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WHAT TO LOOK FOR
IN THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL

by Carlo McCormick
 
The Whitney Biennial, which is coming up Mar. 2-May 28, 2006, always confuses me. When I first started going as a kid, the Biennial was about just trying to figure out what that zany art world was up to. Back then it was supposed to fill you in on what you had missed over the past year or two. These days, however, the art scene is so damn big that some degree of curatorial prerogative is expected.

It's tough -- so much more is going on at the sub-cult level that the market and the institutional purveyors of taste don't get. But this year, the heralded list of artists selected for the biennial [see "Artnet News," Nov. 30, 2005] is pretty exciting. I figure if the Whitney Biennial 2006 makes sense to me, it must have lots of other people scratching their heads.

Whether by accident or inspiration -- it's hard to say -- curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne have filled the show with an amazing assortment of freaks. Chances are a lot of people are going to hate this for the same reasons that I love it. Herewith, a cheat sheet for some of the more obscure curatorial decisions.

First of all, there is nothing nobler than to give overdue recognition to such veteran artists as Kenneth Anger, Ira Cohen, Tony Conrad and Taylor Mead. Kenneth Anger (b. 1927), the occultist filmmaker and author of Hollywood Babylon (1958), is probably back on the art-world radar thanks to curmudgeonly art critic Dave Hickey, who brought Anger's outrageous oeuvre to the art world's attention in 2001 at the SITE Santa Fe Biennial.

Anger's got a lot of people to thank for the persistence of his vision, but he's not the most thankful kind of guy, so at least props to the Whitney for dealing with this genius/bitter old queen. If you haven't seen Kenneth's dark and mythic psychedelic films (he used to collaborate with this kid named Bobby, who had a friend named Charlie. . .), this may be the best excuse to trip you'll have in a long while.

But if you really want to crack open your mind, Ira Cohen's one of the last great alchemists out there. The peripatetic Cohen (b. 1935) has lived in the Himalayas, Tangiers, the Lower East Side and San Francisco, and published in the early 1960s Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and others. He should be really famous as a poet, as should his long-passed cosmic journeyman Angus MacLise, but Cohen is also a visionary photographer, specializing in radically distorted images printed on Mylar.

Maybe the Whitney plans to show Cohen's lightshow-like experimental films, or his hashish cookbook from 1966, or those way-out books he was having printed on rice paper in Tangiers, but with any luck we'll be wowed by his photography, like the one he did as an album cover for the band Spirit, or his portraits of friends like Jimi Hendrix. Hey, maybe the art world can sell stuff like this. I sure hope so; Ira just had his birthday, and he's hitting his 70s in pretty lousy health.

The Minimalist musician, video- and filmmaker Tony Conrad (b. 1940) is not nearly that old, but he's just as eccentric as any of the lot (including Dan Graham, whom you already know about). He is similarly deserving of our attentions, and for a whole lot more than what you can put on a wall. Tony's videos are hysterical, but if you ask average Japanese hipster kids, they're more likely to know him as the great sonic explorer who first forged that soundscape (along with LaMonte Young and John Cale) that later evolved into the dementia of a band called the Velvet Underground.

You'd have to say that all these artists are brought together by Chrissie Iles' tenure in the Whitney's film and video department, which would naturally make her a lot more aware of all these other expanded modes of expression that lie outside of the usual esthetic commodities.

The Biennial couldn't do much better than Tony when it comes to music, in fact, but from this corner there's also thumbs up to Japanther (not the best band out there in Williamsburg, but at least it's cool that some curator stayed up late enough in a club to see a band at all) and to experimental guitarist and music producer (and sometime Sonic Youth bassist) Jim O'Rourke (b. 1969), the critical nexus through which so much of the best music has passed through in recent years.

