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The Whitney Biennial presents the best new artists in the country — and lots of fluff

A work by Marlon Mullen in the Whitney Biennial. (NIAD Art Center, Richmond/Adams and Ollman/JTT)

NEW YORK — Overall, this year’s Whitney Biennial — the 79th installment of the most prestigious survey of recent art in the United States — is a crapshoot. But if you can set aside the ambient impression of a total lack of aesthetic discrimination, it’s also a lot of fun.

In fact, it’s like walking into a busy high school or giddy young start-up. The work going on is earnest, half-formed, hormonally wayward and a little out of whack with the real world — but all the more poignant for being so.

One of the show’s big talkers is a 10-minute agitprop video taking aim at Safariland, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of law enforcement equipment, including tear gas. The company has been owned since 2012 by Warren B. Kanders, who is also a vice chairman of the Whitney’s board of trustees.

The video, “Triple-Chaser” (named for a type of tear gas grenade) is by a group called Forensic Architecture, which specializes in interpreting public-domain data and presenting it to the public. They have researched and analyzed U.S. drone warfare in the Middle East, the deaths of migrants off the coast of Libya, and murders committed by German neo-Nazi cells.

Here, their researchers, relying on computer vision and machine learning technologies, call out Kanders, whose company allegedly made the tear gas used on Central American asylum seekers by U.S. border agents in November. Kanders is quoted in the video saying that, although his museum work and his business have distinct missions, both make important contributions to society. (Cue coughing in the audience.)

The biennial, which was organized by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, opened in the same week that the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would no longer take money from the Sackler family, which built its fortune from the sale of opioids. Will the Whitney turn similarly against Kanders, its own vice chairman? Many of the show’s artists and members of the museum’s staff have signed letters demanding his resignation.

Wealthy people, corporations and even governments have long used art museums for varieties of moral money laundering. Attempts by artist-activists to draw attention to the ethically compromised sources of museum money fall under the established category of “institutional critique,” which has roots in activism in the late 1960s. This new chapter is just the latest. But if I’m reading the prevailing winds correctly, it won’t be the last.

But back to the show. It’s vast. The atmosphere of yard-sale jumble faithfully reflects the situation of contemporary art these days. It’s magnificently diverse, with artists from all over North America (including Canada and Puerto Rico).

The unspoken premise that art can be anything — not just any medium or any style but made with any level of prowess, any degree of conviction — is liberating, in one sense.

Too much freedom, however, can be a bad thing aesthetically. What the show suggests is that the pious tendency in today’s art world to suspend judgment — to shrink from admitting that one artwork is weak and another strong, one thing dazzling and another dull — has become so prevalent that it’s finally becoming a force for good. I don’t mean politically. (Nowhere is the futility of preaching to the converted more apparent than in the art world.) I mean aesthetically: It is giving strong, independent-minded artists something hard to push against.

Some of these artists — I’m thinking of Daniel Lind-Ramos, Marlon Mullen, Nicole Eisenman, Martine Syms, Ragen Moss, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Diane Simpson — are in this biennial. Their work stands out from other good work and vast amounts of dross because it feels urgent and necessary. Its subtleties emerge as you look. It resists being reduced to one-liners and gimmicks and isn’t dependent on wall labels or dissertations. It articulates inchoate feelings, reflecting what is sometimes clear yet more often bewildering about life. And it gains its power, its strange allure, more from what it is than what it’s about.

Eisenman’s “Procession” is the best thing in the show. Installed on an outdoor deck, its nine parts — clunky, miscellaneous figure sculptures scaled roughly to human size — seem to blend with the urban cacophony. It’s a raucous burlesque, a cackling, Boschian parade of cymbal-beating, manacled misfits made out of every imaginable material, from polymer resin and PVC to butcher’s wax, ball bearings, coconuts, coffee lids and corn. The rear end of one figure even squirts fog — so don’t, as I did, get too close. You may get a fright.

Eisenman burst into view at the 1995 Whitney Biennial. She is best known for intimate and offbeat figure paintings. But her sculptures have become increasingly ambitious in recent years. “Procession” resuscitates centuries-old themes — parades, pity and human folly — explored more recently by artists such as William Kentridge.

The sculptures of Puerto Rico’s Lind-Ramos are as full-throated as Eisenman’s but more formally taut. Made from natural and salvaged materials — from burlap and baseball gloves to plywood and palm trees — they’re both fierce and seductive. One alludes to the trauma of Hurricane Maria, another to the role played by black Puerto Ricans in the colonial era, when local black militias repelled British invasion. These references add depth, but you don’t need to know them to give in to the work’s resplendent aesthetic authority.

More intimate but no less enigmatic are four paintings by Mullen. Mullen has autism spectrum disorder and, according to the wall label, “communicates mostly nonverbally.” His paintings are based on the covers of art magazines. Freely and intuitively, they leave out certain details from the originals while amplifying others. The resulting thickly painted works compress typography and image, figure and ground, attaining a pleasing intensity of pattern — pattern that is always, somehow, escaping itself.

I loved, too, an installation of video and wall works by Syms, who parodies academic cliches, contributing productively to the general confusion around “safe spaces,” “threat levels” and the production of “identity.” The work itself is flimsy and makeshift — deliberately so — but the sensibility behind it suggests strains of humor, independence and awareness that should serve Syms well.

It’s a good biennial for sculpture. Moss joins the party with two rows of her translucent hanging sculptures. Strange, shiny and secretive, they’re made from acrylic and polyethylene and call to mind hanging torsos or wasp nests. Moss samples patterns and textures, some of them clouded and obscured behind glossy surfaces, across which skitter snippets of script.

The sculptures of Simpson, which have a gallery to themselves on the ground floor, are just as strange and secretive. But where Moss’s work is lumpy and asymmetrical, Simpson’s taps into the symmetry and functional rationality of diagrams.

Simpson, who is 84, has been digging into her particular obsession — the tensions between clothes and bodies, 2-D and 3-D — since the 1970s. She transposes 2-D renderings of clothing or, in this case, art deco design, back into three dimensions using a system involving parallel 45-degree angles. Surface planes are thus rendered normally, but the spaces between them are radically compressed. The effect of these fastidiously crafted works is gorgeously uncanny, and the room in which they’re installed is the show’s most beguiling.

It is closely rivaled, however, by a room displaying photographs by Sepuya (and his collaborators). Sepuya’s photographs are portraits, often nudes, mostly male.

There are other good photos in the show — by Elle Pérez, Curran Hattleberg and Heji Shin. But Sepuya’s are unusual. His focus is as much on the situation of studio portraiture as on the subjects themselves. So we see cameras. We see tripods. We see curtains and mirrors. And we see Sepuya himself.

Just as Edgar Degas’s great ballerina pictures showed us dancers in rehearsal — resting, yawning and bending over to tie their shoes — Sepuya shows us intimate and offbeat moments in the studio. The results are tenderly homoerotic. (Sepuya has long documented queer and artistic communities.) Even more, they reveal an almost counterintuitive feeling for solitude in company and for the poignant intensities of creative collusion. And collusion — in art if not always in politics — is truly a word to cherish.

The Whitney Biennial continues through Sept. 22 at the Whitney Museum of American Art at 99 Gansevoort St. in New York. Visit for details.

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