Escape from New York: This Year’s Whitney Biennial

Raúl de Nieves,  Somos Monstros , 2016. Cloth patches, fabric, and mannequin, 79 x 26 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.

Raúl de Nieves, Somos Monstros, 2016. Cloth patches, fabric, and mannequin, 79 x 26 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.

                  The Whitney Biennial was a breath of fresh air this year. There weren’t too many dark, disturbing installations of dismembered animals or humans to wander through. There was a resurgence of social realism in painting and photography, much of it in reaction to the election of Donald Trump, reflecting many artists’ horror and dismay, and attempts to understand the population that elected him. There were also clear, bright, interesting abstractions. And fantasy reappeared, in the form of imaginatively created worlds and beings.

                  The most fascinating of the fantasy worlds was a room devoted to the work of Raul de Nieves, a young Mexican-born artist now living in Brooklyn. The site specific installation is called “beginning & the end neither & otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end.” Walking in the room, you are met by larger-than-human-sized alien creatures constructed of beads, string and other found materials. One of them is wearing a vast, beaded gown that reminds me of the gaudy costumes in the New Year’s Day Mummers’ Parade in Philadelphia. Christian symbols are found throughout this installation, and one figure has polished red nails and is holding a rosary and a rose. Another figure wears a white gown, has a head of white yarn, and is holding a dead bird in one hand, and a chain attached to a smaller creature in the other. There are smaller figures made of crystals and beads, one yellow, one orange and one maroon. They are placed in front of panels resembling stained-glass windows on which are the words Peace, Hope, Harmony, Truth, Justice and Love, with light shining through. Supposedly the artist wears these robes for performances, which I would like to see. Perhaps I am in need of escapism in these dark times, but I was transfixed by this installation. I hung out in this room a long time.

                  Another transporting work is “Root sequence. Mother tongue,” by Asad Raza, originally from Buffalo, NY. This is another window-facing room full of 26 carefully-placed trees in boxes, bathed in ultra violet light. The trees cast varying shadows on the walls at different times of day as the light changes. A museum employee walks around talking about the different tree species. The space is very soothing.

                  Other interesting sculptures are the Kaya group’s beings that seem to be living in clear plastic bags mounted on the walls. They have cat’s eyes looking out from them, black garbage bags that look like hair, necks made of test tubes, and pinkish paint. All of them look like they are gazing at you. Kaya is a collaboration between the artists Kerstin Bratsch and Debo Ellers.

                  On an opposite trajectory, one section of the Biennial very realistically reflects actual people and events. One artist in this area, An-My Le, was born in Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam, escaped during the Viet Nam War with her parents, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her work is about the question of history coming through into the present. She took photographs in New Orleans, and named them as a group, “The Silent General.” The general in question served in the Confederacy, and is a statue standing in the middle of an ordinary urbanscape.  Another photograph is of graffiti spray-painted on a rust-colored wall that says, “Fuck the racist asshole president.” Another of the photographs captures a movie being shot about World War One. Soldiers are huddled in a trench while a nearby field is in flames. It looks like an incarnation of hell.  

                  Another photographer, Deanna Lawson, is from Rochester, NY and now lives in Brooklyn. She exhibited oddly disturbing photographs of ordinary people. “Nicole” shows a very young black woman posing provocatively on a rug in her home, with a child’s plastic dollhouse neatly organized in the area behind her. And “Uncle Mack” is a middle-aged black man sitting in what looks like his living room with a rifle in his lap. The photographs of streets scenes include young men using gang signs embedded in their tattoos and in their hand gestures.

                  Celeste Dupey Spencer presented a room of sketch-like drawings of mostly white, working-class people. A black-and-white scene of a Donald Trump rally features the saying, “Cause we don’t know what the hell is going on.” An interior drawing of older, more middle-class and hippyish women is called “Matriarchs of the Hudson Valley.”

                   I would be remiss if I did not mention the controversial painting of Emmett Till in his casket by Dana Shutz. Maya Stovall also exhibited some interesting short films of herself and another woman dancing in down-and-out Detroit neighborhoods. These clips also feature local residents talking about their communities. I believe she is sincerely using her art as a vehicle to understand poverty and racism. Perhaps it would have been ideal if the painting had been executed by an African-American.  But looking at disturbing issues from varying viewpoints is useful and may be enlightening. Her work keeps this tragedy in the public eye, maybe introducing it to younger people who have not previously been exposed.

Shara Hughes,  In The Clear,  2016. Oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 68 x 60 in. (172.7 x 152.4 cm).

Shara Hughes, In The Clear, 2016. Oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 68 x 60 in. (172.7 x 152.4 cm).

                   In the abstract section of the Biennial Shara Hughes filled a room with almost airbrushed-looking lush jungle landscapes. “In the clear,” is a scene of waterfalls, palm trees and brightly colored flowers. Despite the bright colors, the paintings are brash without being in the least tacky or crass. Carrie Moyer’s abstractions are even less representational. They are three-dimensional and layered, as if being viewed through cut-out screens, and use a technique of poured acrylic paint.  A lattice-type cutout is the top layer. “Swiss Bramble,” uses a blue cutout with black lozenge-type spots on it, covering a yellow, green and blue abstraction.

                  “Claim,” by Pope.L a.k.a. William Pope, is a big pink room set inside the real room. At first it looks like it is covered with thousands of vaginas, but it turns out they are pieces of bologna, each with a small picture of a perceived Jewish person. Does this have to do with being kosher? Assimilation? Who knows? My main impression is that it must have been very labor-intensive to conceptualize and construct.

Carrie Moyer,  Swiss Bramble , 2016. Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 84 x 78 in. (213.4 x 198.1cm).

Carrie Moyer, Swiss Bramble, 2016. Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 84 x 78 in. (213.4 x 198.1cm).

             This Biennial, the 78th, features 63 artists and collectives, considered by the curators to exemplify the current state of American art. There’s no lack of diversity in this Biennial, which includes artists who live in America, but are from many different countries and of grow out of different ethnicities. There are sections reflecting different tastes and perspectives. There’s a renewed presence of painting, a lot of very topical and powerful photography, and some truly escapist installations.