The Whitney Biennial 2019: Is it Safe?

May 17–Sep 22, 2019

Calvin Marcus, “Conspiracy of Asses” (2018)

“…elegant but safe portrait of right now.” Andrew Russeth, Art News

“…why is this year’s show so safe?” Nadja Savej, The Guardian

“…missing a radical spirit” and “Some artists in the show identify as activists, but there are no revolutionaries among them.” Linda Yablonsky, The Art Newspaper

“Overwhelmingly, artists articulate a desire for a more equal and just society, though usually from a stakeless and safe vantage point.” Paddy Johnson, The Observer

Two immediate thoughts–Are the critics, those daredevils, taking risks we don’t know about? And if they know what radical and revolutionary art looks like, why won’t they tell us?

I have a radical ideaHow about smaller art that doesn’t take grand climate-controlled buildings to show in and therefore not need drug dealers and arms suppliers to pay for them?

And so, on to a few paintings in the Biennial.
What I mainly see are images.
Some are funny and well-composed like Conspiracy of Assesa silly meeting of donkeys. No idea if it’s a reference to the Democrats or Aesop and it doesn’t much matter because this is one of those paintings that is finished when the image is found. For the viewer, no reason to look at any particular part, no reason to move closer or farther away or to see the painting againwe get it at a glance.
Look what I found googling whether a meeting of donkeys has a mythical meaningnumber two of “30 interesting donkey facts”:
2. A donkey will never get involved in an activity if it considers it to be unsafe.”

Eddie Arroyo, “5825 2nd Ave, Miami FL, 33137” (2016)

5825… is the first of a series of three paintings of a corner in Arroyo’s neighborhood in Miami—it took me back to my own childhood in Tampa, around noon, nothing to do. The next two paintings offer diminishing returns—they become Hopper-ish functional illustrations of their self-described purpose: to document gentrification in his neighborhood. I never thought I’d say this but a series of photographs works better to get this kind of thought across.
The third iteration of this building on the corner is of a cutesy Spanish restaurant—I’m jealous; in my neighborhood the third tenant is always a TD Bank or a CVS.

Janiva Ellis, “Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet” (2019)

Uh, Oh… is widescreen technicolor anime. An action figure runs down a river holding— saving or stealing— a baby-like Id. These two characters are worth studying and the baby’s face especially is complex and animated. The rest of the painting is what is called in traditional animation “the background” which would stay the same over several cels as the figures move across it. In a film we wouldn’t have time to look at it. In a painting we do and it takes up a great deal of the space of a very large painting and seems to be painted perfunctorily from a projection. A prone figure along the bottom edge, two torsos conjoined, of a woman and a knight, is particularly static; they literally have no legs. There is an odd exception— an area middle left where the plants on the hillside are painted in a more exciting vivid way.
Paintings can be animated too, but they have to either force or lure the viewer’s eyes to move.

Jennifer Packer, “Untitled” (2019)

Packer’s Untitled does lure my eyes around and gives them something to do, which is to try to make sense of the physical space of the painting. The seated man in green shorts is contained and powerful like the aspidistra plant on the top right, and the standing woman connects to the hanging pothos deep center. It is exciting the way the pink wash comes and goes in the painting, becoming a drip curtain at the bottom edge. What interrupts the pleasure of this in and out is the awkward, harsh painting of the man’s right hand and the foot and hand of the woman. I also couldn’t help but notice that the aspidistra is really the only place the painter lets herself go. I wonder if it has anything to do with her desire “to present or protect humans in the work.”

Jeanette Mundt, “Born Athlete American: Laurie Hernandez I” (2018)

I am thinking about why Mundt would choose to paint this photograph (see below).  In addition to increasing the staccato effect of the walkover flip, the acrobat appears stronger and more powerful. When I first saw it, in another show, I supposed that it was a tribute to the athlete and part of artists’ efforts to understand and portray explosive motion.

Photographs by Jeremy White; composite image by Sergio Peçanha and Jon Huang

Going to the wall text as one does (partly to find out the artist’s intentions and partly to try and figure out what kind of political statement they are illustrating that the curators approve of) I find:
“By disrupting the regimented temporality of the original photos in this way, she hints at the complex systems—nationalist, sexist, and technocratic—underpinning the Olympics, the sport of gymnastics, and the media covering them.
Of course I have read many articles  that more than hint at the horrorshow of women’s gymnastics but somehow I hope my first reading of the painting is true too. Otherwise Hernandez is only a victim and no master of the balance beam is only that.


Marlon Mullen, “Untitled” (2018)

The wall text states Marlon Mullen communicates mostly nonverbally.”  Thank God for that! Because it’s maybe the only work in the entire Biennial that does.  (The wife said, “But there are words in the painting…”)
No they aren’t words, they are a painting of words.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus

Postscript—a few days after seeing the Biennial, I went to the Tintoretto show in Washington. These paintings were radical in the 1500s and surprising even today because, in addition to their literal subject, they depict a world that is motion and constant change. Every figure has just moved into its present position and will not be there long and even in the portraits, where the body is at rest, the head has just turned to you and the eyes have just met yours.

Needless to say but I can’t help myself, the painters and curators of the Biennial are putting too much emphasis on the literal subject.



30 Interesting Donkey Facts