Thursday, March 11, 2010

Whitney Biennial, part 1

George Condo - The Butcher and His Wife

Confessions out of the way upfront: this was my first visit to a Whitney Biennial. I have read many of the reviews and much of the press surrounding 2010, and it seems like this was as good a year as any to be initiated to the ritual. I started at the top of the museum with Collecting Biennials, built around works shown at either the Whitney Annuals (now-defunct) or Biennials. The guiding principle for curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari was to engage the viewer’s hindsight on how relevant or dated these works may seem to us today, and how they were contextualized within the Annual or Biennial of their debut. I found the concept to work well, as there are some wonderful works to be seen. Looking back, I tended to gravitate toward their selection of mid-century works. My highlights include: George Tooker’s The Subway, in which the neurosis of Cold War era paranoia looks no different from high-tech snooping fears in the 21st Century; Vija Celmin’s Heater from 1964, the perfect bare-bones appliance for our cash-strapped times; Larry Clark’s Tulsa series, in which I saw prefigured how current reality television shows broadcast the grinding hopelessness of addiction direct to our homes, albeit devoid of any artistic merit; and Lee Bontecou, of whom I can’t get enough in general. One new work from the 2010 show, George Condo’s The Butcher and His Wife, is slipped into the mix. As for this bronze sculpture, while its back story is that of violent coitus interruptus between a butcher and his wife, call me crass but for some reason I couldn’t help but see, at least compositionally, flashes of Michael and Bubbles.

I came away with two clear favorites from 2010: Pae White’s Untitled, Still and Kerry Tribe’s H.M.

Pae White - Untitled, Still

Perhaps the sexiest work of the entire Biennial—I mean that in the most complimentary way possible—the tapestry’s translucent coils of smoke conjure images of cinematic noir and its monumental scale allows the viewer to get lost in her dreamlike vision. Are mere plumes of smoke worthy a medium of such grandeur of size and status, once reserved for royalty? In the wall text, White speaks of “the cotton’s dream of becoming something other than itself.” I agree; the work totally transcends the sum of its physical parts, propelled by its unabashed gorgeousness.

Kerry Tribe’s H.M. is a touching fictionalized film piece about a real-life man who was limited to twenty seconds of short term memory because of an experimental surgical procedure meant to remedy debilitating seizures, in which a portion of his brain was removed. The film is shown in duplicate, with two projectors that are synchronized twenty seconds apart to simulate the span of H.M.’s memory. The true strength of the piece lies in its humanity, especially the actor who gracefully portrays the afflicted titular character with an earnest, folksy geniality that belies his frustrated cognitive function. It is his disarming performance that allows for an honest meditation on the themes of memory and perception.

(Please stay tuned, part two will follow shortly...)

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