NEW YORK — The once-in-two-years art-world rite that is the Whitney Biennial never fails to disappoint at least someone. Whether too tame, too fractious, too political, too agnostic, too woke, too topical — really, pick a pejorative — you’re bound to find whole swaths of the art-going public who feel let down in one way or another.
This time? “Too conservative,” sniffed one woman with close-cropped silver hair and a long, drapey black shawl with whom I spoke at the exhibition preview earlier this month. I can see what she means, but I respectfully disagree. Serious, subdued, and driven by works made by hand, this year’s installment simmers more than it boils over, true enough. But that’s not the same as sitting out.
The 2017 edition was marked by explosive politics and heavy controversy. Dana Schutz’s oblique portrait of Emmett Till in his casket, the victim of a race-driven murder in Mississippi in 1955, drew protest over cultural appropriation; “Black Death Spectacle” was a common slogan used by protestors. That fiery biennial was conceived in the cauldron of the 2016 presidential election campaign, an inferno of divisiveness that vaporized much good will on both sides. Its fire mirrored the rage that burned on both sides of the ticket — an us-and-them staredown not seen in American politics for generations — and the fallout, culturally, was supercharged with bleak, incandescent rage.
So maybe this time around, the Whitney was feeling a little weary and beaten back. Well, don’t we all. After two-plus years of Trumpism, wounds have scabbed and scarred over, callouses formed. All that screaming makes throats feel a little hoarse, and this biennial speaks in whispers, though I would say it’s no less urgent. Wounds close, though some never heal; inevitably, they leave a mark. And that’s where this Biennial of American art lands: back on its feet and moving forward, often brilliantly, but somehow not quite the same.
I started on the museum’s sixth floor and worked my way down, which was as good a plan as any. One thing about a show with 75 artists: You don’t run much risk of rupturing the continuity of your experience, considering how little there can reasonably be. Despite its size, the show felt intimate, like a mansion hosting a cocktail party in which deep, discrete conversations cluster in corners; it feels like a dozen exhibitions in one. That can be a problem — as much as the Biennial is crafty and hands-on, it also brims with photography, video, and performance — but it can also be an opportunity. I’ll call the 2019 Biennial a best stab at the latter; it’s a place where traditional boundaries give way to an animating spirit of inclusion. All in, it seems like a good lesson for life: Even if we can’t agree on much, surely we can be in the same place at the same time without shouting one another down. Somebody call the White House.
Curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley act as good hosts, convening clusters of artists and works that play well together. On the sixth floor, I felt like an eavesdropper to a simmering revolutionary plan. Daniel Lind-Ramos’s big ramshackle totems, cobbled from burlap, coconut shells, cast-iron pots, and plastic tarps, preside over a meeting of minds between Eddie Arroyo’s dour, roughly painted street scenes of a single building in Miami’s Little Haiti transformed by gentrification, and Gala Porras-Kim’s cool canvases depicting the runes of an ancient, indecipherable language (really: The forms are taken from an untranslatable Epi-Olmec script found on a stone in 1986, now in a museum in Mexico).
Alongside Lind-Ramos and Arroyo, Porras-Kim’s glyphs feel like code for the coming revolution, a plan awaiting action, and Laura Ortman’s nearby video “My Soul Remainer” its call to arms, with the Apache artist wailing out an urgent dirge on her electric violin in the golden light of a high mountain plain. There was an energy, a portent — change about to come. I wouldn’t call it threatening, though Lind-Ramos’s “Maria-Maria” isn’t exactly friendly. It’s a virginal idol with a coconut head draped in a gown of blue tarp and named for the hurricane that ravaged his Puerto Rican home in 2017, to the White House’s apparent indifference. But as a grouping it feels unified — complaints registered not with reactive rage, but thought and purpose.
That alone would be novel in this fractious time, though this Biennial makes thoughtful purpose its hallmark. Galleries aren’t crowded; work has room to breathe. When different artists aren’t rubbing up against one another one another — huddling both conspiratorially and for communion — spaces seem to open up to host mini solo shows. Olga Balema’s spare sculptural forms with latex or fabric draped over steel skeletons remind me of a slightly spleenless version of Eva Hesse; Brendan Fernandes’s minimalist black jungle gym, populated by a pair of dancers, feels like a quietly apocalyptic pas de deux for the end of the world.
