Between the Whitney Biennial’s two exhibition spaces, one sprawling through four floors of the museum and the other at the Park Armory building, the institution’s survey of American contemporary art feels unusually familiar. This can be attributed in part to the space itself, which resembles commercial exhibition sites more than ever before. Though there has been much speculation over the last six months about whether the Chelsea gallery expansions have reached their limit, the increased number of gigantic institution-like venues such as Gagosian and David Zwirner make the walls of the Whitney feel less impressive and unique. Perhaps more importantly, however, the growing visibility of art fairs (and their mish-mash of new art) that privilege the salable while providing auxiliary spaces for “supplemental programming” (art made without the goal of commercial viability), make those art fairs seem awfully close to the Whitney’s two-tiered exhibition program. This is particularly apparent at the Park Armory space, which is no doubt meant to mimic the off-site locations for the larger works at the Venice Bienniele. Instead, it comes off resembling the look of hotel fairs that simply repurpose rooms for art without considering how the work might function once installed.
Given the opportunity to see a lot of art at once, and the fact that more than 30 of the 80 artists included were plucked directly from Chelsea, many New Yorkers won’t need to look to this exhibition to reveal any trends. Still, it never hurts to have curators like Shamim M. Momin and Henriette Huldisch rearticulate them for us, which is why so many of us are still interested in the Biennial. Viewers can look forward to a lot of found materials, a return to a 60s and 70s fine art aesthetic, and a resurgence of appropriation, archive and eco art. Those who like painting, printmaking and traditional photography will have very little to look at this year, whereas assemblage sculpture and installation art dominate the show, as does a strong collection of video art. Notably, not one internet artist was included, an oversight to be sure, given the wealth of activity within the field.
With the large amount of montage and other fractured work, this biennial resembles a more diverse Unmonumental, the New Museum’s current exhibition exploring fragmented forms. With it, however, come all the standard biennial woes and caveats, plus a few new ones for good measure: as in years past, the exhibition consists of far more insubstantial art than needed. More often than not, the art chosen is the problem, as opposed to a weak or underdeveloped artist. Olivier Mosset, for example, a member of New York’s Radical Painting Group, who has made a great number of compelling large-scale textured paintings, had the misfortune of exhibiting two of his most drab, over-sized beige canvases. Similarly established conceptual artist John Baldessarri couldn’t be more relevant to contemporary art-makers today, but his garish three-dimensional wall works, juxtaposing colored body parts with banal black-and-white objects, represent the artist poorly. Others, however, such as Patrick Hill, I just don’t like: his collages of wood, glass, granite, concrete and canvas are so cleanly constructed they seem readymade for a corporate lobby.
Other problems pervade the exhibition. As I said earlier, the Armory architecture almost always overshadows the art, with a few exceptions. William Cordova and Leslie Hewitt’s archive of bootleg independent films and donated artist videos representing black and Latino awareness made perfect sense in a cave-like room that felt as if it were designed for clandestine viewing experiences; Dexter Sinister’s collections of texts reflecting on the show were placed appropriately in an office; and Gretchen Skogerson’s tattered neon tubes effectively communicate a sense of bleakness, in tune with the Hurrican Ivan wreckage to which her piece responds. Garder Eide Einarsson’s framed suite, however, looks ill-placed in its ornate interior, the only object in a room much too large to display it effectively. The same thing happened to the vitrines of Mario Ybarra Jr., which contain paraphernalia he made as an homage to 80s gangster flick Scarface. Meanwhile, Karen Kilimnik, a painter who incorporates the kind of chandeliers hanging at the armory into her installations, and makes art about the type of rooms in that space, managed to secure a place at the museum. For all the talk of painting taking a back seat to film, installation and humble assemblage at the Whitney, you’d think a few more painters might have ended up on Park Avenue.
In spite of these problems, the Biennial is still worth attending — if for no other reason than to see Omer Fast’s The Casting. The 14-minute video installation interweaves a sergeant’s recollection of a destructive romantic affair with the accidental shooting of an Iraqi, as Fast’s edits seem to mimic the distortions the soldier himself describes afflicting his memories. The piece reflects a more politically engaged group of artists than we’ve seen in years past at the Biennial — if nothing else, this at least represents a break from typically apolitical art fair culture. While this year’s exhibition may signal a winding down of a survey show that attempts to make sense of prevailing trends, it also proposes a desire by the institution to increase their support of artists with political agendas. Better late than never.