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2002 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art

by Dominique Nahas

It's the exhibition everybody hates, the show that can't wait to be kicked around every two years. It's the art world event that seems perfect for future Trivial Pursuit questions. It's the Whitney Biennial.

I am always a bit puzzled by the quantity of ink that is spilled and teeth that are gnashed regarding the biennial's (any Whitney Biennial's) inadequacies. After all, why would the biennial be different from any other large group show? Isn't it typical that a small percentage of works in a large museum event of this kind would make the difference between an experience that is worthwhile and one that is not? I don't mind not seeing an abundance of great work in a group show; frankly, I've come to expect it. What I do mind is not having an easy opportunity to see what is being showcased.

My biggest complaint is about the quantity of the often badly presented, media based, time based artwork at the Whitney Biennial, and the difficulty of seeing and assessing it all. Media based art hasn't reached the point of being time-friendly, user-friendly, or site-friendly. While there may be some excellent artworks buried within the programming of the biennial, no reviewer or other member of the public has the time to reasonably consider the merits of all the video and film selections (curated by the always able Chrissie Iles), Internet selections (chosen by Christiane Paul), or aural selections (curated by Debra Singer). Here the institution is at fault for trying to show too much, in too little space, and with too many interminable, didactic texts explaining the concepts driving many of the arcane pieces. Grumbling about the inadequacies of a traditional modern museum's architecture for carrying such works may be justified (consider Roberta Smith's teeth grinding in the New York Times of March 31), as may be despairing comments about the curatorial pretence of being far-reaching and non-parochial. The biennial falters badly on a number of levels, most notably improper choices and inelegant presentation. It is possible to show a large number of works, media-oriented ones together with traditional "still" works such as painting and sculpture, and show them well, as the P.S.1 Greater New York exhibition demonstrated last year. The Whitney Biennial sprawls by comparison, and it sprawls badly toward the inchoate and the implausible.

Apart from the tiresome and pointless artworks that seem to predominate in this exhibition, work by women artists is at a minimum in this, what is touted as the largest Whitney Biennial to date, as many people have pointed out. There are hardly two dozen women represented in this art extravaganza. In an art world chock-full of good work by artists of both sexes, you've got to be trying awfully hard to match this record for curatorial deviancy. Another eyebrow-raiser is the dearth of painting, good painting, in the show. Chief curator Larry Rinder either has no developed eye for painting or has an antipathy to it. The perfunctory unremarkableness, conservatism, or overexposure of paintings by Vija Celmins, Gerry Snyder, Lauretta Vinciarelli, Outtara Watts, Peter Williams, and John Zurier and drawings by Conor McGrady were disheartening.

Fortunately, other works compensated somewhat for these lackluster efforts. Notable standouts were the painting based installations by the late Margaret Kilgallen, the stairwell installation by Chris Johansen, paintings by Destroy All Monsters, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Yun-Fei Ji, and the metaphysical, grotesque comic strip vision of Chris Ware. The sculptural and multimedia efforts by Ken Feingold, Forcefield, Tim Hawkinson, Anne Wilson, Robert Lazzarini, Evan Holloway, Javier Cambre, John Leanos, and Erwin Redl, as well as the performatively driven video, web, or sound presentations by Jose Alvarez, Archive, Jim Campbell, Stephen Dean, Omer Fast, Christian Jankowski, John Klima, Lorna Simpson, and Steina were refreshing. In photography, AA Bronson's image of the AIDS-emaciated and dead body of Felix Partz, a fellow founder of General Idea, was haunting, as were Chan Chao's photos of Burmese refugees in his Something Went Wrong series. Also striking were the sumptuous oversize silver prints of Vera Lutter, the studio scenes by Hirsch Perlman, and Luis Gispert's large Fujiflex prints mounted on aluminum with their strangely ominous and elegiac cheerleader imagery. Clearly standing out in the exhibition were the architectural models and plans of The Rural Studio, the architectural training program in Alabama spearheaded by the late MacArthur Award-winner Samuel Mockbee to promulgate community driven, indigenous housing facilities for the rural poor.

Two biennials ago, comments were made by the critical community about the lip service paid by the Whitney to the need to bring so-called outsider artists into the national mainstream as fully fledged members of the creative community. In this biennial, outsider artists are again neglected, with the token exception of Rosie Lee Tompkins for her geometric, quilt-like works. As the Whitney isn't up to the task, why doesn't it explore collaborating with the American Folk Art Museum to cover this often visionary type of art in the next biennial?

One of the more adventuresome manifestations of the biennial was its extension into Central Park through the cooperation of the Whitney's Manhattan Public Art Fund. On a bitterly cold Tuesday morning in early March, a press conference was held next to Sheep's Meadow with guest speaker Mayor Bloomberg, billionaire mayor of the masses and art patron. It was heartening to hear remarks by a New York City mayor that were not only casually authoritative about the contemporary art scene, a first in my memory, but seemed effortless in their descriptive recall of Rachel Whiteread's Water Tower work. The mayor's comments were offered without written notes or teleprompters-will wonders never cease?

The five works included in the Central Park section of the Whitney Biennial were Keith Edmier's commemorative three-quarter bronze statue of two low-ranking WWII soldiers (his grandfathers, Emil Dobbelstein and Henry Drope), Kiki Smith's bronze figurines of harpies near the zoo's entrance gate, Kim Sooja's bedcovers placed as tablecloths on the Leaping Frog Café's terrace inside the zoo, Roxy Paine's commanding 50-foot (and dog anointed) naturalistic stainless steel tree next to Sheep's Meadow, and Brian Tolle's quiet water eruptions near the Lake's Bow Bridge. While each public work had great vitality, Bluff, 2002, Paine's industrialized tree, was easily the photogenic charmer of the bunch.

With its diversity, the 2002 Whitney Biennial is fun for all, little leaguers as well as the pros. Its tent is bigger than ever to accommodate its unprecedented 113 artists of all persuasions. For this event one thing is clear. The Whitney Museum does what it does best: makes your heart beat faster (occasionally), makes you cringe (often), and makes your spirits soar (perhaps less than you might have expected).


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