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Richard Prince,
So Much, 1996

Kerry James Marshall,
Watts 1963,

Chris Burden,
Pizza City,


Diana Thater,
Electric Mind, 1996

Matthew Ritchie,
The Binding Problem, 1996

Richard Phillips,
Shaking, 1996-7

Sharon Lockhart,
Untitled, 1996

the 1997 
whitney biennial:
a first look

by Walter Robinson

I've just survived three hours at the Whitney Biennial press preview. And to tell you the truth, I don't quite know what to say.

I'd much rather write about the 1993 Biennial, four years ago, the one with the fire truck parked out front, the machine-that-blinds-you in the lobby gallery and the giant puddle of plastic vomit upstairs (by Charles Ray, Chris Burden and Sue Williams, respectively, all back for this year's version, by the way). Now that was a statement, even if everyone hated the show.

This time the Biennial is considerably more soft spoken, much more eclectic, and perhaps more thoughtful. According to curators Lisa Phillips and Louise Neri, the show focuses on the idea of artists' cosmologies and the constant looping of reality and fiction.

It's not a comprehensive survey, they say right out. There's next-to-no abstract art, except maybe counting Bruce Conner's black-and-white Rorschach drawings and Richard Prince's computerized scribbles (accompanying punch lines like "My best punch was a rabbit punch but they wouldn't let me fight a rabbit"). There's no "factographic work," as Neri called the kind of art that features lots of words on the wall. And there's a distinct absence of naked people.

Also, there's no political advocacy, though there is political content, particularly from black artists. I'm thinking of Kerry James Marshall's paintings of kids playing in city parks (Kerry is a great painter), Kara Walker's silhouette scenes of a rowdy, Brer Rabbit South (done life-size and looking good), and the photo archive of a fictional black lesbian filmmaker in pre-war Hollywood made by Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye for Dunye's film, Watermelon Woman.

Watermelon Woman was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and attacked by the right wing. "Jesse Helms called me flotsam floating in the sewer," Dunye said, with notable aplomb, considering.

But lets leave the serious overview to the pundits and just take in some light highlights.

String is popular. New artists include Antonio Martorell, who has a beautiful map of the world made out of tied white cotton string by the Boriquen Laces workshop in San Juan. Another new artist is Cecilia Vicuna, a Chilean who's lived in NYC for years. She has hung a black yarn web shaped like a boat's prow overhead, and posted a poetic fragment: "Our only legacy was a net of holes but not even shields can hold such emptiness."

Toys are big in this year's Biennial. Chris Burden has made an entire model of L.A. out of toys and props for model railroads. It has a huge gallery all to itself, and a guard keeps watch at the door to make sure it doesn't get too crowded. This Gesamtkunstwerk was done in the artist's backyard, and is already sold to Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. At the press preview, every time I caught a glimpse of the piece out of the corner of my eye I thought it was a buffet. It was lunch time.

Katie Schimert also made a miniature mountain range out of tin foil. And Michael Ashkin is present, with a toy-scaled desert scene of a truck alongside a pipeline. He's the Minimalist in this crew, despite the work's literary roots.

Balloons are the stuff of art for Bryan Crockett, who was just born in 1970. His giant sculpture of balloons and latex hanging from the ceiling looks like an Eva Hesse made of sausage or Godzilla guts. Jennifer Pastor's Four Seasons also is toylike. Using fiberglass, wood and other materials, she's made realistic, carefully painted "Think Big" replicas of seashells, a moth and a stand of ripe corn, and a smaller-than- nature group of snow-covered firs. Both these artists got juice.

Speaking of sausage, get ready for more praise for Louise Bourgeois, who has a few sexy stuffed fabric pieces and a tree hung with clothes in her gallery. Don't worry about getting old, everyone was saying, you can be hip after 80. Her type of anal biomorphism is also evident in the way-too-big table laid with little hard-looking roundish knickknacks by Gabriel Orozco.

More to the point, what's the fun quotient of this year's show? Scant, we would say. There's Charles Long's room, a recreation of the works from his installation last year at Tanya Bonakdar, of sculptures with earphones playing Stereolab and including pink modeling clay for some 3-D doodling -- take a lump home as a souvenir. This work is called Bubble Gum Station. I overheard Charles telling Art TV about his water cooler-Walkman sculpture. "You drink the music in," he said, or so I thought, "and later you piss it out." This piece is called Bullop, Bullop.