The most timeless and timely of them all has to be Taylor Mead (b. 1928). Taylor was famous way before Warhol made him a Factory star, and he's outlived most every generation he's influenced. You might just remember Taylor for his stunning stint with Bill Rice (one of the greatest unknown actors ever, and a tremendous painter, whose recent death has broken the heart of old New York) at the end of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (2004), but if you ever get a chance to see his early work with the late, great underground filmmaker Ron Rice, for whom Taylor starred in the San Francisco picaresque The Flower Thief (1960), you'll really be schooled. Beyond his epic acting career, Taylor's done a lot of amazing stuff as drug-crazed writer (journals and poetry), but it would really be wild if the Whitney put his paintings on its walls.

The Whitney Biennial is to be commended, as well, for the front-lining of some pretty arch mid-career artists. Amazing (in an Ira Cohen-Taylor Mead sort of way) is Daniel Johnston (b. 1961). Daniel's what you'd call an outsider artist. He first came on my radar in the 1980s when this Texas rock band called the Butthole Surfers played me his self-made tapes while they were up here on tour. He subsequently earned a cult status among underground music cognoscenti and fans of his equally low-fi paintings, and it's always heartened me that someone who talks to Jesus and Satan even when he's on his meds can still be taken seriously.

Laudable indeed is the selection of Steven Parrino (1958-2005) and Jutta Koether (b. 1958). Steven died on New Year's Day 2005 in a motorcycle accident in Brooklyn, and seeing his work at the Whitney should bring a few tears. The power in both Steven's and Jutta's paintings is in the search for the absolute dead ends of creative practice, not so much to explore them further (they are, after all, dead ends) but for the visceral experience of slamming into them head on. Jutta's way cool, and dangerously unpredictable in her art. She was the resident critic for everything that was so essential out of the whole Cologne scene, and the art she made for her husband Tom Verlaine's record albums is equally mesmeric as the music by this formidable leader of New York's legendary band Television.

Here's one you don't have to take my word on: To show you how clueless I am, I was really happy to include the 1980s postmodernist image-maker Troy Brauntuch (b. 1954) in this little historical show about the downtown scene that I organized recently for a museum in town. I thought Troy was a good catch, like people should be reminded of how good his stuff was. Little did I know that he's in the midst of some huge comeback -- he's represented by Kent Gallery, and it's awesome that he's in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

The New York painter and photographer Marilyn Minter doesn't mind people knowing how old she is (57), because that's how long it's taken for her to get into the big dance here. I first met her when she was a photorealist painter, and loved the weird turn her work took when she hooked up with this nutty German genius named Christof Kohlhofer in the early '80s. Her art's just gotten more seductive and subversive since then, and is featured on the invite and catalogue cover for the show as well as in a totally eye-popping billboard project with Creative Time (concurrent with the Biennial) that will certainly earn her lots of new fans.

Cameron Jamie (b. 1969) has got to be the best thing to ever come out of Los Angeles, and having lived there his whole life, who could blame him for pulling up stakes and moving to Europe? I don't know what he's been up to of late, but he's done stuff like apartment wrestling (an early proto-porn fetish genre) -- with a Michael Jackson mask on -- and made some films about Halloween that he showed with the Melvins during their European tour.

The Whitney Biennial 2006 has several artists' collectives taking part, and though I'm not sure where the hybrid identities of all the strange collectives fit in terms of generations, they should be really fun in a very now sort of way. I interviewed Bernadette Corporation many years ago for this fashion magazine I work at, because that's what they were supposedly doing at the time, fashion. Of course their activities were way more theoretical and art-damaged, so it's swell that the Whitney can officially put them in the art world.

You readers are hip and know about Reena Spaulings and the Wrong Gallery, both conceptual takes on the various modes of art market promotion and distribution. This guy John Kelsey deserves some credit as maybe some of the brains behind Spaulings, who is supposedly both an artist who has shown in Chelsea and a gallery down on Grand Street on the Lower East Side.

As for the Wrong Gallery, unlike a lot of my artist friends I can never find it -- apparently, according to my editor, it's come and gone and I missed it -- but I understand that the Wrong Gallery part of the Whitney Biennial includes lots of "wrong" things, including the poster for my benefit concert back when I was in a Mexican Federal Penitentiary in 1990. Maybe it's because the list of bands is so amazing, or because David Wojnarowicz did the art for it, but I guess I should be flattered and hope they're not making fun of me.

