Click here to see a slide show of the art.
In his remarks about the 2004 Whitney Biennial, which opened in New York on March 11, the Whitney Museum's new director, Adam Weinberg, described the show as a "requisite, periodic report from the front"—a loaded metaphor to apply to an exhibition of art conceived and created during wartime. The odd thing is you'd never know it from looking at the work. This year's curators—Chrissie Iles, Shamim Momim, and Debra Singer, all associated with the Whitney—have put together a focused, intelligent, thematically coherent show that makes sense of the amorphous pluralism of contemporary art in America by emphasizing a few overlapping trends. The work they've chosen is strong and often thought-provoking. Yet there's a general feeling of retrenchment in the air. This Biennial presents a view of artists retreating from the world and taking refuge in alternate realities: private allegories, or nostalgic evocations of the recent past, or a meticulous devotion to craft. If the exhibition had a theme song, it would be "Over the Rainbow"—the classic ballad of escapism, which plays in the museum's stairwells in a sound installation by Julianne Swartz.
There is, of late, great interest among young artists in the culture of the '60s and early '70s. In keeping with this, the curators have set up a lively intergenerational dialogue, juxtaposing work by established artists like Mary Kelly, Marina Abramovic, Mel Bochner, Jack Goldstein, and Yayoi Kusama with contributions by many of the emerging artists they've influenced. Everybody wins: The older artists in the show look fresh and relevant, their younger colleagues gain a distinguished historical lineage, and viewers learn something about how ideas pass from one generation to the next. For example, in one gallery, the paintings of California veteran David Hockney are installed beside Jack Pierson's beefcake fantasy photographs and Elizabeth Peyton's stylish portraits of pretty young men, tracing the evolution of a casual, post-Pop sensibility that makes all three artists seem a bit more substantial and harder to dismiss as mere fashion.
Speaking of which, one of the strangest trends the show reflects is the spread of a post-punk, Goth aesthetic, especially among artists in their 20s. I've always thought of the whole black-magic, nihilistic rebellion thing as something you leave behind in your parents' closet when you move out. But with the average American lifespan stretching past 80, it makes sense that adolescence would hold us in its gloomy grip for a few more years. Most of this work is self-mocking to a degree, but it can be hard to tell where the irony leaves off and the angst begins.
Chloe Piene's video, Blackmouth, is a 4-minute loop of a girl in her underwear, covered in mud and screaming in slow-motion, her cries echoing like the primal moans of a wounded elephant. The first time I walked through the darkened gallery, I noticed a couple of men watching the video and cackling uncontrollably. Later, I overhead two middle-aged women confess that they found the piece deeply distressing, almost unwatchable. Either way, the effect was cheap and sensational, and the slo-mo focus on an enactment of human suffering reminded me of yet another recent Goth production—Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.
In Sue DeBeer's video, Hans & Grete, teenage girls wearing too much black eyeliner listlessly leaf through magazines, have uncomfortable sexual encounters, and get blood on their mouths. The monitors are set up in a pink-carpeted room with giant stuffed animals and a fake purple Fender guitar and amps arranged on the floor. (My favorite thing about this piece was the imploring sign at the entrance to the gallery: "Please sit on the animals.") Though the video is dark and spooky, the room takes its inspiration from a more girlish variety of "pink Goth," which Sarah Vowell, the writer and radio contributor, once detailed in a hilarious story about trying to fit in with a group of Goth kids who had her re-christen herself with the scariest name she could think of: Becky.
The nostalgia of young artists for some sort of authentic youth-driven counterculture appears in the show's many evocations of '60s psychedelia. Jeremy Blake's video, Reading Ossie Clark, is a well-crafted tribute to the fabulous British fashion designer and confirms—if there was ever any doubt—that London in the swinging '60s was a lot more fun than New York could ever hope to be. The video's soundtrack features excerpts from Clark's diaries, including such classic lines as: "After a snort of coke, I become a new man. And that new man wants two snorts of coke." More appropriate to our age of sobriety are Fred Tomaselli's ornately decorative panels, which incorporate marijuana leaves and a lifetime's supply of pharmaceuticals under a clear layer of synthetic polymer. The message: You can look all you want, but don't touch.
Without the benefit of Tomaselli's stash, installations like assume vivid astro focus 8, a room with throbbing music and walls painted in swirling Pucci-like colors, just seem goofy and lame, like a family rec room tarted up for nostalgia night. To really nudge open the doors of perception, stick with an old pro like Yayoi Kusama. Her room-sized work, Fireflies on the Water, accommodates only one viewer at a time, but this hallucinatory installation of mirrors and sparkly lights reflected to infinity is worth the wait.
Drawing is the medium of the moment, and the curators have included very strong work by established artists like Raymond Pettibon, Robert Longo, and James Siena. But there are also new discoveries, like Ernesto Caivano, a young artist who renders imaginary creatures called Philapores—flightless birds with elaborate plumage—with a fluid, meticulous line and extraordinary technical finesse. Amy Cutler, whose early work often seemed dry and didactic, is represented here by weird, charming drawings of a fairy-tale world populated by women who turn their dresses into pup tents and carry horses strapped into harnesses on their backs.
Within the exhibition's general atmosphere of fantasy and aesthetic cocooning, the artists who stand out are those who push themselves to engage creatively with the social and political world outside the cramped confines of art as we know it. For her project Where We Come From, the Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir asked dozens of exiled Palestinians the simple question: "If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" The responses she received were heartbreaking, whimsical, and sometimes banal. A young man from the West Bank town of Beit Jalla asked her to go on a date with a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem he had spoken to but never met; a woman in Houston, Texas, asked her to go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy she saw on the street; a man from a refugee camp in Hebron asked her to go to the Israeli post office and pay his phone bill. She fulfilled over two dozen requests, documenting her experiences as an artistic proxy in words and photographs. Though the presentation recalls the polemical work dealing with identity politics that dominated the Biennial in the '90s, Jacir's project manages to illuminate a complex social reality with poetic precision.
Harrell Fletcher, an artist from Portland, Ore., is similarly committed to connecting his artistic practice to the everyday world. He's represented in the show by two films and an interactive Web site, www.learningtoloveyoumore.com, which offers simple "assignments" for art projects that anyone can complete. For his film, Blot Out the Sun, he asked the employees and customers of a gas station in Portland to recite passages from James Joyce's Ulysses, which he had written out on cue cards. (The idea came from the owner of the gas station, who told Fletcher Ulysses was his favorite book.) Though the idea sounds contrived, there's something stirringly right about hearing lines like "Love loves to love love" recited to the sound of pneumatic drills, or watching a mechanic fiddle with a lug nut as he ventriloquizes Joyce's riffing on the notion of infinity. It's silly, it's utopian, but this vision of ordinary people giving voice to this earthy, ecstatic language gave me hope that art will eventually dig its way out of its millennial bunker and re-enter the world in a more vital form. As Mike the mechanic intones, movingly, at the end of the film: "… and yes I said yes I will Yes."