Since 1932 the Whitney Biennial has been meant as a way of assessing the current state of American art at a given time. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum to put American art on view, and she focused on contemporary American art specifically, putting forward young artists like Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis who might not have received much recognition without her assistance. Over the past 30 years the Biennial has courted controversy, which is part of the fun. This is the first Biennial that has been put together in its entirety during the Trump presidency. Unsurprisingly, most of the works are political in nature, focusing on personal identity and the feeling of being marginalized.
The curators visited over three hundred artists in the course of putting the show together. The curators made a point of including young emerging artists: seventy five percent of the artists are under forty and there was an attempt to include artists outside of New York and Los Angeles.
The first work you encounter as you step off the elevators on the fifth floor is by Kota Ezawa, who has created an animation of NFL players standing or kneeling through the Star Spangled Banner as a show of support for Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling protest over police violence directed toward the black community. Ezawa grew up watching soccer matches in Germany and was always fascinated by the stillness on the field during the playing of the national anthem. He liked the idea of bodies normally in motion being in a state of suspended animation, although he never felt connection to the patriotic overtones of the event itself. Ezawa animates television footage of a variety of teams using watercolor paintings, each blending into the other, as a string arrangement plays the anthem. Without narration, viewers are left to their own thoughts as they watch the spectacle. The watercolor format is beautifully rendered, giving the charged subject matter the feel of a children’s picture book. The sound of the anthem can be heard throughout much of the fifth floor, providing an appropriate backdrop to so much work addressing the current state of the country. This is not the only piece to address the United States flag or the nature of patriotism today and is not the only piece addressing the way media coverage impacts our views of society.
Pat Phillips draws on the history of the American South to explore questions of race, class, labor and militarized culture, especially in Louisiana where he lives. His father worked as a corrections officer at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as “Angola,” after the plantation that originally occupied the site. Known as the “Alcatraz of the South,” the prison is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. The prison has a notorious history going back decades. It was long segregated, with white prisoners doing work inside and black prisoners working in the fields watched by armed guards. One historian has said the prison was as close as one could be to becoming a slave in the 1930s. In 1952 it was designated the worst prison in America, in 1971 it was described as being medieval and this year seven members of the staff were arrested for rape. In his mural Phillips incorporates the “Don’t Tread on Me” logo of the Gadsden flag on a snakeskin leather belt being worked on by the disembodied hand of a prisoner, inspired by a snakeskin belt Phillips owns that was made by prisoners at Angola. This is the second instance of a flag, in this case a historic one now frequently associated with the Tea Party, being proffered as a patriotic symbol. As a child, Phillips would see the prisoners working in places like lumber yards or doing roadwork, where they were farmed out as free labor. He incorporates wooden fencing which represents incarceration, gated communities in suburbia, and the wall separating the U.S. Mexico border. Behind the fence we see a handgun on the left, representing gun violence in America, and on the right we have tear gas cannisters labeled “Riot Control”, referencing Warren Kanders, who was the vice chairman of the Whitney’s board of trustees and is also the CEO and majority stockholder of Safariland Group, which makes the tear gas grenade “Triple Chaser.” The “Triple Chaser” has reportedly been used against migrants storming the wall at the Mexican border. Two thirds of the artists in the Biennial signed a petition demanding Kanders resign from the Whitney board of trustees and one artist withdrew in protest. The origin of money funding the arts is of great concern right now, including the Sackler family, which has owned Purdue Pharma for two generations and are under investigation for marketing the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. There is a Sackler wing at the Louvre, at the Met where the Sackler wing houses the Temple of Dendur, and they have funded art exhibitions around the world, including at the Tate and National Gallery in London and the Guggenheim here in New York. Because of the opioid crisis, many in the art world are demanding that ties be severed with the family. Before leaving this piece, look out the window as the sun sets over Pier 55, a $250 million park that is being built by mogul Barry Diller and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. This has also been been rife with controversy with some seeing this as nothing more than a billionaire’s vanity project that threatens the environment. The fact that he is the founder of Fox News is surely behind much of this.
Keegan Monaghan depicts everyday scenes that seem banal, magical, and somewhat sinister in the spirit of the Surrealists and, by using a fully loaded dry brush in an impasto technique to create a sense of ambient light, in some ways reminiscent of the work of the Impressionists. In Incoming we see an oversized red telephone perched on top of a small green chair. He chose the phone because it is an innocuous object that can be both light hearted and menacing, especially with its connotations of emergency calls during the Cold War. The painting originally didn’t have the hold lightbulb, but then he realized that that could be a source of light as well as drama. In The Blue Door we look through a keyhole to see a hand using pliers to work with colorful string: not knowing what we are seeing, we are a frustrated voyeur. Outside confronts the viewer with a wooden fence, through which we can see a luridly colored landscape that might be seen as inviting but unattainable or as disturbingly saturated in unnatural candy colored vibrancy. In all three works we are drawn in by the tactile nature of the paint and by the disorienting feeling of looking into a world that seems both comfortingly familiar and nightmarishly different at the same time. He sees all of his paintings as “internal views” which illustrate certain head spaces. The buildup of paint also represents a psychological quality, they are heavily worked over in an almost excessive, obsessive way.