Friday, March 14, 2008

ArtTrek 3: The Whitney Biennial: Boy Is My Ass Tired

I did my second pass over the Whitney Biennial today. You know, I really hated the 2006 Biennial, but looking at this year's batch, I now realize that the 2006 Biennial was better simply because it was so odious. It seemed like everywhere you looked, you went, "Ew. Weird. Ick." And the way it was crammed all together like some bizarre salon-style of shit? There was some good stuff, of course, but the overwhelming contrariness of the thing was just baffling. Well, like I said, I hated it. But at least hate's a response.

This year's show, for the most part, made me round just about every corner with a "Hmmm. Golly. Look's like Art, I guess." Oh, 2006! I miss you so!

Mixed in with the Oatmeal of Art that was this year's Biennial, however, there were a few chewy, chunky raisins full of wholesome goodness and flavor to keep me from rushing the guards and demanding a refund.

Unfortunately, none of these chunky-chewies happened to be paintings. I guess it's just the way of the post-post-post-modern art world, but this year's selections made me think that painting really is dead, at least within the architecture of the contemporary art space. Even works by artists I like--Mary Heilman, for example--looked dated and out of place. Hung at waist level on the 2nd floor in front of the elevators, their bright hues and painterly strokes just don't gel with the surroundings. As I was looking at them, I thought back to her exhibition of paintings at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. They didn't look good there, either. I wondered why such good paintings always looked like shit. After I was through scouring the Biennial, I went all the way up to the 5th floor to see the permanent collection. On view there was a Heilman, in a nice, intimate, clean & well lighted space with a few other paintings of similar size. It looked good, and it looked right at home. I wondered if that was the problem with some of the other painters I saw.

Robert Bechtle (above) was another example of good painters hung bad. I really like this guy's work, but again, it looked out of place. After seeing the Heilman painting upstairs, it occurred to me that Bechtle's work would have been best served had it been put in a gallery with other paintings, preferably, again, of similar size. I'm thinking he woulda looked great in a room with a Hopper or two.

One of my biggest disappointments, however, was the room devoted to Karen Kilimnik's work. Oh, I think we all know how I generally feel about Kilimnik's work. Remind me to tell you, sometime, about the time I tried to stalk her at 303 Gallery. With four or five small, characteristically sloppy paintings installed in a space adorned a fancy chandelier glittering at just-above-eye-level, however, Kilimnik's work, which she usually artfully throws together with aplomb, looked stripped-bare. When Karen's done properly, as she so often is, her splashes of fancy contrast her pathetic painting style and make a statement that only a reclusive, celebrity-obsessed woman can make. Here, though, it's too much to be effectively minimal, and not enough to draw the viewer into her fantasy world. Boy, was I bummed. Now I'll have to track her down and kill her.

But! I've learned my lesson. My inclination is to do a lot of bitching and save the best for last, but seeing as how my computer screwed me over and I lost half of one of my previous posts, and I had decided to save the best for last that time, I shall avoid that pitfall. It's really hard for me; bitching about things is so damned fun. And I will say, without elaborating, that Rachel Harrison and Jason Rhoades suck some huge, major, horribly stinky ass. Rachel got a brief reprieve for a piece or two in the Unmonumental show, but really, Rachel, in the immortal words of the Simpsons' groundskeeper Willie, back to the loch with you, 'Nessie.

But I did see some great shit, so I'll talk about that now and leave the worst (for the most part) where it ought to be.

