Like the Olympics, only twice as frequent, every two years the Whitney Biennial promises a fresh take on the same events. Only this time with new, exciting talent. It is hard to overlook the spectacle, and it usually doesn’t disappoint. At the very least, there is something for everyone.
This year marks the Biennial’s seventy-sixth year. Fifty-one artists have been culled by the curating team of Elisabeth Sussman, a long-time Whitney curator of photography, and Jay Sanders, a freelance writer and curator. The exhibition uses four of the museum’s five floors, taking up about 6,000 square-feet. Unique to this run are the number of filmmakers included the show (dance and performance are also well represented), as well as the general tone of politically and socially conscious work.
No doubt, it is a difficult task to assemble such a broad survey, but I found 2012 to be uneven and underwhelming. There were some bright spots, highlighted below.
1. Dawn Kasper is an LA-based artist who has moved into the Whitney for the three-month run of the Biennial. Taking her possessions along with her, she has been inhabiting a very messy, cramped area of the third floor since mid-February. Her piece, This Could Be Something If I Let It, is an evolving performance of sorts, as Kasper will make work, play music, hold studio visits, and engage with viewers during museum hours. Kasper herself is incredibly convivial (“Hi, I’m Dawn!” she says eagerly, introducing herself), but the work itself is decidedly darker. I can’t help feeling as though it speaks to the circus-like quality that artists are subjected to in the “selling” of their work, as well as the nomadic lifestyle that the job demands.
2. Latoya Ruby Frazier is a young photographer who hasn’t had much exposure before this exhibition. She has several projects on the exhibition’s second floor, a plum spot in the museum. In Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital) (2011) and Homebody (2010), the artist has used her hometown of Braddock, PA — an old steel town that has faced tremendous economic hardship for decades — as her subject. In the former piece, “campaign” is a play on words; the artist has used images from a recent Levi’s jeans print campaign that was photographed, of all places, in Braddock. Frazier writes politically charged comments on top of the advertisements, which picture wild, carefree youths under slogan’s like “go forth” and “everybody’s work is equally important.” Homebody is a series of Francesca Woodman-esque self portraits in which Frazier dons the pajama’s and blankets of her deceased step-great-grandfather, who suffered and died from a chronic illness as a result of working in the steel plant. Frazier, it’s worth mentioning, is one of the few African Americans in an otherwise none-too-diverse show.
3. Lutz Bacher is a Berkeley-based artist who would probably rather remain anonymous. Her professional name is deliberately unsexed, and her pages in the biennial catalog are totally blank. Her work, however, is hard not to notice. She is represented in the Biennial in the form of 85 individual sheets of small, framed paper, each an illustrated and captioned page of star patterns from The Celestial Handbook. There is no intervention on the paper, which are neatly presented in wooden frames. Rather, Bacher’s piece is subtle in its distribution: dispersed on every floor of the exhibition, and sometimes in places where you would least expect it — perhaps serving as punctuation for the rest of the work — Bacher makes her quiet mark. While tracking galactica in the sky, the images seem to trace their own map between them, adding up to a picture no viewer can ever see all at once.
4. Liz Deschenes is a photographer who, if anything, gets a little too much play. But I would be doing myself a disservice not to acknowledge her work here: her two photographs, Untitled (2011), on the third floor of the Biennial stuck out as among the most subtle and well crafted in the show. Playing on the museum’s own architecture (the uneven swing of its outward-facing window frames), as well as the tilts and swings capable of a large-format camera, Deschenes has encased her black, color-field photographs in frames that mimic the tilted distortion. At points in her career, Deschenes has exposed her photographic papers to moonlight and treated them with a chemical that gives off a mirrored sheen. I will give her this: Deschenes has continually found ways to entangle visual experience and photographic processes.
5. For his submission into the show, the artist Robert Gober has curated a small room of paintings by Forrest Bess. Bess, who died in 1977, exhibited his paintings at Betty Parson’s gallery during his lifetime, but was a profound societal recluse. After suffering a mental breakdown and subsequent beating (he was later diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic) while in the military, Bess lived a life of solitude and poverty in an island off of Texas. His small paintings are strange, full of symbols and patterns understood only by him. His story is sad, but his paintings are not. They are full of play and precision, and feel entirely contemporary.
The Whitney Biennial runs through May 27, 2012 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. For more information visit whitney.org.