As for the kids, real art-world insiders will have a much better idea than I, but some names can't help but jump out at me. Two wonderfully delinquent maniacs I'm particularly delighted to see here are Dan Colen (b. 1979) and Dash Snow, both of whom show with Rivington Arms on the Lower East Side. Dan's wild and unexpected in that classic pee in the punchbowl kind of way. I don't know why he gets away with the shit he does, but I know a lot of people who think he's cute, so perhaps that helps. What matters more is that he does great art that doesn't look like art at all.

Another reason that I'm rooting for Dan, a personal reason, is that when I was working on the new Artstar television show with Jeffrey Deitch we chose Sy Colen, Dan's dad, to be on it. You may not think that we'd be the sort to support retirees who've turned to whittling, but he sure won us over. Another great reason to love Dan is that he's a friend of Dash Snow, which is no easy feat.

Dash is utterly unbelievable, and that he has made it this far is testament to an army of guardian angels who must adore him as much as we do. The last piece I saw that Dash do was at this cool show in a transitional space downtown that was put together by Carol Lee, who I work with at Paper. Dan's piece there was cool, but Dash literally blew us away with his sculpture -- a turntable going round and round (at 33 rpm no doubt) with this lovely circle of white powder lined near the outer rim. I cannot testify as to the nature of that art material, but I do understand that it was incrementally removed over the course of the evening. Now that's process art.

But I know Dash is going to be famous for his esthetics more than his antics, and I'm already getting ready to get mad when that happens and people who just then discover him say that his fame has something to do with the fact that most of his relatives have the last name of Menil. Well, for the record, Dash has never parlayed such familial benefits towards promoting his own career, and quite to the contrary has done things very much his own way. I'm just glad that after generations of collecting work by great artists the family has finally produced one. I recently had to write a letter on his behalf regarding an unfortunate misunderstanding he was having with the authorities in California where I swore he was a good kid, and I'm sticking to it.

The mayor of cool in New York these days is unmistakably that genius, Spencer Sweeney (b. 1975). He's the kind of lunatic that only the late, great Colin De Land could nurture and only Gavin Brown can sell like ice cream in a heat wave. I know Spencer is famous already, but for those of you who don't go out late at night to weird little clubs with nasty names, let me tell you that there's a lot more people who appreciate him as a great DJ than as an artist. He's in the process of opening a dance club that will change the face of nightlife in New York. I'd never presume to give advice to anyone wanting to buy art, but if you've got some spare change you could do worse than invest in a place called Secret Santa.

Make sure to check out Hanna Liden (b. 1976), one of my favorite photographers. I met her when she was but a feral pup on the Lower East Side, and when she had her stunning first exhibition at Rivington Arms I pitched a story on her to this prestigious fine art photography magazine I write for. They wrote back that, much as they searched, they could find no trace of the artist or the gallery, so perhaps I might find something a little more mainstream. It sure is nice to be right for a change. But I really wanted to mention her because I think that for the kind of esoteric Magick that this Biennial seems to be mining, Liden is definitely the witch's brew.

One last kid I should mention (hey, I've just been going down the list alphabetically so I don't forget anyone) is Aaron Young (b. 1972). I first met Aaron when he was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, a place that ultimately produces more amazing artists than all those other schools put together. The dumb fuck decided he wanted to go to Yale for his MFA and of all people asked me to write him a recommendation letter. Well, he's just that good that he got in despite it all, and now he has the likes of Mary Boone and Larry Gagosian sniffing at his butt-crack like he's the next plaid.

I know this is really how the art world works, which is why I'm especially unsuited to give this tour. I guess all I'd add to that is my faith in artists like Aaron, who last time I saw him had very little inclination to ride the 15 minute roller-coaster of disposable youth that the market is offering these days. I'm betting like all the old weirdos (Ira Cohen, Taylor Mead, et al.), they will continue to rise above the stench, and that for once this museum show might just come out smelling like roses.


CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor of Paper Magazine.