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Whitney Biennial 2017 Review

Art Scene

Whitney Biennial 2017 Review

The Whitney Biennial, begun in 1932, is regarded as a trendsetter in the field of American contemporary art. In 2017, once again, it has not failed to garner widespread conversation, along with a bit of controversy. The exhibition’s 2017 themes are a direct reflection of the state of the American psyche. Works by 63 artists and collectives working in multiple mediums including, photography, painting, sculpture, sound, mixed media, and installation reflect on race, economics, class, politics, and modern life.

Photo by Anders Jones

The work of painter, Henry Taylor, born in Oxnard, California in 1958, may arguably be the most sizeable contribution to the show. His large-scale figurative paintings, usually created within a color palette of white, hunter green, light to navy blue, and shades of brown, yellow and gold, maintain a spacious composition that clearly depicts scenes and characters, despite their somewhat abstract presentation. With works that feature a variety of aspects of African American life, from a 4th of July barbecue to the 2016 police shooting of Philando Castille that went viral on YouTube, Taylor seems to prefer an emotionally neutral rendering of his ideas.

Installation view, artwork by Henry Taylor at center. Photo by Anders Jones

In contrast, Dana Schutz‘s painting, Open Casket, placed her at the center of a firestorm. The work is an abstract rendition of a photograph published in 1955 of the open casket of Emmett Till, an African American teenager falsely accused and lynched at the age of 14 in Mississippi. During the first weeks of the exhibition, Till was deemed by protesters to be an inappropriate and insensitive subject choice; rendering other works by Schutz featured in the biennial null and void.

Installation view, video installation by Maya Stovall and painting by Dana Schutz. Photo by Anders Jones

An interesting counterpoint to Schutz’s and Taylor’s African American subject matter can be found in the work of another painter, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer. A painting titled, St. Tammany Parish, features what looks like an impoverished and somewhat rural street scene in Louisiana; overgrown grass and dirt edging along a cracked paved road, with a few houses dotting the landscape and telephone wires overhead. In the foreground, a shirtless Anglo-American male figure looks off into the distance, his naked arm with an alligator tattoo among others, grabbing boxer shorts rimming his low hanging jeans. Framed by his torso and the back of another male wearing a red t-shirt, a girl-fight ensues in the background of the painting. Two teens or young women go at it, holding each other in headlocks, pale legs askew, while community members look on. Dupuy-Spencer also has several other works on view, including a black and white drawing of a Trump rally.

Artwork by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer. Photo by Anders Jones

Once again, a humorously pointed and sharp critique is on view in the work of William Pope L., who created an installation that is literally a house full of bologna. Painting in shades of ice cream sherbet, pink on the outside and mint on the inside, Pope L. attached hundreds of slabs of bologna to the exterior and interior of his boxed shape structure in a grid pattern. Small portraits are painted in the center of each piece of bologna and a simple 8″x10″ piece of paper posted in the interior of the installation features typed text explaining every conceptual detail of the work. One paragraph begins with, “A grid divides up the wall giving the impression of order and a forcefield. This MASK/SKEIN/SHIELD of order is shored-up via neatness and consistency.”

Installation view of artwork by William Pope L. Photo by Anders Jones

In regard to the current state of the human condition, one work that speaks more to a solutions-based proposition is a sound and video installation by jazz artist, Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference. Washington composed an original six movement suite grounded in the musical technique known as counterpoint, which he describes as, “the art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies.” Housed in a darkened room, multiple video screens functioning at different intervals run both abstract and realistic imagery, with the sixth movement of the suite accompanied by a film. Drawing steadfastly on the history of jazz music, the musical composition was created along with a team of musicians and recording engineers with the goal of creating something that “opened people’s minds to the gift of diversity.”

Installation view of artwork by Kamasi Washington. Photo by Anders Jones

While a wide variety of work is on view, ideas and processes seem to take priority over aesthetic pleasure in this year’s biennial – perhaps an accurate reading of the current state of daily life. The Whitney Biennial is on display through June 11, 2017. Learn more here.

Installation view in Whitney Museum stairwell. Photo by Anders Jones