New Seriousness
The 2017 Whitney Biennal

The essays in the catalogue accompanying this year’s Whitney Biennial do not refer to theories propounded by French Structuralists. Instead terms like honesty, modesty, and spirituality are used. And during his opening speech, Whitney Adam Weinberg announced a farewell to irony. Difficult times need clarity and seriousness. Thus, the current installment of the art show, which was founded in 1932, dispenses with sensationalism. The 2017 Whitney Biennial is very political yet bereft of polemics and blunt anti-Trump propaganda.

The curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, both of whom are in their mid-thirties and have Asian-American background, began their preparations for the show back in 2015, during the tenure of Barack Obama. They subsequently announced their list of artists shortly after Donald Trump won the election—in other words, at a time that seemed like the dawning of a new era in American history. Many of the themes that dominated the aggressive election campaign recur in the works of the mostly young Biennial participants: illegal immigration, racism, Islamophobia, and the situation at the U.S-Mexican border.

In an almost prophetic video installation by the artist collective Postcommodity, this frontier becomes a prison. Films of the fence between the United States and Mexico are projected on all four walls of a closed room. The footage was shot from a moving car. The boundary posts whizzing by make viewers feel giddy, as though they are sitting in a moving cage. Rafa Esparza’s construction made of clay bricks, or adobe, a building material traditionally used by poor people in southern America, also alludes to the tense relationship between the USA and Mexico. The Los Angeles-based artist made a kind of archaic place of worship out of the material. Yet there are no idols hanging on the walls, but rather Dorian Ulises López Macías’s portraits of Mexicans, young men whom Trump and his supporters probably would like to expel.

While this year’s Whitney Biennale has no exhibition title or main theme, two tendencies are apparent: an occupation with the human body and the return of painting. The work of KAYA unites the two. The New York-based duo consists of the German painter Kerstin Brätsch, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, and the Texas sculptor and video artist Debo Eilers. They joined forces to create mixtures between wildly expressive abstract paintings and plastic sculptures—strange organisms that seem to breathe and are definitely not of this world.

What is surely the most controversial work in the exhibition takes the investigation of the body to the extreme. Jordan Wolfson, who already caused a stir with his dancing, Lady Gaga-like robot, is presenting his new virtual reality film at the Whitney. Fortunately, he doesn’t show what the title promises: Real Violence. Instead, he offers up a humanoid robot whose head is literally beat to a pulp by a baseball bat on a busy street amidst passersby hurrying past without taking heed of what is happening. Wearing high-tech glasses, viewers feel as though they are actually eyewitnesses of this brutal scene. As if under a burning glass, the 90-second film reveals the immense hate that can be found not only in parts of American society. The life-sized figures of Raúl De Nieves, adorned with thousands of glass beads, offer relief. A couple involved in a puzzling, sacral ceremony stands in front of giant windows, on which the artist stuck colored foil. The pictures on the windows look like as if Keith Haring illustrated an old saint’s legend.

Dana Schutz’s contributions prove that figurative painting is not obsolete even today. Her large-format work Elevator shows bodies squeezed together and gigantic insects spewing out of an elevator—a Picasso for the 21st century. Her painting Open Casket, however, is explicitly political. It commemorates Emmett Till, the 15-year-old African American boy who was beaten to death by white racists in 1955. Henry Taylor documents that such violence is still the order of the day. One of his paintings is dedicated to the African American Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a policeman through the window of his car. THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! is the bitter title of this work. Taylor, whose works were once described as the painterly equivalent to blues music, shares a gallery room with the photographer Deana Lawson. In her intimate, carefully composed pictures, Lawson portrays people from the black community.

This year, the Biennial is taking place in the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano-designed building for the first time. The spacious rooms give the works all the space they need. Distributed throughout the exhibition are sculptural objects by Jessi Reaves that also serve as seating. They can also be found in front of Frances Stark’s 10-part series of text paintings. On them, the artist quotes short passages from Ian F. Svenonius’s book Censorship Now!!. Svenonius, who used to be a member of diverse punk bands, today primarily works as an essayist for magazines such as Vice. He not only demands that artists should have the right to prohibit bad music, but also believes that hate speeches with which right-wing polemicists such as Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos very consciously keep stretching the limits of what can be said, should be censored. Her conceptual paintings raise many questions. Does Stark appropriate Svenonius’s hypotheses when she paints them, or is she only putting them up for disucssion? Where are the limits of freedom of speech and who defines them? Like many contributions on display at the 2017 Whitney Biennale, Stark’s painting cycle is good art and at the same time a point of departure for social debates.
Achim Drucks

Whitney Biennial
Until June 11, 2017
Whitney Museum, New York