes, this is indeed an extremely young biennial, a fact I was bombarded with from the get-go as I ascended that stairwell to the fifth and sixth floor where the majority of the biennial was held, joined by Ajay Kurian’s referential-yet-aimless Childermass sculpture. One theme that stood out to me was a shared predilection with fantasy-as-escapism amongst many of the younger and artists in particular, providing a much-needed sense of whimsy and fun amongst the more heavy-handed pieces. And while artists like Jo Baer and Shara Haye are fantastic examples of successful uses of narrative and fantasy, as discussed below. But Kurian over-shoots with his mannequin-like bodies of children holding the head of a pitbull or wearing a moon-shaped head that looked like it came out of a 90s children’s cartoon; the referential aspect of the bodies take away from the piece as a whole as one is left scrambling to make sense of this episodic “sci-fi narrative of mutual exclusion and bodily anxiety,” as the wall didactic tries to emphasize the discomfort this piece is supposed induce. Like many of the pieces on show, the references Kurian draws upon might have far deeper historical meaning but within the design-heavy context, the symbolism of pieces like Kurian’s are often lost between the less-than-helpful curatorial text and the viewer’s own reference points, which will likely vary depending on their age.
Starting on the fifth floor as I did, one is immediately reminded of Black and company’s call for censorship as the first gallery I entered was taken up entirely by Frances Stark’s faithful and playful paintings of musician and writer Ian F. Svenonius’ 2015 screed Censorship Now! While the visitors on hand seemed more than happy to linger on Stark’s quasi-cartoonish recreations, the general myopia contained within Svenonius’ original contrarian manuscript feels of an ilk with Black’s letter. Both sound fine when read in a vacuum--hey, artists should extend their unique temperament to censoring our capitalist oppressors, man--but things are indeed far more nuanced when read in the context of this biennial. It feels a tad ironic that in Stark’s recreation of the book’s cover page there is the handwritten number from the limited print run in which it was originally available. Dissent ain’t cheap.
And to their credit, Lew and Locks often seem ready with an artistic rejoinder to much of the rhetoric coming from the art itself, as evidenced in the nearby Occupy Museums installation. This artist’s collective is united in their desire to shine a light on the monetary paradoxes that artists so often find themselves in--needing to sell their works to collectors without selling out their art. Perhaps to reflect the throw-away culture at play with contemporary art buyers and the bankers who back them, the roughly dozen artists who find their work encased in the lifesize infographic seem to be sacrificing their individual work to the conceptual umbrella as no piece really succeeds at standing out against the bank logos that make up the data-mined wallpaper. That such a remarkable group effort elicits a shrug might have something to do with the handpainted logo and text indicating the luxury jewelry behemoth Tiffany’s sponsorship of this year’s Biennial within spitting distance of this lifesize meditation on the fiscal realities of being an artist. It kind of undercuts the works’ sincerity.
Living in a time of big data as we are, Pope L.aka William Pope L.’s Claim (Whitney Version) is another heavy-handed meditation on identity, in this case, of the Jewish variety as the artist created a room-like grid containing nearly 2,800 slices of bologna, each affixed with a black-and-white photographic portrait. The slices are supposed to be roughly proportional to New York City’s million-plus Jewish inhabitants, based off the artist’s own “rough” as a means to inject an air of ambiguity into the statistical determinism that can so often be our downfall in the digital age. Ultimately, much like the other larger-than-life art on hand at this year’s biennial, the whole thing ends up feeling overwrought, didactic, and bloated. Such an assessment also holds true for Raul de Nieves floor-to-ceiling stained-glass-like windows and bedazzled dresses that adorn the human-like mannequins of his beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end. Here was an artist seemingly confronting the entirety, or a significant chunk, of his cultural and religious upbringing with a meticulousness that was supposed to transform “the mundane into the fantastical,” according to the object label. And yet, the sheer sprawling nature of it all made it feel at once trite and self-indulgent, a feeling that would soon settle in for much of the remaining work at hand.
This was particularly true with Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence. Had I not been wearing a virtual reality headset to view the piece, the eye rolling that I did while surrounded by his “gritty” video would have let the line full of people behind me know that they were in for yet another ham-fisted rumination on identity and the “real world.” Recited Chaunnakah blessings provide the work’s sonic backdrop, and we find ourselves on an eerily empty Manhattan street as two young white men beat a third to a bloody pulp. The victim looks up at us with hollow yet accusatory eyes. While Wolfson, or whoever provided the stunningly real effects, might have a bright future in torture porn, Real Violence comes across as over-eager to beat the audience over the head with a message that is too cowardly to articulate itself, diffusing the impact some slight recasting might have given it.
While the curators might falter in other media, Schutz is just one of several painters who provide the show with its most satisfying moments. The room that holds The Wake is arguably the strongest in the entire show as Shutz’s colorful work is interspersed with the chunky, earnest paintings of Henry Taylor. Taylor has emerged as something of a critical counterweight for his depiction of the murder of Philando Castile in his momentous painting The Times They Ain’t a Changing Fast Enough! He places the viewer in the perspective of the victim’s girlfriend who recorded the cold-blooded murder of Castile at the end of a police officer. That such a tragedy would never arise out of a routine traffic stop for the largely white visitors in the Whitney the day I attended was a cold, hard fact that loomed over that entire piece and into Taylor’s other works on display. Both The Wake and The Times wrestle with a private tragedy that was soon shared with the whole country, either by the newspapers in Till’s case or social media and the internet in Castile’s. That these two paintings are shown in the same room goes some way to putting into relief the fact that while both depict black pain, they also both reflect a common grief over these all-too-American tragedies, separated only by time as both cases boggle the mind in rationalizing how they even came to pass. Taylor’s painting of a man grilling burgers in The 4th significantly adds to the all-too-rare feeling of humanism for which the 2017 Whitney Biennial has been lauded.
