Red, White and Bleak

Liz Larner's
The mass of bent aluminum tubes in Liz Larner's "RWBs" suggests patriotism has become tangled and torn. In the background is Kelley Walker's "Black Star Press." (Mary Altaffer -- AP)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

NEW YORK -- Members of Congress, honored guests, fellow Americans: The state of our nation's artists is grim. As perhaps it should be, given their views on the state of the nation and on the world at large.

That, at least, is the perspective served up by the country's most prestigious and comprehensive roundup of contemporary art, which opens today at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It's hard to think of any group show as big as this 2006 Whitney Biennial that has offered such a consistent, coherent vision.

It isn't a pretty picture, by a long shot, or even an inspiring one -- it's hard to imagine what influence most of this work could have on the next generation of artists. But for better or worse, it gives a true picture of where contemporary art is.

Curators Chrissie Iles, of the Whitney, and Philippe Vergne, of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, have done an excellent job channeling the spirit of these times. It's hardly their fault if they've come along at a tough moment for art, and for us all.

Among the hundreds of pieces in this massive biennial, in every medium from paint to video to melted chocolate, there's hardly one you might take home to Mom and Dad. Mostly they're full of despair and hopelessness, not only at the state of the world or at the weakened state of art, but sometimes also at the chances that such weakened art could help our fractured world.

New Yorker Richard Serra, grand old man of impressive abstract sculpture, has contributed a figurative picture to the biennial: a messy crayon image of the most famous victim of Abu Ghraib, up there on his crate with hood and electrodes. The words "STOP BUSH" are scrawled above him, and viewers are invited to take a photocopy of the work. Even Serra, as wedded to elegant good looks as anyone, is pushed by politics to make work with as direct a social punch as he can muster -- he refuses to call his picture a work of art. He wants it to be unsullied activism.

This biennial shows blue-staters feeling so blue they're close to tearing out their hair.

Liz Larner of Los Angeles is another leading abstractionist, known for making lighthearted, almost wispy sculptures. At the Whitney, however, she almost follows Serra's lead. A head-high tangle of bent aluminum tubes might be a classic abstract work of hers, except that each stick of metal is sheathed in a scrap of red, white and blue bunting -- the piece is titled "RWBs" -- so that the overall effect is of some Fourth of July cataclysm. It's not even as elegiac as that: It comes closer to suggesting that the very notion of American patriotism has become hopelessly tangled and torn -- or maybe always was.

Actually, Serra and Larner represent the cheery side of this show, along with some good, old-fashioned "agit-art" of the venerable "corporations-are-evil-servants-of-the-hegemonic-military-state" variety. At least all these seem to believe that change is possible, that the ills of the world are worth pointing out in the hopes that they'll be fixed. They trust that a homemade tanning bed that burns the Stars and Stripes onto its naked user's skin -- as in a work by New Yorker Nari Ward -- might be effective, practical satire. Other artists simply present a picture of a world gone altogether bad and leave it pretty much at that.

Francesco Vezzoli gives us a five-minute trailer for an imaginary Hollywood blockbuster to be called "Caligula." Vezzoli's imitative craft is immaculate -- as fine, on its own terms, as any Old Master's. He gets every tiny detail of such trailers right: the plummy voice-over, the frantic editing, the impressive sword-and-sandals costuming, the Technicolor glow and cast of shining stars -- Benicio del Toro, Courtney Love and Karen Black are among the familiar faces Vezzoli got for his trailer.

It just so happens that the movie being pitched is clearly as corrupt as the Roman decadence it shows: It's Hollywood with all the stops pulled out and then some, happy to win us over with a menu of orgies, torture and assassination. Could our world get any worse?

Sorry I asked.

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