The Whitney Biennial 2017 presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art is an annual contemporary art exhibit displaying works of younger, lesser known American Artists. It is considered one of the leading shows of contemporary art, often setting trends in the art world. The 2017 Biennial is the 78th installment of the longest running survey of American Art. 63 individual artists as well as several collectives are featured. The exhibit occupies the 5th and 6th floor of the museum. The artists challenge us to think about politics, economy and race and how each affects us and our community. The exhibit includes all type of media: painting, sculpture, video game design, furniture, film, installations, even trees! Check out my highlights. There are so many incredible works to see its hard to pick a few!
Before we discuss the works of art to the see, here’s a little history of the Whitney (as it is referred to). Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor in her own right, became a patron of the living American Artist. In the early 19th-century, American artists had a difficult time selling or exhibiting their work. Mrs. Whitney began collecting their art. By 1929, she had collected more than 500 works of art which she offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with an endowment. The MET refused her so she decided to set up her own museum with a mission to focus only on art and artists from the United States. The Whitney opened in 1931. The collection was housed in several buildings over its history including the Breuer building on Madison Ave. On May 15, 2014, The Whitney opened its current building at 99 Gansevoort Street.
What to see in the Whitney Biennial 2017
The Elevator Dana Schutz (from Brooklyn, NY)
This large painting created with bold colors and larger than life images was made for this specific location. It is one work from Schutz’s Elevator series. We, as the viewer, are looking into an elevator as the doors open. The elevator is actually the same dimensions as the Whitney’s freight elevator which is right in front of the work. Schutz's elevator is full of people and large insects entangled together. We feel a sense of alarm as we look at this crazy scene. The elevator is a metaphor for social spaces that are both public and private. People stand in an elevator with others but often don’t engage. Schutz wants us to think of our role in this chaos. She also has said that she was inspired by an event that occurred after the MET Costume Gala several years ago when Jay Z and Solange had a fight in a downtown elevator.
Handlers by John Riepenhoff (from Milwaukee, WI)
Riepenhoff founded the Green Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This work merges his job as both a gallerist and artist. In this series The Handlers, we see a collaborative work. Papier maché legs hold up various 3-dimensional works of art. The leg sculptures are actually castes of the artist’s legs and dressed in Riepenhoff's own clothes and shoes. The 3-dimensional works are by various artists. Riepenhoff’s work is a commentary on the invisible machinations of the art world. The gallerist helps the artist exhibit their work. Here they do this literally. Michele Grabner, Society of Independent Artists, and Peter Barrickman are among the artist who created the works being held up.
Ian F. Svenonius’s Censorship NOW by Frances Stark (California)
The Whitney gave artist Frances Stark this gallery to present whatever she wanted to. She really wasn’t sure what she wanted to display. She decided to use the writing of Ian Svenonius to hang in the space. Ian Svenonius is a punk rocker, cult figure and author. In 2015, he published Censorship NOW. The message of the title essay displayed here is that art has been coopted by Hollywood and that the lame media is really the voice of the government. Svenonius claims that artist’s battle for freedom of speech was achieved but that that art has lost its relevance and power. He believes artist need to control censorship so their message remains true and not becomes nonsense and mass produced. Stark wanted to amplify his voice and message. She applied the book to large, stretched canvases. Each different work is highlighted around the edges of the book or has gold leaf illumination like an old manuscript. Stark underlines and stars passage that are important to her.
La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times by Aliza Nisenbaum (Mexcian, live in Brooklyn, NY)
Aliza Nisenbaum portraits often depict undocumented immigrants. She met many of these immigrants while teaching a class called “English through Art History.” In this portrait, we see a father and his daughter, Marisa, reading the Sunday NY Times in their apartment. This family is undocumented aliens living in NYC. Nisenbaum uses bold colors and patterns to paint these modest scenes. The patterns in La Talaverita connect the family with their past. The embroidered textile, the Guadalupe Virgin and the Tollavera tiles (common in Puebla, Mexico) all allude to their Mexican heritage.
Raul de Nieves Room (Mexican, lives in Brooklyn, NY)
Raul de Nieves was given this specific space to create his Biennial work. He created what feels like a sacred cathedral space comprised of six floor to ceiling windows. Each window features eighteen “stained glass” panels. The faux stained glass was created using tape, glue, beads, wood, and acetate sheets. He enjoys turning common things into something fantastical. The windows share the theme of metamorphosis and transformation in an uncertain world. Death and waste are symbolized by a fly. In the middle at the top gates are wide open. The flies appear to be set free. This is all part of their rebirth in this world. After the U.S presidential election, de Nieves added the words at the top: peace, love, truth, justice, harmony and hope. Standing on the floor in front of the windows are elaborate sculptures some based on shoes and some as figures. Each one is heavily beaded to the point of abstraction. They are beyond cool!