Schutz and Taylor’s ability to reflect a shared cultural moment while speaking to timeless themes is unfortunately not matched in quality elsewhere in the Biennial. Race in America remains the predominant theme in an adjacent gallery that showcases the photography of John Divola and Deanna Lawson, but this time the seemingly haphazard juxtaposition of imagery creates an unresolved tension. Lawson’s photos of black life are unflinching and heavily nuanced. Seemingly simple images such as a father holding his child are complicated by the abject surroundings in which the figures find themselves. On their own, Lawson’s photographs are a highlight. However, installed next to Divola’s weak tea of a student art project that trivializes poverty was unfortunate. Divola’s lifeless photos of abandoned properties in which the artist hung canvasses painted while a student feels woefully contrived and narcissistic. It caused this viewer to spend less time taking in Lawson’s nuanced portraits than he would have were Divola’s photographs absent.
The paintings of Aliza Nisenbaum and Celeste Dupuy-Spencer also attempt to capture some aspect of our current moment through similar practices that focus more on the surroundings than their subjects in order to inform our reading of the image. Nisembaum turns her hand to capturing the often paradoxical lives of Mexican immigrants by showing them in distinctly middle-class settings, whether it is the marathon runners of Latin Runner’s Club or the yuppy couple on display in La Talaverita, Sunday Morning Times. Neither painting is as immediately visceral as Taylor or Schutz’s and the longer one lingers on each image, the more one gets lost in the surrounding details as if it were a picture puzzle from Highlights Magazine. A similar problem plagues Dupuy-Spencer’s moody yet surprisingly unmoving portraits of the types of young white men who likely voted for our current commander-in-chief. Here commentary seems a little too tied to the moment, as seen in her apparent mocking of intra-generational music technology in Fall With Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall).”
Continuing the general fixation with fantasy that permeates much of Biennial are Jo Baer’s imaginary topographies which utilize an impressionistic minimalism to create subtly momentous landscapes. Baer, born in 1929, comes from a generation of artists notably absent from this Biennial. Refreshingly, Shara Haye, born in 1984, nicely complements Baer’s more reserved whimsy. Haye’s oddly charming and ebullient series of impressionist-like landscapes provide an all-too-heavy handed show with a momentary, charming reprieve.
That the quiet yet profound moments provided by the work of Baer and Haye has been largely absent from most of the coverage of this year’s biennial reveals the unintentional casualties that come with have art’s zeitgeist moment being so bogged down with political and cultural “messages.” For while it might have been Lew and Locks’ intention to reflect a conversation that contains a multitude of disparate attitudes and opinions, those on display in the Whitney currently all feel largely of a piece with one another. And though such homogenous curation is masked in racial diversity and gender parity, it left a hollowness in this viewer who left the biennial without any real sense of hope or positivity as I was confronted by what many have condemned as the superficiality and shallowness of my generation.
And had I not made my way to the Whitney’s seventh floor to take in the ancillary exhibition Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection, I might too have found myself writing a toothless validation of Lew and Locks’ political biennial as they nearly beat me into submission through the desert of vapidity they had arranged on the museum’s fifth and sixth floor. Greeting visitors who came to the seventh floor is a ragtag collection of photographic and painted portraits from the past century was something that had been missing in so much of the “racial” art in the biennial itself. Thus the impact of seeing Barkley L. Hendricks’ 1976 painting “Steve,” a portrait of pride and defiance embodied in the white jacket-clad subject of the portrait, immediately upon exiting the elevator onto the seventh floor was nothing short of soul-shaking. The dark-colored face of Steve emitting a barely-there smirk as his eyes rest behind the reflective aviator sunglasses he wears all too well.
There’s a poetic precariousness at work in the painting’s white background and Steve’s mostly-white wardrobe. Seemingly a commentary on the whitewashing of black culture, Hendrick’s painting achieved what few artists outside of Schutz and Taylor did in creating art that does actually say something but does so by being art. Just like last fall’s revelational Kerry James Marshall show at the Met Breuer, here was an artist that was new to both myself and likely the majority of biennial visitors, a strong reminder that in focusing so intently on the younger side of the art world, there still exists a whole generation of largely overlooked artists of color whose work resonates with the present moment in a way that little else in the biennial did. There was no preening, no posturing, no technique to obsess over when weighed against the sheer viscerality of the work. That it achieved what two floors of art had failed to do--making me so angry and impassioned as to want to enact change upon leaving the building that day--only confirmed my worst suspicions. This year’s biennial is a far cry from the unmitigated success it’s been depicted as, with many artists happy to strike a political posture but very few taking a real stand, let alone empowering the audience do the same.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the artist Cauleen Smith as a millennial, when she in fact was born in 1967. Additionally, while younger viewers, like myself, might ascribe certain pop cultural reference points to the hand-stitched banners that make up In The Wake, the artist was in fact drawing upon Catholic processional banners and Masonic heraldry.