My favorite piece in the entire show was a 4-channel video by Omer Fast, The Casting. Told on four screens in a series of silent tableaux are two stories narrated in voiceover by a U.S. soldier in Iraq. One is a rather bizarre tale, in which he meets and dates a German girl, only to find that she's a self-mutilating nut who drags him in to meet her disapproving family and then practically kills them driving home. The other is a story in which he, one of several soldiers stuck on a deserted road, accidentally shoots an Iraqi civilian. The stories intertwine seamlessly, and the actors, in seeming freeze-frame, blink and breathe as the camera dwells on their individual moments of horror. The narration switches from one scene to the next without a hitch, exploring the complexity and incomprehensibility of how memories mingle in one's psyche, and how terrifying events somehow resonate equally with absurd, less harmful situations. The beginning, as well as the end, shows the narrator pitching his story before a small group of filmmakers, only to be told that his tale is too long, that something like that couldn't possibly engage an audience. Relating it like this makes such a framework come off as pat, but the chaotic nature of the intertwining stories, in contrast with the mock stillness of the actors in each frame really does mimic the nature of subjectivity and memory. It's a disturbing, gorgeous work.

Matthew Brannon's installation, also occupying a room of its own, was the model of economy. Even the small--probably 8-10' wide and maybe 8' tall--partitions installed to exhibit his modestly scaled letterpress prints seemed perfectly planned for the space. There was a lot going on in this room, yet it neither felt crowded nor overwhelming. His letterpress prints, clean and spare, generally had one or two images, stark, clean, iconographic shapes, with often hilarious text. A lone shape, mimicking a piano as seen from above, reads, guess. no guess again, and then continues to relate how the writer fucked some guy in a piano bar years before.

Another completely hilarious text talks about how the artist suddenly realizes the absurdity of his own being whilst standing in line at an art supply store. There he is, buying art supplies, standing in line at an art supply store, amidst crafters, students. His mildly paranoiac meanderings remind me of the time when I was pulling into Texas Art Supply and I saw Hiram Butler in the parking lot. I said to him, jokingly, Hey! Only artists are allowed to be at Texas Art Supply! To his credit, Hiram drily replied, Real artists don't shop at Texas Art Supply.

He had me there.

Brannon also has a nice installation on the largest wall in the Room. Painted in a flat black are a couple of blocky grids, with drapes of sea-foam green hung neatly to the sides. This guy's a genius with color. Somehow, the work screams color and design, yet doesn't feel like a misplaced thesis by some interior design grad student. A small pink shelf, hung impossibly high and stocked with pink books and bookends, adds to the i'm fucking with your ideas of arrangement sensibility. Nice.

The closest thing to a successful "painting" installation was by Lisa Sigal. Using a wall, including the door, of what looks to be something ripped out of some dead granny's house before demolition, Sigal tacks on a battered awning from an old circus tent. The effect comes off as less vintage than canvas with an aged patina. I found myself looking at this installation with even more interest the second time around.

I guess the smartest way to approach painting in this show was with a tad of irony, as Ellen Harvey did in her installation Museum of Failure. This work is first met with a large black plexiglas wall, with cartoony-looking (think of a gallery wall in a Pink Panther cartoon) wainscoting and painting-less picture frames. One "frame" is cut out to show a red wall painted with tromp l'oeil frames, still-lifes, and scenes from what could be the artist's studio. This red wall is also painted with faux wainscoting, as is the rest of the room. I suppose that any romance one would have about this wall of "paintings" behind the wall of plexi "frames" is shattered by the harsh fluorescent lights installed on the back of the plexi wall. Although each of the "paintings" is realistic, it is executed rather ham-fistedly and doesn't really pretend to represent painting at all, but, rather, emphasizes how one chooses to look at that kind of work.

I've recently taken to loathing things that look purposely thrown together, random, or crappy. Mitzi Pederson, taking crappy- or found-looking objects and with a single element transforming them into pieces of purely poetic abstract sculpture, really makes one re-evaluate notions of formalism. I couldn't really find an image on the web that illustrates the genius she demonstrates with her assemblage of broken cinder blocks. On each raw, busted edge of concrete, Pederson applies a thick, furry layer of charcoal and black glitter. This touch effects a strange metamorphosis on the bricks; they seem weightless, as if, with a swift boot, one could scatter them across the gallery.

