Weekly Update — Whitney Biennial downer

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This week’s Weekly has my review of the Whitney Biennial. Below’s the copy with some pictures. See Libby’s post for more. Don’t look for this review in the printed paper, it’s only online. More photos at flickr.

With Philadelphia artists conspicuously absent, the Whitney Biennial is a total downer.

Eduardo Sarabia
Eduardo Sarabia’s work in the Whitney Biennial (detail of his sculpture supply closet) stands out in a depressed Biennial.

Two mysteries surround the 2008 Whitney Biennial.
First: Why are there no Philadelphia artists in a show supposedly about underground anti-market art (art that’s often interdisciplinary and created collaboratively)?
Sure, Philadelphian Karen Kilimnik appears, but Kilimnik is by now an elder stateswoman and her work is included—like that of Mary Heilmann and John Baldassari—as context. If the Whitney Biennial quota for Philadelphia artists is only one, choosing an old-guard artist feels like a smackdown of our excellent underground scene.

Heather Rowe
Heather Rowe, foreground, and Olivier Mosset (background) give that Home Depot ambiance to the show.

Space 1026, Vox, Copy, Pageant, FluxSpace, Bobo’s on 9th, Little Berlin, Lure and PIFAS are all edgier, riskier, more fun, deeper underground and less pretentious than much of what’s in the Whitney show.

Mika Tajima and New Humans
Mika Tajima and New Humans.

Second mystery: Why is there no mention in the Biennial catalog of ICA’s groundbreaking 2007 “Locally Localized Gravity” show? “LLG” covered the same territory the Whitney is retreading, and did it well. There’s one crossover artist, Fritz Haeg, who was in “LLG” and is now in the Biennial. Surely some mention of ICA’s great show was in order, even if only for professional courtesy.

Adam Putnam
Adam Putnam, Green Hallway II (Magic Lantern) gives you some old fashioned Victorian seance ambiance.

The show, with works by 81 artists, is loaded with one low-energy downer after another. It occupies the entire museum, and even spilled over temporarily into the Park Avenue Armory. (You can view videos, audio and photos on the museum’s website.)
The concept of the nest—crib, house, hovel, shack, habitat, ecosystem, apartment—turns up in many metaphorical and literal apparitions. Even the exterior of the building announces the nest theme: Fritz Haeg’s enormous, functional bird’s nest sits atop the entrance like a giant gameboard marker.
Ellen Harvey
Ellen Harvey doing one of her 100 portrait drawings at the Armory during the first weeks of the show.

With all the framed-out structures and building materials (Lisa Sigal, Heather Rowe, Phoebe Washburn), Home Depot could’ve been a sponsor.

Ruben Ochoa
Ruben Ochoa Infracted Expansion (I cannot tell a lie, lightening struck down the first one and my father chopped down the second) 2007

It wasn’t clear whether things were being built, deconstructed or in one case—Ruben Ochoa’s twisted concrete, rebar and cyclone fence sculpture that looks like an outcropping from a live-action news storm report—just abandoned.

Javier Telles
Javier Telles, Letter on the Blind. For the Use of those who see. 2007. 16mmfilm transferred to high definition video. approx. 35 min. A moving moment in a chilly show. Set in a dry swimming pool a group of blind men walks, one by one, to touch an elephant.

Painting and photography are scarce. Two Olivier Mosset color field paintings are notable for their nubbly surfaces and tones of burnt umber. In keeping with the DIY nesting theme, the paintings suggest large sheets of sandpaper from a 3M multipack.

Phoebe Washburn
Phoebe Washburn’s piece, while not as nice as her cathedral-esque magnum opus at ICA last year, is nonetheless a high moment in the show.

The majority of the show makes it hard to escape the message that we’re living in a state of impermanence, claustrophobia, passivity and narrow possibilities. The future is a month-to-month lease and, like the birds, we rove in flocks buffeted by the elements.

Fritz Haeg
Fritz Haeg’s birds’ nest at the Whitney’s entry on Madison Ave. One of a number of animal-themed installations called Animal Estates this one apparently was being used as a nest by the birds already.

But this grim vision isn’t shared by all the artists in the show. Some (like Eduardo Sarabia, Phoebe Washburn, Olaf Bruening, Javier Téllez and Fritz Haeg) use a lighter touch coupled with some combination of passion, whimsy and generosity. For nesting with the possibility of blue skies, or at least a long-term lease on life, hunt for their works in the show.

Eduardo Sarabia
Eduardo Sarabia, “The Gift,” a sample of this artist’s generous art–it’s a giveaway. Look for the little book — zine really about his work — in his sculpture storage space.

Better yet, talk to any young Philadelphia artist and see what they’re making.
Whitney Biennial 2008

Addendum:
kittywhitney.jpg
Cat on the catalog

In her own way Shadow cat creates an animal estate all her own claiming the Biennial catalog as her perch.

Through June 1. $10-$15. Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. at 75th St., New York, N.Y.

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