I am not an art aficionado—far from it. My list of “favorite” artists reads like a who’s who on the shelves of standard and obvious: Monet, Rodin, Chagall, Gaguin, Hopper, and Homer. It’s uncreative, un-edgy, and very un-modern. And yet every two years, I make my way to an unspectacular section of Madison Ave (unless of course, you have spare cash to drop at Kors or Cavalli) with the wannabe progressive masses to partake in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial Exhibition, a roundup of what matters NOW in contemporary art.
Biennial 2006’s theme was a riff off a Francois Truffaut film “Day to Night.” I’ve never seen it but am fairly certain 80% of New York’s arty, anti-Establishment filmmaker wannabes feign reverence to Truffaut. His film demonstrates how special filters are used to create night scenes that are shot during the day. I read that off the entrance to the exhibition. My first thought: I get it. It’s a metaphor! OMG, art is about manipulation! No Effen WAY!
Forgive me my bitterness and sarcasm. But sometimes art is pretty…and sometimes art is pretentious. There's a reason the stereotype exists. I guess I tend to find things like…oh, say…a blank canvas less profound and more profoundly lazy. Let me guess, that’s supposed to represent the emptiness in our culture? What. Ever.
Nonetheless, I navigated the exhibition’s varied offering--paintings, sculpture, photography, mixed-media installations, and what not--looking for that fine line between pretty and pretty absurd.
Things I found pretty:
--Graphite drawings and watercolors by Jennie Smith: I can’t forget Smith’s simple and exquisitely delicate renderings of animals patterned into their various natural habitats. I lingered on these drawings, teasing out the subliminal messages tangled in her details, gently imploring for ecological collaboration and social change.It's a daring demand bathed in subtle tones. And to think that Smith is barely 25 years old. I felt inadequate while admiring her work.
--Florian Maier-Aichen’s photographs of the Los Angeles landscape which he imbues with bold washes of reds and blues, making the pictures pop in such a beautiful way, I couldn’t ignore it.
--Paul Chan’s elegiac digital animation of falling and rising images projected diagonally onto the floor of a darkened room. Listening to the audio commentary, the Whitney’s curators warned that Chan’s piece invoked memories of 9/11—while ordinary objects (like a bicycle) ascend up into the sky, shadowy bodies drop quickly downwards...giving me chills.
Audio commentaries are awesome. They don't just give voice to the artists and curators behind the pieces...but provide ample material for which I can mock and laugh at. Listening to their lengthy and sometimes crazy confusing explanations, I couldn't help but smirk...on the outside.
Things I found pretty funny:
--Urs Fischer's installation of torn down walls were...well, they were literally Torn Down Walls. um...if the Whitney wanted someone to go ape shit in its space, I would have been happy to come in and wreck a few walls. It would have been great stress relief. But no...I am not an artist. These walls provided a broken perimeter for Fisher's centerpiece display: two metal rods with a candle flickering on one end, rotating at a measured pace so that the dripping wax formed thick circles on the floor. hmmm...interesting. it just made me wanna test the security guard and blow those candles out.
--Sheep. Recorded eating on a grassy expanse by the water. Sheep. that's it. that's all it was and that's all I have to say. its mean that I laughed, yes...because the artist was sooooooo earnest in his commentary, explaining the wonderful coincidence of seeing the sheep and the spontaneity of grabbing his video camera to film them, non-coercively. Just filming the sheep doing their thing. Dude...what do i need to do to get a video in the Whitney? Film me, doing nothing. okay, wait...scratch that...that came out wrong.
And speaking of wrong...one artist, I can't remember her name...but she painted a "sculpture box" cartoonishly depicting two naked people engaged in sex. There's a big hard penis and everything. But the woman's head is removed and replaced with a video of the artist's face...stimulating herself. um, yeah. i wouldn't have known that if i didn't listen to her commentary because the video was fuzzy and muted. but now that i do know, i found it highly irresponsible to see parents showing their children this video, even pointing out the penis and the cooch. call me old-fashioned, but a seven year old does NOT need to know what a clitoris is. and yes, i did hear a mother explain that to her child. NYC parents are waaaaaaaayyy too hip for me.
The biennial closes really soon (May 28) so get to it if you want a few hours of hilarious confusion mixed with a few minutes of true insight.