Art review: Blake Gopnik on 2010 Whitney Biennial, consumed with small change

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

NEW YORK -- Here's what this moment in America looks like, as seen from Manhattan and in the words of the two curators of the 75th Whitney Biennial, the most important roundup of this country's art: "During the last two years, the United States went through a huge atmospheric shift. After a period of political resistance came a kind of ecstasy. . . . With the election of Barack Obama, the clouds broke and the rain of renewal poured over the entire country."

Strangely, that's not at all the vision I get from looking at the works in the show. I see hints, at least, that we're a country that just spent something like a trillion dollars and more than 3,000 lives so that a foreign nation's sects can once again be free to bash each other. And I see a country that is still hemorrhaging blood and funds in the fond hope that another foreign nation, dysfunctional and misogynist, can be kept from fully imploding.

Here at home, I see the richest nation in history being so obsessed with getting back to still more growth -- so that the rich among us can have a yet bigger house or plasma screen -- that it won't spend money to rescue a neighbor's health, a crumbling bridge or our children's planet. Most important -- if not in the details of this biennial, then in the overriding spirit of so much of its art -- I also see a country that recognizes that all this is some kind of a problem but feels as though it's powerless to do anything about it -- except take solace in that bigger home or screen.

Our two foreign wars yield this show's most compelling works.

The curators -- the veteran Francesco Bonami paired with the much younger Gary Carrion-Murayari -- have included Nina Berman's famous photos of an Iraq war vet, Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel, who lost one arm and his entire face to a suicide bomber, yet is forging on at home. These pictures are standard photojournalism, with their share of visual cliches. Yet their strong subject easily overrides their conventional aesthetics.

Another room contains the harrowing photojournalism of Stephanie Sinclair, who has documented the suffering and courage of abused Afghan girls whose lives were such a hell that they set themselves on fire. They failed to die and now have to be helped to live again.

Our issues of wealth and growth are on display as well. Huge new photos by the senior artist James Casebere -- apparently his first in color -- occupy prime space as you enter the show's bottom floor. They are close-ups on studio maquettes Casebere has built of our McMansioned suburbs, photographed at "dawn" and "dusk." Their pastel view of our manufactured realities has a critical edge.

These are images that have the courage to show things as they are. And yet the effect of these reality checks on this show's other 52 artists seems close to nil, just as our wars and waste have left most of us passive.

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The art being shown by many of this year's Whitney artists is perfectly pleasant, even sometimes really rather fine. But it barely seems to matter at all -- or even to want to matter or think it might ever be able to matter. It has almost no urgency. "Wan" would be the word for much of it.

Going through this edition of the Whitney Biennial feels like an unusually good day window-shopping at the galleries of Chelsea: lots of surprisingly appealing commodities for sale -- to fill that supersize new house. It's a perfect New York show, that is, geared to New York's market-friendly culture, where so long as something looks good, and rich people buy it, it counts as good art.

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