By design, The Whitney Biennial is a sonogram into the heartbeat of American art at a particular moment. The curators scour the country for a year and a half, visiting studios, galleries and schools with the idea that if enough voices are gathered up we can hear what this vast country is saying about itself.
The 2019 version is the first Biennial (running at the Whitney Museum, to September 22) since Donald Trump became president—and he is an unavoidable presence, the water we can’t help but swim in as we wonder why everything has gotten so wet.
Trump has loomed over the art world in the same way he has loomed over the rest of the world. It’s not just the fleshy Rubenesque Trumps that in papier-mâché and plastic form show up at marches, or artists like Robin Bell, who has become something of a celebrity for projecting anti-Trump messages and images onto various Trump-related properties.
Check out any corner of artworld Instagram and it’s enough to make the most vitriolic Bernie Bro blush: paintings, drawing, sculptures of Trump in all manner of compromised positions, missing various body parts or with too many body parts, bile oozing out of every orifice. When artists are goofing around in the studio and uploading the results, they work with the subtlety of a sledgehammer slung by a steroidal teenager.
The curators of the Biennial, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, however find an art world that is looking past this current political moment, or at least looking away from it.
“While we often encountered heightened emotions,” the two write of their year-and-a-half-long effort to put together the Biennial in an introduction on each of the show’s floors. “They were directed toward thoughtful and productive experimentation, the re-envisioning of self and society, and political and aesthetic strategies for survival. Although much of the work presented here is steeped in sociopolitical concerns, the cumulative effect is open-ended and hopeful.”
They find artists turning their attention back to craft, to artists who “emphasize the physicality of their materials” suggesting a “rejection of the digital and the related slick, packaged presentation of the self in favor of more individualized and idiosyncratic work.”
But in a museum full of showstoppers, the piece that kept me in one place the longest was digital and slick, and neither open-ended nor hopeful.
In Extended Stay, Carolyn Lazard, a 32-year-old Philadelphia-based artist, simply mounts a plastic white armature onto the wall and sticks a flat screen on the other end of it. It looks like something that would be mounted to a hospital bed to keep a patient docile and entertained, and in fact, it probably was.
The screen is wired for cable television, and so gives viewers whatever someone in an actual hospital bed is watching. It skips around the vast universe of cable television seemingly at random. I caught snippets of some kind of religious program that airs on the outer reaches of the dial on a Tuesday afternoon, and a nature show.
This is how we actually live in America in 2019: strapped in, unable or unwilling to look away, while the universe serves up all kinds of bullshit nonsense. The piece is not about Trump, I guess, but it certainly seems to me to be about living in Trump’s America, where we are all sick, passing random time with low-quality entertainments.
It was something I noticed again and again; if American art is trying to move past Trump, or imagine a post-Trump future, or simply ignore him, it is impossible to do so. All art for now is art of the Trump era, and must wrestle with the turns that the nation has taken. To step outside of it is no more possible than for a fish to walk on shore. There is no other world, and there is no way to escape.
Some artists in the Biennial come at this present moment, if not directly, at least from the side and with a palpable whack to the midsection. Kota Ezawa, a San Francisco-based Japanese-German artist has three watercolors and a video piece of football players kneeling during the national anthem. They are soft-focused, and almost child-like in their application, but a reminder of the tumult of the last couple of years.
Alexandra Bell, a Brooklyn-based multi-media artist whose work often addresses media representation of marginalized communities, screen-prints New York Daily News headlines and articles from the Central Park Five case in 1990.
She highlights words the tabloid used to strip the young men, all of whom were later found to be innocent, of their humanity: “Wolf Pack’s Prey” screams one headline; elsewhere they are called “Savage” and are describing as having told themselves that fateful night, “Let’s go get a woman.” The series ends with the full-page ad Trump took out, long before he was a presidential contender, calling for their execution, something he has never disavowed, even as they were proven to be wrongfully convicted.
What is more striking however is how even the work that is not supposed to be about Trump, or about our current moment, is still about Trump and our current moment—and how it still serves as a rebuke to the noise emanating from the White House.
“White Noise, American Prayer Rug,” by the Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin sure looks like a statement about an always-on president who attempted to ban Muslims from entering the country, even as Galanin, who has Tlingit/Aleut ancestry and whose work mostly explores the line between native and non-native identity, was likely working in another register.
Robert Bittenbender, a 31-year-old artist who grabs detritus from the street and mashes it together on the wall in a miasma of coils, springs, pieces of rubber and discarded shopping cart parts, has been praised for his winking homage to the art of the East Village in the '50s and '60s, but it is hard not to read it as a comment on our own over-consumptive life, on what we leave behind as we move through our days.
It is the perfect metaphor for our moment: we believe all the stuff we are leaving in our wake is just going to the landfill, but of course nothing goes away for good. It just sticks around, waiting to be assembled anew.