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Whitney Biennial 2019 A.D.

Jaan Elken (3/2019)

Jaan Elken admits that metaphorically the whole world still gathers in New York, as many young American artists are not originally from the United States.

17. V–22. IX 2019
Whitney Museum
68 artists, 2 deceased artists and 5 artist collectives
Curators: Jane Panetta, Rujeko Hockley

New York is worth visiting both with a specific aim and without one, there is always something desirable and magnificent happening. After getting tickets to the Rolling Stones concert on 17 June at the MetLife Stadium and to the recently opened Whitney Biennial (which I have not visited on my previous trips), life happened. The Rolling Stones concert was cancelled due to Mick Jagger's heart surgery and that freed up some time for me to go and see the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the premiere week at the Koch Theater at the heart of the Lincoln Center. And many other great and not so great plays on Broadway and near 42nd Street, as well as outside the commercial theatre area.

June 2019 also meant WorldPride, which this year was dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall incident.1 To exaggerate a little, it can be said that as a rule all the city's businesses and department stores but also offices of large corporations and logos were rainbow coloured in June, including Google's overdesigned logo on the facade of its headquarters in the trendy Meatpacking district. All these organisations had also contributed to the massive cultural programme accompanying the gay parade.

Scars are healed both ways

I visited La Mama Theater, the flagship of innovative theatre in the 1960s and the 1970s mainly because of its aura. As the highlight of the trip I had planned a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing "Camp: Notes on Fashion", which paraphrases Susan Sontag's 1964 essay and was happening at the same time as the gay parade, already because of the exhibition scenography (by Jan Versweyveld, who also created David Bowie's musical "Lazarus" (2015)), which was fascinating, and in quality only comparable to Robert Wilson's work, a scenographer of the same stature. The exhibition by the Met's Costume Institute, equipped by Susan Sontag's texts, gave a panoramic overview of queer accents in world culture from the 17th century to today (or how something marginal became a significant and leading force in mainstream culture). The costumes (from Giorgio Armani to Vivienne Westwood) were stunning in their synchronicity with "high culture".

Exhibition programmes for larger museums in the United States are put together according to audience taste; for example, the state support for the Met is less than a fifth of its budget. So the artists highlighted in curatorial projects are already at the top of their field, which mostly brings commercial success and/or funding from foundations. The significance of personalities in culture is continuously on the rise, the entertainment industry and media need stars – next to rock singers or actors we now see top artists who are promoted by galleries to an extent equal to the way fashion brands are marketed. Furthermore, culture in general, from the more simplistic mass culture to the high-end, has now entered the more or less commercialised field of culture, and not only in the US but also in Estonia.

When it comes to the Met this means the press preview for "Camp" was attended by guests like Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, Anna Wintour and others. Museums compete for their audiences with the entertainment market and the cult of stars in the US has no equal. A wider public has been captured by a kind of contemporary art – also dominating the selection at the Whitney Museum, which is environmentally conscious and acknowledges global issues. Recent history but also the current political state of the United States, one of the most self-centred powerful states, offers abundant inspiration for all critically thinking artists.

Maybe my conclusion was amplified by the activities related to the remembrance of the Stonewall incident, as every last kebab truck seemed to exclaim that it is proud to be gay. But it seems that scars are being healed both ways (overreacting is part of the current state of affairs): first, the attitude towards sexual minorities and gay culture in general and second, the main source of anxiety and hidden tension in the US – the racial segregation and social stratification of the past, together with depreciative attitudes towards the cultural contributions of black people (until the beginning of the 1960s).

Even the new version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's legendary Dixie-musical "Oklahoma!" (1943), shown at the exceptional space at Circle in the Square Theater has taken a multiculturalist approach that would have shaken the values of the past of the racist southern states. The collage-like dramaturgy of the play was not that far from Theatre NO99. The novel choreography and real-time manipulations with video – all of that brought the musical a Tony Award in the Best Revival category. Or the rock-opera-like compilation about the first black boy band from Motown, The Temptations, that premiered this spring at the Imperial Theatre, entertaining mostly white musical audiences on Broadway and elsewhere. Touring on American stages in the north, essentially all the way up to Toronto, and having won Olivier Awards and all kinds of other musical theatre prizes, we see "Hamilton" (2015), a hip hop influenced musical where historical figures of the Civil War era are played by black actors, using a specific "panther walk" body language and rap on stage.

