Today marks the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the museum’s every-other-year state-of-the-union on art in America. It’s the last Biennial before the Whitney moves from its signature Breuer building and the first to show off their new identity and logo, and transition seems to be the main guiding force. There’s a sense of celebratory mayhem to it all, driven partially by the decision to split the curatorial duties, with three curators instead of the typical one each taking over a floor of the museum. The end result is less a single show and more three open browser tabs with popups of performance scheduled to happen throughout the space. But in 2014, that’s its own type of coherence, like settling in to the ambient chaos that has become a fixture of our everyday lives. Which is to say its great: packed with work from a wide range of perspectives and mediums. To help make sense of it all here are five of The FADER’s favorite moments.
Very much in the spirit of transition are the painted flatscreen TVs by Ken Okiishi. Aptly titled “gesture/data,” the sideways screens project digitally transferred video footage beneath some messy oil paint scribbled on the glass surface. It’s a simple setup that suggests a lot. The paintings’ first read is something about data and the difference in resolution between the creamy texture of the paint and the sharp digital light. The sideways screens certainly have the look and feel of oversized iPhones, which can lead down the rabbit hole of conversation on attention span, information overload, or the differences and similarities between digital experience and the feeling of touch. But mostly its just cool that someone painted on a TV and someone else chose to put it in an important art show.
Picture Peewee’s playhouse but more queer and unhinged. This is the room by the Norwegian born, New York based Bjarne Melgaard, known for building subversive mixed-media environments that pair deranged cultural references with fetish imagery. Sort of like pop by a sociopathic outsider. Presented as disorder, Melgaard’s juggalo yard sale is actually a tightly controlled experience, albeit unsettling. The room is carpeted and packed with swinger-era couches, more flat screen TVs, larger than life plush monsters, several life-sized sex dolls in various poses and a pillow with Skrillex’s face on it. If that gets to be too much, you can sit in one of the chairs and put on the provided headphones and goggles with the lenses blacked out, though the feeling of sensory deprivation among the anarchy is more panic inducing than anything else.
Kevin Beasley is one of the fresher faces in this year’s Biennial. A recent graduate of the Yale MFA program, Beasley has started to make a name for himself with live sound-based work including last year’s “Listening Room,” a sort of artist DJ night at the Studio Museum in Harlem for which he was both curator and performer, and which also included a performance by GHETTO GOTHIK’s Venus X. Here, he is showing one of his found object sculptures which, similar to his DJ sets, deal in themes of identity via style. Splayed out on an unassuming section of the gallery floor, “Untitled (Jumped Man)” is centered around a pair of oversized Air Jordans that Beasley has filled with a brown mixture of polyurethane foam, resin, and coat lining that oozes out and around the sneakers. It’s grotesque, but in many ways the real tension comes from the fact the bootleg Jordans’ unclear pedigree. Are they Jordan 5s? 6s? The details are fuzzy, not quite right.
An interesting theme in this year’s show is the inclusion of non-artists like Academy Records and the book publisher Semiotext(e). One such entry is Triple Canopy a nonprofit, internet-based art and theory magazine also know for hosting performances and artist talks and publishing the occasional old-school book. For a group of writers, editors and curators whose practice bridges digital and IRL space, it seems fitting that their contribution here concerns itself with how images can be broken down to digital information and the reconstituted in physical form through various types of printing. The works they present are all reproductions of paintings and furniture from the collection of Colonel Edgar Williams and Bernice Chrystler Garbisch, a portion of which is owned by the Whitney. The most striking are the 3D-printed and refabricated wash basin stands at the center of the room, which give the uncanny sense of having been beamed in from the archive by way of the Star Trek transporter.
One of the most talked-about pieces in the 2014 Biennial is sure to be Zoe Leonard’s room-sized camera obscura. Leonard primarily deals in photography, both found and original, and has recently started experimenting with camera obscuras—a 19th century invention that uses a camera lens to project an image of the outside world. In a darkened room on the 4th floor, Leonard affixed her lens to the museums iconic trapezoidal window, effectively projecting Madison Avenue onto the gallery wall. This is an especially pointed implementation considering the air of farewell to the building that has come to define the Whitney since it opened in 1966, but the feeling achieved in the space is not one of nostalgia. Instead, it presents a living, breathing outside world, one that functions with or without art biennials or “curated” anything, one generated by an unwitting collective, a world far more compelling and magnificent than the sum of its parts.