And there's Jason Rhoades, with a gallery full of brightly colored spackle buckets, white-boards with writing, orange extension cords, a smoke machine and turning disco light and tons more junk. Especially annoying at the press preview were the other wretched scribes such as yours truly, avidly taking notes on the accumulation. Apparently, all this stuff can be parsed metaphysically, like Joseph Beuys. This piece, which he cleverly titles "theater in my dick," is not new -- he had a smaller version of the same thing in last year's show -- and is smart-ass in that trademark British way (even though he's from California.) Its one redeeming feature is the frequent references to the `70s film "Car Wash," a fabulous movie.

But the funnest piece in the show is a replica of Whitney Museum director David Ross's original Marcel Breuer office. It was made by Glen Seator, a New York artist who doesn't show here much. He says it's about presenting banal architecture as a sculpture. Okay. But the fun part is that the room is tilted up, at maybe 35 degrees, and when you stick your head in the open doorway the disorienting, dizzying effect is incredibly palpable. Check it out.

Ilya Kabakov's hospital installation -- a corridor with five or six rooms opening off it, each with a bed and a slide projector showing snapshots and earphones playing homey narratives -- seems at first like another illustration of the artist's obsession with Soviet-style institutional consciousness. Then I realized that Kabokov says it's a replica of a kind of Russian hospice that treated senility with slide shows from the family album. Does this really work, or is he kidding us?

When I first looked in on Diana Thater's multi-channel installation of projected video, Electric Mind, it was playing an elaborate scene of a film crew trying to get a chimpanzee to remember its lines. I stuck my head in later and everything was turned off, except two video monitors that flashed words reading "A girl is a cat is a mouse is a chimp," over and over. I liked that.

Paintings, were there any? Three by Edward Ruscha, one reading "Bloated Empire." Lari Pittman's paintings, now focusing on the city, are as fetching as ever. They're done on "wood with attached framed work on paper" in the upper right quarter. And Vija Celmins had some of her night sky paintings.

I like these things, but they're nothing new, really. More apropos are Matthew Ritchie's creation-myth paintings, which combine a Matisse-in-camouflage hard-edge pattern with sketchy, Tiepolo ink-wash renderings of little beings and things. They look like floating islands in the cosmos.

Another less familiar name in the painting department is Richard Phillips, who makes big sexy oils of women's faces. His Horizontal Blonde is one of the first things you see in the lobby. You'll never go wrong playing the babe card, I guess. Look too for the ancestor paintings by Annette Lawrence, who is from Denton, Tex. They're dry and Duchampian and melancholic.

Oh, yeah, and Francesco Clemente has a room of pastel drawings that show his usual obsession with orifices and sex, such as a woman's torso whose vulva opens to a sky with clouds, or a man with an erect penis about to do a Tinkerbell. I take back what I said about "no naked people." I like this work, don't get me wrong, but there's nothing new about it.

Any sign of the abject? Yes, the women curators haven't let us down. In the lobby gallery is the first Biennial appearance of Paul McCarthy, whose room-sized video installation is a kind of Willie Wanker in the chocolate factory. I have to admit, this stuff is fantastic, and as funny as a loud fart. I have a theory in the works about flatulence and the patriarchal art economy. I'll have to write it down some day.

Finally, as the father of a 15-year-old, I can testify that Sharon Lockhart's photos of teens definitely echo the curatorial notion of private worlds. They're deep and melancholic and simple. Similarly are Philip-Lorca diCorcia's "Streetwork" snapshots of people hurrying down the sidewalk, seemingly so casual and arbitrary but each capturing what can't help looking like "performance." It's so hard to make interesting photographs these days that advanced shutterbugs have stopped trying.

A show like this can't help but translate some powerful works into museo-decor. A case in point is the strings of light bulbs hung down the lobby, presumably somehow under the direction of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

The Biennial is sponsored by Beck's and is open till June 1. There's more, go see it for yourself.

And oh yeah, I want a Whitney Biennial official tee shirt, made by Raymond Pettibon, who has a giant drawing of a locomotive hanging from the facade of the museum. Written on it is "Simply the Truly Human & Topsy Turvy." It's not funny, but I still want a tee shirt.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of ArtNet Magazine.