Woe is Whitney: Biennial is a dreary montage of headline blues

Alice Thorson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The Whitney Museum of American Art's 2008 Biennial exhibition is a worthy but trying affair.

Featuring works by 81 artists, this latest roundup of talents and trends is filled with market-thwarting constructions of cast-offs and construction materials, ho-hum photos and drab monochromatic paintings.

Collage is the dominant strategy.

Layered, fragmented compilations of images and objects assault the eye at every turn. The works engage current issues and realities, but rarely with passion.

And forget about wonder and visual delight.

The show's dreary spirit echoes the average American's sense of helplessness in the face of global corporate power, a steadily worsening economic picture and the Catch-22 of the Iraq war.

A video by Berlin-based Omer Fast includes the accidental shooting of an Iraqi among its themes.

Other works address unhappy chapters of social history - from William Cordova's architectural installation of wood beams evoking the room where the Chicago police killed two Black Panthers in 1969, to Spike Lee's film about Hurricane Katrina.

And there's a lot of looking back over art history.

Marcel Duchamp's readymades - ordinary objects chosen by the artist - loom large as inspiration for artists determined to opt out of the culture of consumerism.

Ry Rocklen displays sculptures made from a box spring and a wind sock, along with an arcing wall created from sun-bleached discount-store photographs.

Minimalism gets a ragtag renewal in Patrick Hill's elegant geometric constructions of wood, concrete, granite and glass draped with tie-dyed canvas, and Jedediah Caesar's resin-clad blocks of compressed cast-offs.

Injecting a rare note of humor, Los Angeles' Rodney McMillian plays with the macho pretensions of the heroic-scaled canvas in his wall-scaled expanse of black vinyl sewn with droopy phallic protuberances.

The exhibit's premise, articulated in the accompanying catalog by curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, is thoughtful and convincing. Echoes of the "small is beautiful" outlook and the "think locally, act globally" mantra of the environmental movement reverberate throughout these pages in ideas about an aesthetic of "lessness" and what essayist Rebecca Solnit calls "the idealism of the small."

Change, according to Solnit, is a step-by-step process, a "revolution of everyday life" involving "myriad acts and choices" by millions of individuals.

On the one hand, the artworks here represent ethical choices and notions of individual responsibility toward people, animals and the environment.

But they also, in Huldisch's analysis, reflect the absurdity and futility of the present moment. She invokes the final lines of Samuel Beckett's 1957 play, Endgame: "I can't go on. I'll go on" as "an apt image for the production of art today."

The line resonates with Charles Long's Giacometti-like figures based on configurations of blue heron droppings he photographed on the embankment of the Los Angeles River.

The materials chosen say a lot about these artists' state of mind.

An oversized cat box stands at the center of an installation by Amanda Ross-Ho; Mitzi Pederson exhibits a low wall created from broken cinderblocks sprinkled with glitter.

But when it comes to recycling found objects, nothing can top the exuberant installation evoking a wacky assembly line by the late Jason Rhoades. Littered with his signature "PeaRoeFoam" made of Styrofoam beads, dried peas and salmon eggs, the work takes aim at the whole production- consumption cycle.

Argentinean-born Mika Rottenberg brings feminism into the labor picture in her new film, "Cheese." Bizarre cannot begin to describe these scenes of long-haired farm women "milking" their tresses as well as the goats they tend and live with. To view the film, visitors navigate the artist's re-creation of a rustic goat pen.

A new work by Phoebe Washburn, the New York artist who created little garden stations beneath a cascade of wood flotsam at Kansas City's Kemper Museum, also stands out from the crowd. Her Whitney installation, which includes flowers, lamps, sprouting bulbs and lively bubbling aquariums of colored water, adds a needed touch of life.

New paintings by veteran abstractionist Mary Heilmann depart from the show's prevailing aesthetic, but the biggest anomaly is a roomful of Matthew Brannon's compelling little narrative prints borrowing from the conventions of graphic design and greeting cards.

The 2008 Biennial, which includes installations and events at the Park Avenue Armory, may not yield the usual lineup of new art stars. But it sets forth some intriguing propositions about our present cultural condition. If we're going to dig ourselves out, everyone is going to have to contribute. The "me-first" mentality is not sustainable - and, the way this show calls it, it's certainly not hip.



The show: 2008 Whitney Biennial

Where: Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. at 75th St., New York City

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday; 1 to 9 p.m. Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. The exhibit continues through June 1.

How much: $15 for adults; $10 for students and senior citizens. Free for children 11 and younger. Pay what you wish 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays.

For more information: (800 WHITNEY) or






A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.