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BIENNIAL IN BABYLON
by Jerry Saltz
 
"Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night," Mar. 2-May 28, 2006, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

"Day for Night" is the liveliest, brainiest, most self-conscious Whitney Biennial I have ever seen. In some ways it isn’t a biennial at all. Curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne have cleverly re-branded the biennial, presenting a thesis not a snap-shot, a proposition about art in a time when modernism is history and postmodernist rhetoric feels played out. This show and the art world are trying to do what America can’t or won’t do: Use its power wisely, innovatively and with attitude -- be engaged and above all not define being a citizen of the world narrowly.

"Day for Night" is filled with work I’m not interested in; it tries to do too much in too little space; it is often dry and confusing. Nevertheless, the show is a compelling attempt to examine conceptual practices and political agency, consider art that is not about beauty, reconsider reductivism, explore the possibility of an underground in plain sight, probe pre-modern and archaic approaches, posit destruction and chaos as creative forces, and revisit ideas about obfuscation and anonymity. This show is less market-driven than usual; in fact it attempts to cross swords with conventions that have brought us to the brink of madness. It’s also an anti-manifesto taking on romanticism, expressionism and decorative psychedelia.

Kant said "The day is beautiful; the night is sublime." "Day for Night" isn’t about the sublime in an old fashioned awe-inspiring sense, but it hints at types of darkness. All the windows of the museum have been boarded up. Day for Night will be seen by the masses but it isn’t really for them. It is the art world meeting around fires, taking stock, and trying to work things out.

This biennial is positively un-American. Iles and Vergne are European, more than a quarter of the 101 participating artists were born outside the U.S., and sundry others live elsewhere part time. Even the show’s title comes from a French movie, Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film -- although the movie’s original title describes the biennial and the country better, The American Night.

The show is not without problems. Sometimes the curators seem to be second-guessing themselves before they’ve even first-guessed. Their propensity for cool art by cool artists suggests "Day for Night" could be called "The Black and Silver Biennial." The outstanding 500-page catalogue includes flashy fold-out artist pages, excellent essays by the curators, critic Johanna Burton and gallerist Lia Gangitano, as well as an ingenious quiz by critic Bruce Hainley. But the exhibition also suffers from such aggravating tics as an invented curator, and a low percentage of women (25 percent) when you count only the individual artists on view in the museum. Good paintings are present, notably by Mark Grotjahn, Mark Bradford, Rudolf Stingel and Marilyn Minter. Yet these curators, like so many curators these days, don’t really get painting’s alchemical qualities or appreciate how old mediums can carry new thoughts.

This brings us to an irksome feature of this show, and many like it. The curators regularly treat two-dimensional media as if they were second-class citizens, jamming them in, splitting them up or using them as filler. Meanwhile, conceptual work, video and installation is given ample space. Whole rooms are given to sculpture and video but never to painting. Kelley Walker, Jennie Smith and Adam McEwen belong in the biennial but all are short-changed. Some things just don’t work: Jutta Koether belongs but her installation feels forced; paintings by JP Munro, Spencer Sweeney, Todd Norsten, Chris Vasell and Monica Majoli are unimpressive to say the least; Nari Ward is good but this wasn’t a biennial year for him; Peter Doig’s paintings aren’t up to snuff and look out of place here; Matthew Day Jackson deserves his berth but disappoints; videos by Jim O’Rourke, Jordan Wolfson and Mathias Poledna are all weak; Paul Chan’s floor piece is evocative but unoriginal.

A number of artists stand out. Especially impressive is Sturtevant’s room of art that looks like Duchamp’s work but throws representation out the window, Dorothy Iannone’s video of herself climaxing (as she says, "The one fleeting moment when you can see the soul as it passes over the face"), Billy Sullivan’s heart-rending Nan Goldin-like slide show depicting an afternoon in a life and a whole life simultaneously, Robert Gober’s journey into hatred, Angela Strassheim’s penetrating photographs of people who are living more for the next life than this one, Jonathan Horowitz’ 19 portraits of the 9-11 hijackers placed surreptitiously throughout the museum, photos by Florian Maier-Aichen, Zoe Strauss, and Anne Collier, Lucas DeGiulio’s intriguing sculpture and Trisha Donnelly’s intermittent blasting sound piece. Also, don’t miss the terrific videos by Francesco Vezzoli (shallow and slutty but ambitious and riveting), Cameron Jamie (it’s real and intense not staged), Pierre Huyghe (it’s staged not real), the collective "Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty" (by artists beyond said age), and especially Ryan Trecartin’s retina-bursting all-pours-open A Family Finds Entertainment (the best work by an unknown artist in the show, and probably the craziest).

Weirdest of all is a 1991 painting by Miles Davis. The painting is definitely by him but since there is no Davis entry or artist page in the catalogue, my own paranoid fantasies and assorted rumors have led me to believe that the painting was put into the show by that true artist of the American night, David Hammons (although you wonder if it has been put in by Hammons why he couldn’t simply submit it saying it was him who did it). Finally, to anyone who thinks that the "Peace Tower," right now on Madison Avenue in front of the Whitney, but originally built in 1965 to protest Vietnam War, is silly or ineffectual: Now is the first time it has needed to be built again.

Flaws and all, Day for Night speaks to a nation that is no longer an ideal but only a country. That makes this the Post-America Biennial.

Full Blast / Falling Short
Kelley Walker’s second solo show at Paula Cooper Gallery is optically on fire, intellectually edgy, physically lush and installed like a wrap-around panorama. Walker’s digital prints and chocolate on canvas are vivacious and stylish; his touch and domineering scale is luring. Nonetheless, Walker’s show is vexed by questions.

Walker’s work is a kaleidoscopic combination of Warhol, Pollock, Dieter Roth, Richard Prince and the artist no one wants to mention for fear of casting a pall over the mélange, Julian Schnabel. Walker’s paintings feature pictures of the 1963 Birmingham race riots. These images are coated with silk-screens of splashy paint and chocolate. The visual effects are riveting and the sweet smell makes you get as close to these paintings as one dog will to another. Walker puts race at the center of his work but he’s not treating this hot button American issue as seriously, personally or originally as he does the issue of painting. He simply defaults to an easy art world position around reproduction and appropriation.

This problem isn’t Walker’s alone, and it doesn’t stop him from being one of the best young artists around. Similar issues afflict a number of artists in the Whitney Biennial. It is difficult to approach the hard issues of the world, yet if we don’t let more of the world in our work it’s likely that the world will let less of our work into it.

Kelley Walker, Feb. 25-Mar. 25, 2006, at Paula Cooper Gallery, 521 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011


JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at Jsaltz@VillageVoice.com