The Whitney Biennial is one of my favorite things about living in New York. I make my plans to see it with a sense of anticipation. Honestly, I’ve never seen a show at that museum – Biennial or not – that I haven’t found interesting. Lots of people have a hard time with contemporary art, and there’s plenty of it that I find ugly (but not in an enlightening way), meaningless, trying too hard to be meaningful, or just weird. I have little patience for sculpture or video installation, but I go and look at it all anyway, because next to the 10 foot brick of rainbow colored snot you might see something that startles. I still remember my favorite pieces from past shows like they are old friends – except I only met them once, for a few minutes.
This year’s show wasn’t my favorite. I don’t know if it’s the times or just my particular context for seeing right now, but it felt a little darker than previous years. There were fewer pieces that made me laugh or think, wow, that artist really had fun making that. There was a lot of deconstruction, a lot of odd materials used in ways a mile shy of beautiful – though, of course, beauty is not always the point. There were a lot of explorations of physical space, but they felt more damaged and painful than previous installation pieces that I recall.
Still, a few pieces stood out for me. My hands-down favorites were two photographs by Melanie Schiff, Reflecting Pool (which looks nice on her website but was arresting in real life) and Water Birth, which you can see on the Biennial’s artist page. My photographer friend Alex likes to poke fun at me for my conservative tastes in art, and I guess she’s right: I like photography and painting best, and probably fairly formal stuff within those media, and yes, I do like things that are beautiful. Schiff commented about her art that she tries to make photographs that resonate the way a sad song does: it’s not about your experience, but you feel it’s about you all the same. It’s a nice image and these two photographs, in particular, I think succeed in that.
Roe Etheridge’s photographs also caught my eye. Each was quite different from the next – I recognized the boats from Mumbai harbor from my own travels, a photograph of the sun setting behind trees, all aglow and orange, was strikingly beautiful, but it was the erotic photograph of a young woman in a captain’s hat that got us talking. My friend felt it was exploitative, the oversized captain’s hat combined with the hearts on the bikini, the waiflike model. I’m not so sure. I see what she means, but to me this woman is not necessarily submitting to someone else’s fantasy. The camera’s gaze still feels gentle to me, fond of this young woman.
Briefly: Pheobe Washburn clearly has fun making her pieces, room-sized sculptures that are half-machine, half-ecosystem, half…. well, they have many halves. Similarly, Alice Konitz made us laugh with her multi-piece imaginary auction of a trip to an undeveloped strip of LA freeway. James Welling’s chromogenic prints of mesh arranged in the contours of the human body are simple and sensual. Finally, we spent several minutes reading the pixelated letters in one of Shannon Ebner’s pieces, which seemed to be fragments of reflection or poetry about war and power, which were, upon further reading, palindromic, which were, upon closer examination of the photographs, spelled out using concrete blocks.
Tomorrow: Tribeca Film Festival. It’s good to live in New York in spring.