Survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 28.
The Whitney Museum of American Art always intimidates me. I appreciate the hulking, modernist building, but it’s not exactly welcoming. It makes me feel small and lowly, unworthy and perhaps incapable of appreciating what lies within. Because of my inferiority complex (and to be fair, I’m easily intimidated, so architect Marcel Breuer is probably not to blame), I put off attending the Whitney’s biennial survey of contemporary art until the closing of the exhibition was imminent. But once I accustomed myself to the windowless rooms and low-ceilinged stairwell, I enjoyed meandering among the paintings and sculptures and installations.
The biennial had a theme, “Day for Night,” which referred to the artifice of American culture, but I can’t begin to think of everything I saw under the blanket of a single overarching idea, however open. I can’t even begin to write about the biennial as a whole. Instead, I’m going to write about a few of my favorite works at the enormously varied exhibition.
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I discovered the photographs of Cindy Sherman when I was a teenager, and ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by artists who use photography not to document life or capture nature but to illustrate, invent and create. Sherman created a series of untitled film stills in which she created images from imaginary movies and played the actress herself. The photos critique the way women have been portrayed on film, but they also demonstrate a real love for the movies. Only a true cinemaphile could get the details so right, perfectly capturing female stereotypes from noir to ’50s-era “women’s pictures” so well that you feel as though you’ve seen the movies, never mind the fact that they don’t actually exist.
Photographer Angela Strassheim, whose work was on display at the biennial, reminded me of Sherman. Her subject matter and aesthetic sense were completely different, but she, too, had an amazing eye for detail and thematic complexity. Strassheim’s Left Behind series created beautiful suburban images that somehow felt unsettling. In one, a father stands before a bathroom mirror and combs his son’s hair. Both of them are dressed in their Sunday finest with their eyes fixed on us, the audience, standing in for their reflections. The image resonates with the sense of values passed from one generation to the next, but the empty intensity of their gaze — and the way the father’s free hand rests heavily on the boy’s shoulder — makes that generational interaction seem faintly coercive.
Even more disturbing was Strassheim’s photograph of a little blonde girl standing on tiptoe before a window. Her back is to us, the audience, and we clearly see that her pink dress is too short, exposing her panties underneath. The image is at once innocent — the girl seems to be waiting for someone to return home — and uncomfortably suggestive. It’s a little bit JonBenet.
The ambiguity of those photos, the mixture of purity and darkness, is what captured my attention. The title of the series, Left Behind, immediately evokes the apocalyptic novels popular among evangelical Christians, but I don’t think the photographs must be read as a critique of that community. Strassheim’s family portraits are specific in their details but broad in their scope, and that’s what makes them intriguing.
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Urs Fischer created one of my favorite sculptures at the biennial. Two long silver branches hung from the ceiling and spun slowly. At one end of each was a burning candle. The space under the sculpture hadn’t been cleared for the course of the exhibition, so over the weeks, dripping candle wax had created two perfect, overlapping circles. The effect was enchanting and somehow soothing — a quiet meditative space amid the bustle of the panoramic exhibit.
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At first glance, Mark Grotjahn’s paintings seemed beautiful in their simplicity. Each featured a single pale shade of oil paint (white or yellow). The paint had been applied in long, straight lines converging to points on two parallel vertical horizons. Grotjahn identified the untitled paintings parenthetically as butterflies, and they did indeed create the impression of pairs of wings.
I thought the paintings were lovely but something of a throwback to earlier modernist paintings, but reading the text posted alongside complicated my understanding of Grotjahn’s work. The text explained that Grotjahn first created loud, garishly colorful paintings and then covered them with the abstract oil paint butterflies. Looking closer, I saw hints of the original color in a few places where the paint had chipped at the edges of the canvas.
Grotjahn’s technique could be read in numerous ways — perhaps as an exploration of self-censorship or the use of art to prettify complicated subjects or the human tendency to wear masks over our true natures. The openness of the painting, allowing for multiple interpretations, made the paintings that much more compelling.
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Several artists dealt with race, but my favorite was Dawolu Jabari Anderson. His paintings, reminiscent of commercial graphic design, fiercely attacked the commodification of black culture. In the most memorable, “Black History Month — Feel What the Excitement Is All About,” a trio of little girls (none of them black) cupped a miniature black basketball player in their hands and ooo-ed appreciatively over him as he leapt to make a dunk. The aged, brittle paper gave the medium a sense of history, which made the painting’s anger over the oversimplification of black history — and the condescension with which it is too often celebrated — even more biting.
I often prefer ambiguous art that allows for multiple readings, but sometimes a strong work, unmistakable in its meaning, is bracing. Such was the case with Anderson’s art. His points were sharp, his perspective unshakeable, but his creative play with images kept his work from feeling didactic. Studying his paintings, I felt chastened, yes, but challenged, too. His work stuck with me long after I’d moved on to the next room.
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A man carrying a small bullhorn turned up suddenly at the exhibition. He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Unreliable Tour Guide and offered authoritative explanations of the work around him. I learned later (thank you, Whitney brochure!) that he was the artist Momus, and his performance was his contribution to the eclectic biennial.
With his thick accent and rapid delivery, Momus was often difficult to understand, but his commentary was clearly absurd and wildly inventive. He tended to whitewash away any political interpretations of the artwork, offering more palatable, benign explanations in their stead. His insistence on cheery, optimistic readings extended even to a work that incorporated a famous image from Abu Ghraib.
Momus was amusing, thought-provoking and surprisingly freeing. After all, if the tour guide is unreliable, we have permission to wander alone and read the art without mediation. And we have Momus
to remind us to be open to the dark and the challenging as well as the pretty and the comfortable.
With his witty, audacious performance, Momus helped make the looming Whitney building seem less intimidating to me. I listened to him for a while and then drifted away to explore the rest of the biennial on my own.