The 78th instalment of the Whitney Biennial for 2017 takes place three years after the last, and is the first to be held in the museum’s Meatpacking District location. As its press release zealously states, the exhibition – which has surveyed American contemporary art since the 1930s, and always aims for the zeitgeist and the seminal – opens at a time of crisis not only in the United States, but around the world. However, it had already been in development early in the American electoral process, even before Brexit, though prior developments worldwide well foreshadowed what could come.
As such, this particular biennial could have been construed as the product of a world in which Donald Trump hadn’t won the American presidency, yet it ultimately evades even that interpretation. Under the direction of Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks the 2017 Whitney Biennial has a rough-hewed, workshop-reminiscent, more grounded, and understated feel to it. Not only less in the number of participants, 63 in fact, but younger and less-established artists and collectives exhibit their work alongside each other’s, though not generally sharing much in common besides having been distinguished for the occasion. It being difficult to pinpoint overarching themes in the exhibition, it’s as if Lew and Locks have, in their own way, brought the focus back to the art itself. The overall impression is that of touring a series of random artists’ studios, where each has been cleaned and dressed up for the occasion, showcasing the latest notable work, though still fresh from having been produced in the studio. All in all, it’s a genuinely enriching experience.
Walking into either floor of the primary exhibition space, one may at first feel overwhelmed by the possibilities, but one of the most noticeable installations of all – partly because of its massive size – is the collective Occupy Museums’ ‘Debtfair’ (2017). This consists of a playful take on a corporate info-chart, dead-serious on exposing and detailing BlackRock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink’s connections to, among other entities, the MoMA. It is representative of how art is a major source of storing income for the wealthy, as a zig-zaggy cutout across the chart reveals the work of artists experiencing financial struggles. Adjacent to it, documentation, kiosks, and other media provide more information. Echoing those economic and political concerns nearby, the collective that calls itself Postcommodity has outfitted an enclosed room’s four imposing walls with projections of footage evocative of migration across the US-Mexico border, resulting in a slightly disorienting experience, ‘A Very Long Line’ (2016). One of Dana Schutz’s handful of paintings in the show, ‘Open Casket’ (2016), which depicts her interpretation of Emmett Till’s viewing at his funeral, from a course of events and images that played a crucial role in the development of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, has generated its own controversy over non-Black representations of Black suffering in American culture, which has threatened to overshadow the entire biennial itself.
Elsewhere, Aliza Nisenbaum’s series of colorful portraits capturing the everyday, whether it’s young people leisurely reading newspapers and magazines at home, an assembly of women’s rights activists, or a supposed track and field group, finds kindred spirits in Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s takes on White middle America, complete with attention to material culture, Henry Taylor’s flat, monochromatic scenes of contemporary African-American life, and others whose primary medium of work is figurative painting. New York City itself becomes a subject for several artists: Otto Gillen offers up a slideshow of snapshots of the city, its lesser well-off inhabitants, street scenes, random musings, and its cityscape constantly under construction, while Lyle Ashton Harris’ ‘Once (Now) Again’ (2017) is an intimate, beautiful multi-media presentation on the African-American male experience in the 1990s, and Samara Golden’s installation, ‘The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes’ (2017), utilizes mirrors and elaborate miniatures of everyday urban interior settings arranged around the Whitney’s window views of the Hudson River to create a visual effect of endless building floors, offices, and businesses when one looks above and below them, referencing the endless development going on in the city.
Depending on where one decides to begin the exhibition, there is as much chance they will leave with either ‘Debtfair,’ or Jordan Wolfson’s virtual reality film ‘Real Violence’ (2017) on their minds. In the latter, viewer find themselves on some city sidewalk, only to come upon one young man in the act of pummeling another to death with a baseball bat, as a Hannukah blessing is read in the soundtrack. Only after will one realize that, it being a virtual reality experience, they could have looked away all along. Whether there’s a dialogue between ‘Real Violence,’ Schutz’s ‘Open Casket,’ Taylor’s take on Philando Castile’s murder as a victim of racism and police violence – ‘THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!’ (2017) ¬– which was itself the cause of national outrage, and the artist known as Puppies Puppies’ disassembled guns collectively called ‘Triggers’ (2016), is up for debate. Ultimately, however, in an exhibition that also explores issues as varied as the hidden omnipresence of mythology and the occult, the sociology of public spaces, exercises in probing the boundaries between virtual and actualized agency, and so much more, it is hard not to resort back to either each artist or individual artwork as a starting point from which to earn perspective, context, and to form one’s own interpretation.