Defining the American Art Show: Overstimulation and Social Commentary in the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Long hauled as one of the most heavily critiqued mass exhibitions that focuses on contemporary American art, the Whitney Biennial attempts to redeem and stabilize its position in the 2014 show, the last of which will be held in the Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side’s Madison Avenue before the museum’s transition to its new downtown space.  This year’s biennial, on view from March 7th to May 25th, differs from past biennials in several ways, most notably through the use of three curators, Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and Michelle Grabner, each individually organizing a floor in the building, as well as an overall increase in the breadth and quantity of art displayed, including a heightened use of technology, collective pieces, and alternate exhibition spaces.

One of the most interesting feats the Biennial attempts to achieve is a self-imposed identity as a definer of contemporary art  and the modern day American art sphere.  It aims to recognize the established, upcoming and underrepresented artist alike and to some extent labels itself as a mirror of that reflects current-day American society. Bringing into conversation aspects of a society defined by the emergence of an increased connection and simultaneous detachment resulting from technology and media, numbed to overstimulation of consumer culture, the art of the Biennial in many ways both reflects, mimics, and perpetuates such notions. It is as cohesive in its faults as it is in its strengths.

Lauded as the apex of the exhibition, the fourth floor encompases Michelle Grabner’s contribution.  The well organized layout of the fourth floor reflects this praise, and makes Grabner’s section the most aesthetically pleasing, maneuverable, and accessible to viewers of the three curators sections.  Grabner, a professor and the chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, and a senior critic at Yale University in the Department of Painting and Printmaking, as well as the only visual artist herself of the three curators, presents her contribution to be one containing pieces that are in conversation with one another, with particular emphasis on women in abstract painting and the materiality and place of art in consumer culture. The variety in medium present encompasses Grabner’s success in reflecting the most holistic perspective of contemporary American art in the exhibition.  Pieces such as Zoe Leonard’s 945 Madison Avenue, a camera obscura installation projecting a neighboring building, modernizes a traditional and fundamental art tool, while Shio Kusaka’s ceramic pottery presents a modern perspective on traditional Japanese pottery techniques.  However, Grabner also falls short of accomplishing several of her outlined goals: the abstract paintings by Laura Owens, Louise Fishman, and Jacqueline Humphries are bypassed by the sheer number of other pieces on the fourth floor, and large sculpture-installations, such as that of Joel Otterson, repurpose material to the point of being excessive and tawdry.

Stuart Comer, former curator of film at the Tate Modern in London and current Chief Curator of the Department of Media and Performance Art at the MOMA, presents, in his attempt to “define ‘American’ in a survey of contemporary American art”, a perspective of present-day American identities, defined by art’s relationship with technology, media, and global interaction.  Comer excels in composing a combination of pieces that discuss identity in these terms, including Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s photographs and Keith Mayerson’s paintings. Each generates a narrative-intensive experience for the viewer: Drucker and Ernst’s Relationship intimately portrays their relationship and experience as a transgendered couple, providing the viewer with insight into personal moments that are both fleeting and humorous, while Mayerson’s paintings create a simultaneously romantic and slightly obscene, distorted view of classic “Americana”.  Although Comer contributes many  exceptionally strong additions that establish a personalized, political undertone to American identities, a focus that is seemingly lacking in much of Grabner’s and Elms’s sections, the section overall produces a feeling of visual overload,  overstretching the viewers’ ability to carefully consider and analyze thought-invoking work with strong, successful social commentary.

Anthony Elms’ contribution, concentrated on the second floor, lacks the organization and flow demonstrated by Grabner’s section, and the strong social relevance of Comer’s section. Although it contains a handful of strong pieces that demonstrate Elms’  intentional theme of space, environment and resulting context, such pieces are dispersed throughout an overload of banal, dated work, to the point of being overshadowed and leaving the viewer feeling distanced from the esoteric character present throughout the space.

Ultimately, the Biennial fails to fulfill its goal to provide a clear, cohesive description of contemporary American art and culture from the three curators contributions and instead produces three distinct, separate perspectives that are disjointed and at times conflicting, lacking overall cohesion or successful conversation.  Although the exhibition contains several progressive and engaging pieces, the overall size of the show bombards the viewer to the point of tiring the viewer before the exhibition is complete, generating a numbness to good and bad pieces alike.


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