2019 Whitney Biennial Highlights

Highlights from the 2019 Whitney Biennial.’ 

Part 1.

‘Dark Wooden Frames & Paintings

This is not a proper review of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. I did not pay equal attention to all the art on premise and even thought I have plenty of opinions about stuff that seemed overwrought with a heavy glob of “high art” gloss, this is not a critique. It’s not a critique mainly because to properly critique this year’s Whitney Biennial requires a keen understanding and overall awareness of the Decolonize This Place led protests against one of the Whitney’s chairs and multiple artists releasing statements they would pull out their artworks in protest. But this won’t be that – conversations like that so often ignore the art completely in favor of talking about institutional things, period. 

This is merely a highlight reel. An opportunity to stop and talk about the art I saw at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, unworried and un-cynically.

I’ve said in conversation to multiple people I’ve brought up the Biennial to – the medium du jour was photography. There wasn’t a lot in terms of great paintings as much as there were in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and I think photography stole the show this time around. Maybe on second thought only Curran Hatleberg really stole the show with his photography. Maybe it’s because he was the only participating artist whose work was displayed by itself on the 3rd floor. Maybe it was the impeccable walnut wooden frames each of his prints were shown in. Maybe it’s that each and every photograph was more surreal than the next, sometimes gently, sometimes shockingly, but definitely, unmistakably American. No other landscape could conjure such scenes of casual absolutism. 

The inclusion of animals in five of the six of Hatleberg’s photographs I’ve chosen to highlight are another contributing factor to the impressive and striking atmosphere. Both the domestic and the wild fauna make an appearance, adding to the narrative that the people in these pictures are somehow made from the same stuff as the animals they appear alongside. 

Onward to my two favorite paintings/works on canvas, Jennifer Packer’s “A Lesson in Longing” and Eric N. Mack’s “(Easter) The Spring / The Holy Ground.” These large, unstretched works hung in the same general area not particularly echoing anything back and forth except maybe their idea of large scale composition and use of colors pink and red. The first a painting is made primarily of washes, presenting ghostly figures amidst patches of sharper green shapes and edges taking on the form of plants and a pair of shorts. The downward drip lines immediately call into question the methods used by the artist and, to me at least, signify she painted using a particularly wet brush more than it indicates the artist wanted to make an edgy drip painting. Maybe Packer is also skilled in controlled drip techniques used in spray painting? I don’t know. Mack’s piece on the other hand is quite literally paper pasted onto a moving blanket. Paintings and pages cover maybe a third of the blanket’s surface area and while I’m at personal loss for what it all means I’m confident that this is one of the most memorable object-based art objects I’ve ever seen. And maybe this is the point – an object that toys with expectations while cleverly referencing the art world’s behind-the-scenes. Moving blankets are present in any and all art transportation tasks, they make surfaces safe for art to lay on. By padding and wrapping art these objects are ubiquitous… and so props to Mack for collaging painted paper onto one and hanging it in the Whitney Biennial – good for him.

Other highlights in walnut or dark frames for me were much more varied than Hatleberg’s tour de force. There were, of course other nicely framed photographs down the line – of these I liked Giancarlo Montes Santangelo’s “Improvising Sight Lines” and Paul Magi Sepuya and Ariel Goldberg’s “Camera Lessons” the most, not only for their relatively intimate scenes of domesticity and interesting artist to viewer pragmatism but these three pieces in particular looked like they could be picked up off the museum wall and plopped onto someone’s living room or kitchen wall and it would absolutely be an easy transition. I don’t always care to be challenged by art, and these photographs were comfortably familiar. I was glad for their inclusion.

Following these I’d say my next few dark frame highlights were not photographs – drawings and digital compositions, actually. Kyle Thurman occupied several walls in a room with medium and large-scale drawings from his “Suggested Occupation” series. His are idiosyncratic drawings of buzzcut season men who don’t always acknowledge the viewer. The men in these drawings aren’t drawn in any spectacular motion, they are just there – standing or sitting, or laying down, without much of a purpose other than presenting the viewer with a swath of color containing an emotionally unarmed man or men. I appreciated that. Something about men making themselves available to the viewer’s gaze without the artifice of toughness or violence is hard to come by. Thurman’s works were a welcome addition to the canon.

Lucas Blalock’s work “Some Eggs” also scratched a nifty itch. I was immediately reminded of every badly made 3D modeling software youtube cartoon parody. There are layers to this artwork – some I had not picked up on until I started writing about it. The yellow circles imposed on top of every single round edge polygon give the image the appearance that it was created on Cinema 4D or another 3D imaging program. But the objects on top of the wooden surface are in fact real, up close they look like soap bars and disks of bologna and slices of spam. Then on top of most, Blalock placed actual 3D objects, which are shaped like the kinds of smooth rocks you would find and put in your pocket when you were a kid. The yellow circles complete the picture but they do more than just make these objects look like eggs. I’ll go as far as to say the yellow circles are the most important compositional element in this artwork. Without them the objects don’t look like eggs, and without looking like eggs the objects in turn don’t make the wooden surface beneath them look like a table. Without the yellow circles any and all attempts your brain makes to bring this image into a context of familiarity fail. “Some Polygons” is nowhere near as compelling as “Some Eggs,” and “Some Eggs” kind of takes the cake for me, as probably my favorite thing I saw at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Or at least my favorite thing in a dark wooden frame. ■

— Juno Zago

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