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

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; C03

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.

* * *

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.

This biennial includes the talented sculptor Charles Ray, best known for complex works such as a naked family that he cast so that everyone, from toddler to dad, is the same size. In this show, however, Ray presents a roomful of big, goofy, deluxe watercolors of flowers. "I do [them] at night at home to relax," he has said. Indeed.

The Whitney is also featuring some really quite skillful abstractions that are better than abstraction ought to be, this late in the game. And there is a suite of charming, boldly painted images of white buildings in New England, by Maureen Gallace. I wouldn't mind owning any of these works; I can't imagine them earning even a footnote in the history of 21st-century art.

* * *

The curators claim that all this mild-mannered fiddling reflects a newfound "need to rediscover the experimental nature of the artistic endeavor and politics within the self." That it is about "reaffirming the importance of the individual gesture in order to produce a collective change." But I don't see how such self-absorption, and such modest ambition, could ever effect much of anything. If there's "change" on view in this show, I can barely make it out -- and it's certainly not the kind I can believe in.

Some of the best works in this biennial, in fact, seem to turn this pathological ennui into an artistic principle. Pae White, an always-stylish artist from Los Angeles, has a photo of blowing cigarette smoke made into an astounding, computer-woven tapestry almost 40 feet long by 12 feet high. It's a heroic image of stasis and thumb-twiddling, embodied in an archetypically luxurious commodity. It greets you as you enter the top floor of the biennial. It could almost be the whole show's flag.

Kate Gilmore, who grew up in Washington, presents her latest video of aimless female struggle. We get to see Gilmore, dressed in a polka-dot frock, breaking her way into a tiny drywall space she's built, maybe 4 feet by 4 feet, then breaking out again using her bare hands. If this isn't a metaphor for learned helplessness, I don't know what is.

A video by talented New Yorker Josephine Meckseper -- profiled in The Post a few years ago -- examines life in the Mall of America in Minnesota, one of the world's largest retail spaces. Shooting it through colored filters, she turns social facts into aesthetic impulses, and thereby argues, as she always does, that much of what we do reduces to a look. She also intercuts footage from the mall's fighter-jet simulator and from an Imax movie about military flight, also for sale in the mall. They are thrown into the mix as just another aspect of the aesthetics of consumer culture.

A video by Ari Marcopoulos, projected huge with deluxe sound and color, is also about an aural assault. Marcopoulos lets us watch as two rock musicians use a roomful of guitar pedals to engender pure cacophony. It's not a bad image of social chaos and rage, and it ought to wake us up and get us going. The thing is, the two musicians are brothers maybe 10 and 12 years old, and their pedals are scattered on the floor of a colorful kid's room. Even raging noise has become a kind of empty, playful gesture, accessible to little kids and acceptable as creative expression to their minders. Have chaos and rage, twin engines of so much 20th-century culture, become 21st-century playtime?

I'm not claiming that all art today is in an absolutely hopeless state. There is enough engaged, ambitious art out there to fill a biennial. Some of it got into this show: a subtle and complex video installation by Sharon Hayes that explores relationships and sexuality; a peculiar, whimsical projection of a moving car that artist Alex Hubbard does his best to turn into a kind of rolling abstraction.

But overall, the 2010 Whitney Biennial shows just how many of this country's artists no longer know what to do with themselves. But, like the rest of us, they do it anyway.

2010 Whitney Biennial

runs through May 30 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York. Call 212-570-3600 or visit http://www.whitney.org.

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