On the other hand, already in autumn 2018, the Whitney Museum presented David Wojnarowicz's (1954–1992) first extensive retrospective. Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS, influenced a whole array of artists and has by now almost become a father figure. He never really had an idiosyncratic style, however, even more outstanding than his unfinished films, posters, photo collages, sculptures and paintings, is his work as an LGBT rights activist. The exhibition that as a whole felt like a big melancholy scream was gradually amplified literally into enraged hysteria, with severe accusations towards society by the artist. Why did it only happen now – 26 years after the artist's death? The decorative character of the paintings exhibited in the elite galleries surrounding the Whitney last autumn intensified the contextual contrast even further, so I went and saw Wojnarowicz again the following day.

The story must hold

When it comes to painting or good art in general, it seems to obey the rule of communicating vessels – when one aspect of a work is overemphasised, the rest needs to be toned down. Sad stories, caricature-like bluntness, the angular forcefulness of artistic expression and an almost non-existent mastery of (painting) techniques, but no cuddling up to a decorative approach.

With everything I have mentioned above, I wish to say that the social has not disappeared from art, but the themes that dominate are symptomatic of society in the US; these are not learned or borrowed stylisations because who would not be engaged by stories that hold, as the background is mostly familiar to the viewer. The unbearable heaviness/lightness of being, the vulnerability/fragility of the body and different expressions of sexuality – and subcultural relations to society from that perspective. Also the imagined and real issues of the coexistence of people with different skin colour, and racist hate crimes.

When we think about the two instances in Estonian art history of an Estonian artist's work having been chosen for the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale – that is, being selected by the curator – both works are moving because of a personal approach and the presence of personality. This is true for both the 2001 video by Ene-Liis Semper "FF/REW" (1998) that feels like an auto-da-fé, and the 2003 tragic documentary by Jaan Toomik "Peeter ja Mart" (Peeter and Mart, 2001), where painter Peeter Mudist, no longer able to control his body but with a crystal clear gaze tells his story, defying the failing flesh. (In Estonia a similar sensibility with Semper and Toomik is shared by Kris Lemsalu, Jaanus Samma, Ly Lestberg and a few others.) And of course, alongside the authenticity and credibility, the question of having the right to tell the story to an audience also rises. The diagnosis of cultural imperialism/colonialism would not allow a comment by an Estonian artist on the crisis of the diamond industry on the continent of Africa (even when accompanied by the compulsory bow to feminism) or portraits of the British Queen or Gerhard Richter painted by an Estonian to be taken seriously.

During the previous Whitney Biennial in 2017, a scandal exploded, when the author of one of the most scandalous paintings, the white painter Dana Schutz, was attacked by Hannah Black and other black (or) artists and writers (of colour) who had signed a public letter stating that the use of the 1955 image of a 14-year-old black boy with his face smashed in an act of racial hatred as the source material for her painting was serving entertainment and profit purposes. Schutz had to apologise, saying she had never intended to sell the painting. These quasi-shifted mirrors of the racial segregation of the past have hopelessly torn apart the current South African Republic, dooming the state to gradually fade away, both culturally and economically. In the US, Marlene Dumas, the South African artist of Boer descent, living in the Netherlands, could also be contested in the US. Her watercolours and acrylic paintings of black youths and children are largely inspired by Dumas' former homeland, more precisely based on images published in newspapers, magazines and criminal chronicles, as Dumas prefers to work from media images rather than models.

The current Whitney Biennial in 2019 goes down in history with another scandal – artist protests and an ultimatum. Namely, one of the participating artists withdrew their work from the exhibition and eight more intended to do the same if one of the members of the Whitney Museum board, Warren B. Kanders who, as it became evident, had ties to Safariland, a company that produces defence and battle equipment and tear gas that repressive regimes had supposedly used to suppress demonstrators, would not resign. After half a year of protests, Kanders finally resigned. In comparison, I do not think there is an artist in Estonia who would decline funding from the Estonian Cultural Capital due to the fact that it is funded by the excise tax from gambling, tobacco and alcohol.

But there are scandals and there are scandals – even in the art world. On the one hand, scandals are opportunities for contemporary artists to bring media attention to their name and work and by doing so to become known to a wider audience and often this is part of a pre-planned media strategy (that also includes many feminist protests, generated to gain prominence after the rightfully emerged #MeToo movement, as well as overplayed gender discrimination or word-against-word cases). And then there are the fundamental cases of art world scandals, inevitable like a force majeure.

