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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.

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ON EXHIBIT

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 whitney.org

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