Another memorable (perhaps because it was so bloody weird) video installation was by Mika Rottenberg . Installed in a walk-in barnyard structure are (I think) 5 videos of women with impossibly long hair (think Crystal Gale) milking goats to make butter or cheese, collecting water to wash their impossibly long hair, or scampering about trying to herd their cheesemaking goats. Each task the women tackle, whether it be gathering up animals or their own tresses, is almost comically laborious. One woman lies on a high wooden plank whilst the rest ceremoniously thread her locks between suspended metal rings; another scene shows the same woman with her hair cascading a story downward while her co-workers dutifully squeeze water from her just-washed hair into a vessel. Every act is one of economy and ridiculously long hours of work. An entire afternoon produces only one square of cheese, one washed head of hair. Even though, at first, it seems as if you're watching something from another era--like visiting Amish country--settling into the work makes you feel that one thing never changes: a woman's work is never done.

Amanda Ross-Ho's enormous blue plastic catbox, complete with litter, was also a special treat. Mmmm...somehow the words "treat" and "catbox" shouldn't go together. But no matter. Ho's sensibility, somewhat ironic but still crazy with '70's-ish pop references--giant silhouettes of macrame hangings cut from thick black canvas, cruddy prints from little-kid tee shirts (a petulant looking cartoon bear is labeled "stubborn"--think of the little cartoon devils saying "I'm a lil' devil")--is paired with what seems to be random clutter. A framed white-painted bulletin board, riddled with phantom tack marks, sports a snapshot here, a flyer there. You can really feel Ho's playful and self-deprecating spirit here. She's a lil' devil.

Finally, the last (and not least) work I was pretty crazy about was Olaf Bruening's video installation, Home 2. The viewing room, decked out like a scene out of Kon Tiki: screen lashed to a bamboo frame, seating of bamboo benches, set the stage for the travels of Brian Kerstetter, an wild n' crazy white guy out to "experience" the world.

Kerstetter's one of the best things I've ever seen. Fearless, entitled, and naive in that upper-middle-class white guy way, he travels around the world--to Japan, New Guinea--striving for a real experience with the natives. This guy's unbelievable (and unless he's actually a spawn of Satan or a genetic anomaly, he's wearing insanely light blue contact lenses, which make him seem even whiter and creepier); the kinda guy who goes everywhere making everybody laugh. Hilariously extroverted, he communicates with everyone in a grandiose pantomime. He buys a huge bunch of bananas from a native market vendor, then chases her around and around the market as she laughs and screams. He persuades a group of Japanese youths to sport Pokemon masks and march through the streets of Tokyo. He meets some wealthy Arabs (?) in a Japanese hotel and somehow persuades them to tie each other up, as if taken hostage by terrorists, and pose for pictures.

You find yourself laughing in disbelief at every escapade, and Kerstetter always includes you, the viewer, into his schemes as he whispers to the camera. It's as if you and your zany friends travel, Lonely Planet guide in hand, throughout the third world. The jungles are lush, or the hotels are full of things that look foreign and funny to you, and you can always count on the housekeeping or cooking staff to play along with a practical joke. You're laughing as he rather innocently (hey! he's just being friendly! he's just having fun) but completely condescends to these people.

The tone drastically changes, however, when Brian encounters a part of the third world that is neither lush nor charming with local color. Kerstetter is one of these guys that never sits down--his enthusiasm is infectious, and, therefore, so is his disillusionment and dismay. Upon encountering a site that is strewn with rotten garbage and where the natives are burning tires, he becomes so depressed, he tosses his money to passing children.

This work is brilliant; it's a perfect fit for this hyperactive actor, as his intensity magnifies our inability, as denizens of the first world, to remotely comprehend that of the third. And it's a lovely illustration of white liberal guilt, as is clearly demonstrated when Kerstetter dejectedly hands out his foreign bills. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, followed that novel up with the less successful You Shall Know Our Velocity. In the second work, a novelist who has attained great riches and great success is so burdened by the guilt of having obtained so much money in what he perceives as a shallow way, travels over the world with a few buddies with the express purpose of giving all of his money away. He thinks that doing this will alleviate his guilt and will make him feel as if he's done good, but it does neither. Eggers' characters' adventure of ridding himself of the money, followed the the ensuing feeling of futility perfectly mirrors Bruening's work here. Why can't I make you people have a better life? And what makes me so sure I can give you one?