Even though there was a lack of political statements at this year's Venice art biennale (except maybe at the Ghana pavilion, where the heavy legacy of colonialism and creeping neo-colonialism was visualised through metaphors), a ship that had sunk in 2015 in the Mediterranean with over 800 refugees was installed next to the Arsenale. The author of this project is the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel, whose 2015 project at the Biennale – a working mosque in a former Catholic church – was closed down by the municipal authorities before it opened (alluding to a potential threat to public safety). It is difficult to predict what the essence of art, as it has left its former confines through a series of mutations (or maybe it has just over flown entirely), will be in the future as it further blends with reality. Neither the predictions of Joseph Beuys nor Arthur Danto about the end of art have come true. And so Lithuania imported a detailed replica of a sand beach to this year's Venice Biennale, complete with living sculptures of vacationers, dogs and children.

Art – business like any other

The curators of this year's Whitney Biennial, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, an art worker who transferred to the Whitney from the Brooklyn Museum in 2017, write in the introduction to the catalogue about a depressing and hopeless situation, concluding that after visiting hundreds of studios, artists do not have enough opportunities to present their works. In the US, exhibiting at the Whitney Biennial is one of the most important platforms for an emerging artist: 75% of the presenting artists are under 40 this time, only 5 of them have previously shown at the biennial and the women curators have also ensured equal gender representation (slightly in favour of female artists).

It should also be kept in mind that the art scene in the US has always been more self-centred than in Europe. Metaphorically, the world goes to New York, as we look at the countries of origin of the participating artists, at least half are essentially immigrants. Evidently, multiculturalism is a reality in the art world of the United States of America, as the double motivation and effort to get somewhere and act accordingly for those who have come from elsewhere is inevitable in the context of heavy competition in the art field.

In the capitalist free market economy, galleries are businesses, but they also represent artists when signing exhibition contracts, looking for outlets and influencing the marketplace. Art is a somewhat differently served and produced product but, in the end, all markets are governed by the rules of the market. How else can we explain the fact that both of the world's most influential biennials, Venice Biennale in Europe and the Whitney Biennial in America, seem to have agreed to focus on pictorial images and artists under 40 this year? At the global art market, fresh blood is always welcome, lower starting prices make it possible to expand the circle of buyers and open up space for further speculation. The potential for price increases is the motor that enlivens the sometimes-stagnating contemporary art market.

The clearly visible turn towards pictorialism and surprisingly clear-cut compositions freely arranged using all kinds of trash also dominated the elite galleries in Chelsea. The ambitious real estate (you can almost set up a football field in the Zwirner Gallery!) confirms that contemporary art continues to be an object of interest for US investors – there is probably no other industry where investing correctly could deliver huge profit margins in record time (although the investor has to be part of an inner circle that actually initiates the agiotage and gold fever).

The new art at the Whitney Biennial that has started notable careers in the US art world, has always focused on painting. New painting, however, may not always mean traditional oil or acrylic painting. (But you can also find that, for example, in Kyle Thurman's (b. 1986) "new traditional" figures in an ever so slightly deconstructed form, where colour field and line-based figuration create the image.) All sorts of collages and assemblages, painted digital prints, free-hanging or attached to a canvas banner-like textile shreds, painterly rugs or rug-like paintings give the impression of a wholesome pictorial image (e.g. in the work of Eric N. Mack (b. 1987), Troy Michie (b. 1985), Tomashi Jackson (b. 1980)). Or assemblage installations with street signs and all kinds of advertising boards and other junk, installed in the exhibition space, as if from a Robert Rauschenberg 1950s or 1960s mixed media painting (e.g. Joe Minter (b. 1943)). As a side note, the 2009 exhibition curated by Sirje Helme at Kumu Art Museum, titled "POPart forever" (POPkunst forever) was truly visionary – for centuries to come we will probably live (or until the capitalist overproduction and spending ceases) in the hell of art created from everyday objects and technological waste.

Recycling ideas is not even worth mentioning in this context, even though prototypes sometimes do come to mind. For example, in Finnish and Estonian art, but surely elsewhere as well, an oversize image of a television has repeatedly occurred as a rug either woven or in rya technique. Now the motif of kinescope television as a fringed rug has been presented by the US artist Nicholas Galanin (b. 1979) in a work titled "White Noise, American Prayer Rug" (2019).

