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Tilt-a-Whirl Views Propel Whitney Biennial

In a survey of contemporary American artists, reality and make-believe share common ground

Glen Seator's life-size reproduction of the director's office at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the first thing you see when you step off the elevator at the 1997 Biennial. The room, complete with carpet, built-in bookcases, and windows, is a faithful replica except for one thing. It's balanced on one corner and tilted at a 45-degree angle, rising into the air like the giant maw of a whale. Just poking your head in the door evokes feelings of vertigo. Which is exactly what new art should do.

This biannual survey shows what American artists are up to at the end of a century of tumultuous change. They're offering a tilt-a-whirl view of reality, which exposes that nothing is quite as it seems and everything is subject to metamorphosis.

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A few clusters of concern emerge from the more than 200 works by 70 artists, many of them young (49 newcomers to the Biennial). Urban themes loom large. In Chris Burden's "Pizza City," the work is literally large, occupying an entire room, but composed of thousands of tiny model buildings from a myriad of historical periods and places. Wildly miscellaneous, the megalopolis is an urban planner's nightmare. Arab oil refineries overlook English thatched cottages.

Kerry James Marshall's half-realistic, half-graffiti-abstract paintings of cityscapes reveal how inequitably the American dream is parceled out. In "Pastime," a black family picnics by a city river, an Edenic scene with recreational props like a croquet mallet and golf club, although these leisure activities are inaccessible to the poor. A banner flows from a portable radio with the words, "It was just my imagination running away with me," as towers of public-housing projects rise beyond the river.

Photography is particularly strong in the show. Rather than manipulating reality by creating artificial stage sets, as was popular in the 1970s, Philip-Lorca diCorcia freezes fragments from the flow of reality. In "New York," he captures the banal parade of humanity to show what co-curator Lisa Phillips calls "the surreal of the everyday." One sidewalk contains a blue-collar worker, a white-collar younger man, a blind beggar, and an evangelist preacher - the whole gamut in one frame.

Gabriel Orozco's "Parachute in Iceland" demonstrates the transformative power of art. Centered on a barren plain before a blue sky, a white parachute, puffed with wind, hovers like a Georgia O'Keeffe morning glory. John Schabel's grainy black-and-white surveillance photos taken with a telephoto lens spy on airplane passengers before takeoff. Seen from a distance, their stories are unknowable but full of possibility.

The effects of geopolitics are the subject of two fabric works by Hispanic artists. Antonio Martorell designed a distorted map of Europe executed in lace by Puerto Rican lacemakers. The huge doily seems airy and delicate, but the shifts in the world map due to immigration and political and economic chaos have heavy import.

To suggest loss of native culture, Cecilia Vicua hangs a web of yarn woven by her called "Black Net." An accompanying poem, written in 1528 after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, proclaims, "Our only legacy was a net of holes but not even shields can hold such emptiness!"

Kara Walker conveys biting satire through the archaic medium of cut-out silhouettes. With a modern twist, she pastes black figures on a white wall to debunk toxic stereotypes of the Old South. Under mossy branches, a minstrel banjo player sits with a wind-up key in his back, drooping from the fatigue of role-playing.

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Contemporary artistic practice constantly explodes preconceived notions about art, and here artists experiment with new materials and formats. Bryan Crockett coats balloons with epoxy to make them rigid, tying them together in a parody of clown art. Tony Oursler projects video images of human faces on eerie, egg-shaped heads. The talking heads recite subversive versions of children's rhymes to undercut the myth of innocent youth.

Michael Ashkin's miniature model pipeline conveys the give-and-take of oil-dependent technology. In a desert of vast emptiness, a pipeline draining ancient oil fields runs beside electric power lines.

An emphasis on process and the artist's hand is evident in much of the work, as in Bruce Conner's "Untitled" inkblot paintings. The bottom dropping out of the art market in the 1980s may have been the best thing that happened to art if it forced artists to take time to work and mature without pressure to churn out art-as-commodities.

Douglas Blau's portfolio of photos, "In the Studio," sums up the role of the artist today. In a series of images of alchemists, sorcerers, and thinkers blowing bubbles, blowing glass, and stirring flasks, the common thread is creating fantasy in a bottle. The last image shows someone constructing a house of cards. The new art is not so pompous as to pretend it is solid reality. But there's truth-in-fiction in these make-believe worlds.

* The 1997 Whitney Biennial exhibition closes in stages. The film and video gallery closes on June 8. Artworks remain on the fourth floor through June 1, on the lower level through June 8, and on the second and third floors through June 15.

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