By now, if anyone has read this far, you're probably thinking: Who does this WhinyBabyLander think she is? Norman Fucking Mailer? Well, if we've all gotta throw our work into a huge vacuum, we might as well do it in a grandiose fashion.

Now, I will wrap up this preposterously long post with the Coulda Been Betters and the Couldn'ta Been Worse categories.

Spike Lee When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Now, in all fairness, this was good. I think. I mean, who the fuck is going to sit through 244 minutes? It's practically impossible. The museum opens at 11, closes at 6. And they don't allow food in there. I mean, come on. I hope that someday I'll be able to see the whole thing on Netflix.

Carol Bove's airy installation, Night Sky over New York was lovely, but what makes her work really great and edgy, in general, is her ability to tie contemporary sensibilities in with her '60's Danish Modern twists. Coulda been better.

John Baldessari. I know I should be more respectful, but here: Bleccchhdessari.

Roe Etheridge: Who proclaimed these photographs interesting? Where can I find this person and stuff one of them down his or her throat?

Michael Smith: To be truthful, Michael Smith is the kinda guy who should, finally, get some real recognition. I mean, look at him! Everything about him and his work says, I'm a Good Guy!
And he's a clever guy. Although the video and Sears portraits shown here at the Biennial were already shown in the CAM's Nexus Texas exhibition, they seemed weightier here. Or maybe they just weren't surrounded by as much crud as at the CAM show. I really hated that show, and wound up calling it Blexus Texas, but you know how I love making up stupid nicknames. Unfortunately, his video Portal Excursion was projected on a big screen at the Whitney, and it just looked, production-wise, like shit. It is a clever piece, although I can't seem to shake the image of 60 Minutes' Andy Rooney out of my head when I watch it.

Phoebe Washburn: Washburn's installation here was neither particularly ambitious nor visually compelling. Some 2x4's here, a couple of gurgling fish tanks there. I'd seen it in L.A. in, what, like 1993? Also, there was something about this whole construction that made me want to point and say, Look, Pop! It's a Habitrail for environmental nuts!

Charles Long: I told you people to keep your crappy-looking papier mache shit at home.

Seth Price: Hi, I vomited up some shapes that kinda look like Africa. Let's trace 'em out and make 'em look like slick panels of polyurethane!

William Cordova: Whatever. Right around the corner from this crappy construction of 2x4's that undoubtedly held cryptic symbols of some ethnic identity, there was a pretty decent crappy construction with plywood and a few mirrors by Heather Rowe. Why must we be plagued with two crappy carpenters when just Heather would do just fine?

Sherrie Levine: Here's another one I oughta have more respect for, but just because I have respect for my Grandma doesn't mean I need to put her in a show.

Frances Stark: Great drawings, but lady, leave your PowerPoint lectures for the university lecture circuit! If you're saying something stupid, it's not going to be any less boring or stupid if it dances across a computer screen.

Leslie Hewitt: I don't get it. Oh, yeah. Maybe I'm not supposed to get it. Is it because I'm white and the references here are so post-identity politics that I'm supposed to assume that this random shit means something? I think I must be a racist.

Eduardo Sarabia: A bodega/warehouse type space loaded with oversized, fabricated items. Visually, this was actually one of the better installations. However, after looking through the free 'catalog' that I picked up inside the show, I realized that each object was actually a part of some huge project this guy has going on, including producing his own line of tequila. Cute, but somebody's obviously got too many production assistants on hand. It irritated me.

OK, I have officially started to look a bit like a mole. My eyes are becoming sensitive to the light.

Until I write again...