The contemporary view on art is more tolerant than ever, the definitions of art were expanded a long time ago and there are no standards for artists. For example, Marlon Mullen (b. 1963), diagnosed with autism, creates his Basquiat-esque text paintings with a Caribbean colour scheme in a care centre, while his repainted art magazine covers include both intentional and unintentional spelling errors, as the artist has almost no capacity for verbal communication.

The play with scale is also present. For example, Jennifer Packer (b. 1984), whose giant Helen Frankenthaler-style melted painting is placed next to her other, small (only 24x18 cm) painting "An Exercise in Tenderness" (2017), where the figure, put on the canvas using a funny spatula technique, is reminiscent of the angular Egon Schiele.

The 1940s and 1950s tradition of Ashile Gorky or the later Philip Guston seems to have inspired Walter Price (b. 1989). It is amusing to see the old become new and the new become old – dreamy abstractions that only focus on the beauty of the game, flopping configurations and a lot more of what I honestly never expected to see in exhibition halls again. Excluding Price, the technical capabilities of the younger generation of US painters is mostly limited to exploiting one or another gimmick. So, for example, Keegan Monaghan's (b. 1986) enlarged keyholes and old fashion telephones are created in a heavily textured blotting technique, so the presence of his painting is not unlike the plethora of rya rugs.

Domination of the pictorial image

The most photographed favourite of the biennale is undoubtedly Nicole Eisenman's sculptural group "Procession" (2019), a circular trash-procession on the terrace of the Whitney Museum, reminiscent of a scene from Theatre NO99's play "El Dorado: the clowns' raid of destruction" (El Dorado: klounide hävitusretk, 2015). Eisenman (b. 1965), born in France but based in Brooklyn, has created an obscene celebration of form, that for a superficial eye seems loose and confusing, but is really exceptionally well-spaced and detailed. Their apparent clumsiness is necessary for its modelled parts in order to keep it from becoming a bronze Shrek. There are surely many others who can assemble fake fur, pink trainers and a wheeled dolly and spice it up with light green and/or neon acrylic mucus, but it is the perfectly scaled modelled pieces that keep this farce together and make this group of works an updated version Auguste Rodin's sculptures. Is it possible that the artist has, in fact, thought about "The Burghers of Calais" (Les Bourgeois de Calais, 1889) here?



Nicole Eisenman
Whitney Biennial 2019, Whitney Museum, New York
Photo by Jaan Elken



In addition to this sculptural group, a bodily quality was also present in Brendan Fernandes' (b. 1979) work, live mise-en-scenes performed by professional dancers titled "Master and Form" (2018) that brought together an S&M aesthetic, discipline and physical beauty.

But what's next? Robert Bittenbender (b. 1987) could just as well have created his work, dense sculptural composites of technological waste exhibited on the walls, in the beginning, middle or end of the 1960s – this kind of timelessness is okay in a commercial gallery; however, in the Whitney, which has so far been at the forefront of art, this just looks weak. The turn to found materials that dominated the biennale could be a sign of a lack of skill or limited resources – the latter is very hard to believe. With recycling exhibited en masse, perhaps the biennial wants to point to a world flooded by trash? Overconsumption and overeating, over-scaling, and everything "over-over-over"! That leaves little doubt that we are discussing the US here, doesn't it? (By the way, during the biennial a strong fifth of New York's top galleries were also showing paintings, mosaics and assemblages essentially made of recycled materials.)

The dominance of an artistic image usually means the presence of a language of metaphors and the biennial has indeed been targeted by a leftist critique: supposedly the dominant language avoids straightforward statements. Or maybe these critics are annoyed that an international exhibition has as if in passing dismissed text massifs on walls and the so-called instructions for artworks. Those who are interested find the necessary information either in the media or the extensive publication accompanying the exhibition. Most importantly, I wanted to point out that a pictorial approach has once again taken over the exhibition halls. I also loved the Whitney's new approach of not making their spaces into dark cinema labyrinths, where most visitors only see a piece of this and that work, but instead the video programme was now presented as screenings at certain times in the museum's cinema hall. It is no big deal if the viewer does not unlock the background of each work and just feasts their eyes on the visual spectacle, so this decision was worth the wait. Thank you, Whitney Biennial!

1 The Stonewall riots, also called the Stonewall resistance, were a violent clash between the gay community and the police, started on 28 June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village in New York. The riots formed the beginning of the LGBT rights movement in the United States. – J. E.


Jaan Elken is a painter, writer (with over a couple hundred critical and art political articles published), curator and art teacher.

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