Cerebral art for modern minds, Durango Herald, April 8, 2008

Daniel Joseph Martinez, “Divine Violence,” 2007,
automotive paint on wood panel, dimensions variable.

The article as it appeared in The Durango Herald:

NEW YORK – “A biennial is an exercise in imposing temporary order and control onto a situation that is, essentially, out of control.”

That’s what Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, wrote about the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

However improbable, the biennial attempts to provide a snapshot of “where American art stands today.” At least that’s what the ads say.

Eighty-one artists were selected to participate by two young Whitney curators who were given 13 months to pull together one of the most high profile exhibitions in America.

Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin were entrusted with the task. Weinberg then assigned Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator, to oversee them. The team also worked with Thelma Golden, chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Bill Horrigan, director of media arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University; and Linda Norden, independent curator and writer.

The result is a show that is highly cerebral, featuring a lot of art with complicated back stories.

Huldisch and Momin write in their introduction: “Many of the projects explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political and economic contexts, often aiming to invert the more object-oriented, ends-driven operations of the art market.”

I suppose intellectually that is the idea, however awkward their prose. But being in the Whitney Biennial means that many of these artists will be the stars of the art fair world, if they aren’t already. And the Whitney is going to buy some of this art, too. So in the end the intellectual idea becomes a product sitting in a museum.

Some of the products are made with very modest materials.

Take Charles Long’s sculptures made from detritus found along the banks of the Los Angeles River. Feathers, cans, bottles, cigarette butts, you name it, it’s bound together in his desiccated effigies that echo the frail figurative sculptures of Alberto Giacometti.

Great blue heron droppings found along the riverbank inspired the sculptures. Long made albumen prints of the droppings and translated the images into sculptures he describes as somewhere “between beauty and anger.” Long sees his ghost figures as harbingers of death that paradoxically assert the resilience of life.

Another paradox-inducing work is Mika Rottenberg’s video installation “Cheese.”

It’s art that one enters like a womb. Inside a mazelike shanty made from wooden debris, video screens show crowded pens of goats and women with extremely long hair in floating white dresses. These Rapunzels milk their locks and the goats they live with to make cheese. There is something erotic about the piece, yet objectifying, something magical, yet earthy.

In contrast, Daniel Joseph Martinez creates work that is unapologetically uncomfortable and explores complicity.

“Divine Violence” is a room-sized installation filled with 125 rectangular, sleek, gold panels with crisp black lettering spelling out words like “Al Qaeda,” “Central Intelligence Agency,” “Army of God,” “Iduwini Youths.” Martinez aims to name all of the groups in the world currently attempting to enforce politics through violence.

Most of the work on display at the Whitney is installation and video with a smattering of sculptural objects and a few token paintings and photographs. This is a biennial about what is bubbling beneath the veneer. While on the surface it may seem uncharismatic, beneath the surface there is something to think about.

artsjournalist@centurytel.netLeanne Goebel attended the Whitney Biennial as a project of the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts’ Writers Grant Program.

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