In a time deeply riven by identity politics and hyper-sensitivity to the inequities of race and class — and really, fair enough — the Biennial performs a delicate trick: It’s engaged and provocative without being pedantic or scolding; it’s thoughtful and plainspoken, planting its flag firmly without devolving into screed. Huge banners by Jeffrey Gibson, a Native American Choctaw-Cherokee artist from Colorado, display intricate beadwork and wry sloganeering. (A favorite: “STAND YOUR GROUND,” a pair of tapestries in rainbow color made of beads, fringe, copper jingles, and deer hide.) Nicholais Galinan, a Tlingit artist from Alaska, gives us a woven tapestry of a TV screen gone snowy called “White Noise,” which seems about right. Matthew Angelo Harrison, from Detroit, takes ersatz African idols made for the tourist trade and encases them in clear resin blocks — a tourist’s eye view of a living culture made conveniently dead for consumption, cast in amber.
Illana Harris Babou, with her hilariously cutting video series “Reparation Hardware,” creates acidic satire around compensating African-Americans for slavery, told through the contemporary branding strategy of glorifying a landed-gentry aesthetic in which wealth was often compounded by unsavory means like the slave trade (if you’ve been to the particular Restoration Hardware on Newbury Street, a temple of blithely genteel living, you’ll know exactly what she means.) Tomashi Jackson’s bright and sunny junk-composite tapestries — food wrappers, paper bags, storefront awnings, text and images embedded within — speak of a culture held together by precarious means, its history an act of will. Jackson’s “Home Town Buffet-Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise),” from 2019, is a monument to the razing of Seneca Village, founded by free black people in 1825, who were evicted to make way for the building of Central Park in 1857. With its echoes of today’s urban redevelopment, in which ethnic neighborhoods are routinely priced out to make way for condo towers, the piece uses history to condemn the present. Plus ca change.
President Trump, inevitably, turns up, though he never actually appears. On the fifth floor you’ll find Kota Ezawa’s video “National Anthem,” a towering animated film of football players kneeling while the Stars and Stripes plays (a protest against racialized violence that prompted Trump to call for them to be fired). There’s also Alexandra Bell, who redacts racialized language from newspaper stories to eerie effect. Here, she works over pages from the New York Daily News on the Central Park Five, five black teens who were wrongly convicted of raping a jogger in 1989. (Trump’s infamous full-page ad calling for “justice” and the death penalty — “maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done,” he told Larry King in an interview around that time — is among them.)
Both artists remind of the storm outside, that undying background noise of the current chaos of American life. It’s present, but kept at bay. In fact, as chock full of soft-spoken critical content as the Biennial is, you might wonder if it has any bombs to set off at all.
Well, yes, a few, and in an aha moment, the Biennial saves the sharpest barbs for itself.
A self-contained cube holds the video work of the London-based collective Forensic Architecture, which trained an algorithm to hunt for images of the Triple-Chaser, a tear gas canister manufactured by Defense Technology, a subsidiary of — wait for it — Safariland Group, whose owner, Warren B. Kanders, is also the vice-chair of the Whitney’s board. The Triple-Chaser has reportedly been used by the Israeli military against civilians in the occupied territories, and also right here at home by US agents along our southern border to keep hopeful asylum seekers at bay.
Protests against Kanders’s position on the board have been going on for months; dozens of museum staff and artists in the Biennial have called for his resignation, which didn’t happen (“I am not the problem,” he said recently). Forensic Architecture’s work wasn’t courted by the museum, but was chosen as part of an open call; in a fractious moment, it seems like an obvious choice that, at any other time, might have been curatorial career suicide. Instead, it folds into the Biennial long on thoughtfulness and short on fireworks as its one truly explosive moment. It’s hard to be critical without being self-critical, a hallmark of this Biennial like no other. Boom.
WHITNEY BIENNIAL 2019
At the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through Sept. 22. 212-570-3600, www.whitney.org