Exodus and Evolution from The Floating World project by John Kessler (New York, NY)
John Kessler’s two works both discuss the topic of climate change and its social and environmental effects. They are sculptures with a kitschy, funny tone but a serious subject. In Exodus, we see small figurines like Humels and other junky figures revolving on a platform around a large Iphone screen. These figures represent the mass migrations occurring on the Earth right now such as the Syrian refugee crisis. The Iphone represents a survelliance camera reminding us that we are viewers and all a part of this tragedy. In Evolution, the topic shifts from mass migrations to the issue of rising sea levels on the Earth. Two figures are standing in water simulated by screens that have images of water and fish. The female figure is holding a small lite up 3-d replica of a building in Miami which is built and surround by a sea wall for protection. The figures arms have turned to driftwood and they are wearing virtual reality goggles. They appear to be unaware of the risks of the water levels rising. Kessler emphasizes that the effects of climate change will affect so many but that the wealthy who don’t care can still live by waterfront by building sea walls for protection.
Claim by Pope.L aka William Pope.L (Chicago, Il)
Pope.L has created a large container or room that is divided into a grid of 2,755 squares each with a slice of bologna and a black and white snapshot of a person in them. He claims that the number of slices is the equivalent of a percentage of New York’s Jewish residents. Pope.L has created similar pieces with the African American people. There is a problem, however, with his claim. There are actually two fewer slices of bologna. The portraits of the Jewish people are inaccurate as when he took the pictures he didn’t ask the people about their religious or cultural background. Pope.L is highlighting how society cares so much about categorizing people and of data collecting. He wants people to realize in the end it’s all a bunch of baloney!
THESE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! by Henry Taylor (Los Angeles, CA)
Henry Taylor presents this painting to discuss the tensions between law enforcement and the communities they work in. He is highlighting the increasing racial tension. The title was taken from the Bob Dylan song which was an anthem of the civil rights movement. The work was inspired by the video Diamond Reynolds made when her fiancé, Philando Castile, was fatally shot by a police officer in Minnesota. His death produced nationwide protest. Taylor uses a very graphic image hoping to communicate that it is important that this type of violence is address quickly. Her work, however, is a bit of fiction too. She has removed the wound of Castile.
Veteran’s Day by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer (Los Angeles, CA)
In this large oil painting, Veteran’s Day depicts people that Dupuy-Spencer believes protested and resisted in a very meaningful way. The painting shows the best and the worst behavior of people. Dupuy-Spencer places the following images in the work: The Abe Lincoln Brigade who fought Franco in Spain; Picasso's work, Guernica, which highlighted the atrocities in Spain while fighting Franco; the artist's grandfather who was a Marxist; a clipping of Cassius Clay, who didn’t fight in the Vietnam War because he didn’t believe in it; and a library of books that presents an ideal of art, war and history. After the U.S. Presidential election, she added a calendar with November 11th and an image of Sylvestor the Cat Smoking (her representation of President Trump.)
The Silent General by An-My Le (Vietnamese, Lives in Brooklyn, NY)
An-My Le is a war landscape artist. She captures the impact of war on land. She uses her photos to expose fiction for the true facts. In this photo, we see a monument to a Confederate Army general standing in a quiet urban setting. There is a sheer draping dulling the image of the statue. An-My Le focus is on discussing where does history end and the present begin. This photo is even more pertinent with the recent news of Confederate statues being removed in New Orleans.
Kaari Upson Room (Los Angeles, CA)
These caste structures were pieces of a sectional sofa that Kaari Upson found thrown away in Las Vegas and left in a driveway. She took the pieces to her studio where she spent a year and half casting the furniture in latex and urethane. The furniture is unrecognizable in its form although it does seem to have indentations of bodies that sat in it. The structures look almost like parts of the human body. Upson’s sofas is almost like an “abandoned soul” left outside for garbage. Upson’s message is that we are a throw-away society.
The Whitney Biennial is an incredible show! This year's artist selection provide a wide variety of styles, ideas, and types of art. Any contemporary art lover must see this exhibit. The Biennial is on display from March 17- June 11, 2017. Head to the meatpacking district of NYC and spend the day walking through the Whitney galleries perusing provocative, contemporary American art.