"Irony be gone!" Whitney director Adam Weinberg declared on Monday after saying he and his colleagues knew the Biennial would be the greatest test of the museum's new downtown home. His appeal for sincerity over sarcasm wasn't random: the 2017 Biennial is serious. But it's sure as hell not boring. The behemoth art show's 78th edition is co-curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, who started pulling together the exhibition back in 2015. Obama was still president and "Trump art" was not yet a thing. Likely much to the disappointment of the now-president, the Biennial is not about him, though it tackles the social problems he's exacerbating more persuasively than grotesque portraits or memes might. Police violence, economic inequality, and capitalistic censorship, after all, existed long before Trump announced his bid by descending on a golden escalator to Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," and even before The Simpsons eerily predicted his bizarre entrance 15 years before that.
The stacked lineup of 63 artists address the Biennial's theme of "the formation of self and the individual's place in a turbulent society" in a gratifying diversity of ways. Around half of the artists are women and/or people of color. All of them are currently alive. None of them are art world A-listers, adding to a sense of future progress that permeates the museum despite the dark issues being addressed. Here are the seven works we're still thinking about as the Biennial opens to the public tomorrow.
Rafa Esparza, Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field, 2017
L.A.-based Rafa Esparza's installations use thousands of adobe bricks to subvert the white cube confines of traditional art spaces — and to reflect the color of bodies that aren't often represented within them. The brown bricks that form his rotunda on the Whitney's lobby gallery were handmade from a combo of clay, horse dung, hay, and water from the Los Angeles River, and assembled by Esparaza and a crew of brown queer-identified people. On the rotunda walls are portraits of brown youth by artist Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias from the series Mexicano. The discrimination our president and his supporters have heaped on people who look like those in the photographs — not to mention the demand for an expensive border wall — makes Esparza's work an uncomfortably appropriate entrance to the Biennial.
Raúl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016
Bushwick-based Mexican artist Raúl de Nieves responds to the turbulent and unpredictable climate in a far more fantastical manner. Against six floor-to-ceiling windows on the Whitney's fifth floor, de Nieves pasted up a series of eighteen glittering stained glass windows depicting scenes of death and chaos. With a little help from the weather gods, the windows create a kaleidoscopic light display that dances over the installation's real draw: human-sized sculptures dressed in intricately embellished costumes that the artist has worn in performances and which present the surrounding chaos as a chance for remarkable change.
Deana Lawson and Henry Taylor
Brooklyn-based Deana Lawson is the artist responsible for the instantly iconic album art for Dev Hynes's brilliant Freetown Sound. The original photo was taken seven years before Hynes's album dropped, and shows a young couple embracing in an immaculate bedroom being watched over by a portrait of Michael Jackson. On the Whitney's sixth floor, Lawson's intimate portraits of domestic black life share space with less intricate but no less careful ones by Los Angeles painter Henry Taylor. Lawson and Taylor are friends IRL who both portray strangers in personal ways.
Anicka Yi, The Flavor Genome, 2016
Before launching a solo show at the Guggenheim next month, $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize winner Anicka Yi has been knocking about in the Amazon rain forest. The result of her time there is the mesmerizing 3D film The Flavor Genome that tells of a "prospecting mission in the Brazilian Amazon: a hunt for a mythical plant prized for its medicinal properties, described only in terms of its desirability and elusiveness." The seductive gross-out features a web of storylines involving opulent Chanel manicures, weird-looking dolphins, and perfectly ripe fruit being injected with syringes. Its central concerns of biotechnology and exploitation will linger long after you take off the 3D glasses.
Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, 2017
If you notice a bunch of people gripping the railing facing the Whitney's west-facing windows while trying not to drop their outstretched iPhones into a seeming abyss, you've probably arrived at Samara Golden's dizzying infinity/inception mirror installation. The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes is a seemingly endless maze of upside-down and right-side-up rooms including nail salons, suburban lounges, fancy restaurants, office cubicles, gyms, and beauty spas. The sense of confusion created by the fractured interiors is very intentional. Golden's multi-faceted mind-trip also reflects the anxiety created by economic inequality.
Lyle Ashton Harris, Once (Now) Again, 2017
Bronx-born Lyle Ashton Harris's fragmented slideshow installation is a curated selection from his larger ongoing project Ektachrome Archive. Collaged photographs and videos shot mostly during the 90s introduce the viewer to Harris's friends and lovers, inviting us into the moments that have most helped shape his queer black identity. Harris has cited Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat as influences.
Frances Stark, Ian F. Svenonius's "Censorship Now!!," 2017
Washington D.C. punk legend Ian F. Svenonius had many people questioning his sanity when an excerpt of his incendiary essay collection Censorship Now!! hit the internet in 2015. In a time when the president is a pathological liar hell-bent on cutting funding for the arts and railing against the "fake news" media, censorship is suddenly a lot more urgent of an issue. Los Angeles artist Frances Stark sure thinks Svenonius was serious when he claimed that creative freedom of speech only makes artists more complicit in their own oppression, and that censorship helps separate good ideas from pop propaganda. The intensity with which viewers were pouring over the blown-up essay pages Stark created for the Biennial is evidence that Svenonius was touching on something pertinent.
Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art