Photography in the Whitney Biennial 2014 @Whitney

Part of the reason there is such consistent angst surrounding the Whitney Biennial is that it offers such a tantalizing set of opportunities. To step out into the fray and make a statement about the freshest contemporary art of the past two years is a risky endeavor, fraught with the challenges of seeing patterns in data that is inherently conflicting and noisy. But this is what makes it so exhilarating and exciting – we’re ardently hoping that this landmark show will tell us something meaningful about the art of the present, so much so that we often place unrealistic expectations on its ability to collapse complexity into insight.

Unfortunately, the Whitney Biennial has wandered so far off course in the past decade that it no longer remotely resembles the ideal that we all carry in our heads. It’s not just about art made in the past two years, it’s not just American art (as the museum’s title/mission would normally indicate), it’s not organized by the Whitney curators and does not reflect their opinion of the art of this moment, and it’s not even a singular voice, but a collection of interleaved and often competing visions. No wonder we have such an easy time picking it apart – it’s become a collection of seemingly disconnected group shows put together by outsiders. More broadly, without any boundaries or definitional edges, we’ve become skeptical that the Biennial can answer our urgent questions, and so we enter ready to be disappointed instead of feverish with anticipation.

None of this year’s curators (Stuart Comer, Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, Anthony Elms, Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and Michelle Grabner, artist and Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago) comes from a particular position of strength in terms of photographic knowledge, so it isn’t at all surprising that their selections could so thoroughly miss the disruptions going on in contemporary photography. There are a few flashes of connection to important photographic issues of the day – the object/sculptural quality of photographs, the investigation of photographic archives, etc. – but clearly, photography and its dizzying explosion and evolution over the past two years were not a centerpiece in the minds of any of these esteemed curators.

What follows is a slideshow of the photography that is presented here, with some short description and commentary for each artist/image. While to my eye this group isn’t remotely representative of the current status of contemporary photography (even in the smartest of its selections), it does offer some indirect clues to how those outside the photography bubble slot the medium into the larger framework of contemporary art. So ponder these choices not as an authoritative voice on the status of the medium, but as a set of photographic tangents that can potentially connect you to some unexpected ideas.

Zoe Leonard: Leonard has created a room-sized camera obscura in one of the galleries, playing on the bulk of the Marcel Breuer building and effectively bringing the street into the gallery. If you’ve never seen a camera obscura before, the effect is thoroughly magical, inverting the outside view on the wall across from the oculus. That said, if you have seen one before (and most photography people have), this one isn’t much different – and it’s hard to defend how this is a special “Zoe Leonard camera obscura” as opposed to one made by anyone else.

Sarah Charlesworth: The recently deceased Charlesworth is represented by this crisp inverted camera/tripod diptych (from 2009) and another diptych of a silhouetted figure (appropriated from Picabia) stepping on a ball, looking toward an image of Venus in the other panel (from 2012). Frustratingly, since her death, her work has received a burst of attention that it deserved during her life.

Dawoud Bey: Bey’s paired photographs reconsider the 1963 Birmingham killings via strong, frontal portraits of African Americans who are the same ages as the victims and those of adults at the ages that the victims would have been in 2012, creating an interlocked, collapsed view of time. There are two diptychs on view (one male and one female, both from 2012), as well as a portrait of President Obama from 2008, hung alongside the explanatory text for the fourth floor.

Stephen Berens: These landscapes of Rome (taken in 2005), superimposed on top of each other sequentially, create a shifting, darkening effect. It’s a generative system as applied to photography, outputting both order and disorder as it goes through its additive permutations.

Fred Lonidier: These two large scale panels chronicle Lonidier’s installation of photographs on the side of a tractor trailer, exposing the plight of light industry factory workers in Tijuana. A second installation of 1970s era photo-printed t-shirts criticizes the business practices of camera/film maker GAF. Both exemplify his guerilla use of photography outside the normal parameters of a gallery space.

Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft: These dark images (there are a total of 11 on view, all from 2014, plus an unrelated video) are computer-generated recreations of mythical plants from the 15th century Voynich manuscript. They follow in the conceptual footsteps of Joan Fontcuberta’s constructed Herbarium series, but using updated technology to explore long unanswered mysteries and mythologies.

Tony Greene: This small installation of thickly overpainted images of taxidermy and male bodies made in 1990 (11 works in a single room) was organized by Richard Dawkins and Catherine Opie (Greene’s classmates at CalArts). It also features an Opie photograph of Greene’s studio wall. How this work from 25 years ago (amid the AIDS epidemic) fits into the contemporary dialogue is less clear, even though its gestural mixed media approach has resonances with the process-centric techniques of some of today’s photographic artists.

Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst: This two-wall installation of 46 individual color prints tracks the simultaneous transitions of a transgendered couple as they move in opposite directions (one man to woman, the other woman to man, over the period of 2008-2013). The images have the intimacy and immediacy of Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans, capturing the nuances of changing identities.

A.L. Steiner: This eye-catching photographic installation full of casual nudes is mostly a backdrop for the video (More Real Than Reality, from 2014) being shown on the accompanying screens. It mixes families and relationships with more overt political activism.

David Wojnarowicz: This late 1980s image provides one of the starting points for Julie Ault’s curated installation. (The room also includes works by Danh Vo and a variety of other collected ephemera.) It’s an example of photography as part of a broader archival/historical exercise, rather than as stand alone artwork.

Triple Canopy: This installation uses photography as one tool in a layered investigation of the changing nature of artistic representation and reproduction, starting with folk paintings and ending up with 3D printed replicas of early American furniture.

Gary Indiana: This installation is dominated by a large LED curtain, displaying footage of a prison in Cuba modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon. This array of black and white portraits of male prisoners (many nude) is matched with a video of jellyfish, ostensibly tying them together as rapidly expanding populations.

Public Collectors: Photographs are a small part of this installation of artifacts from the life of Malachi Ritscher. Mixed with ephemera from his interest in jazz and his protests against the Iraq War, they are another example of the impulse to investigate and examine archives in contemporary art, with photography as just one piece of the larger puzzle.

Academy Records (Stephen Lacy) with Matt Hanner: These small photographs/postcards could not have been placed in a more out of the way location, tucked back into a darkened hallway. They contribute to a larger installation of sound, light, and film.

Carol Jackson: This sculpture (from 2013) includes an embedded photograph, taken from a National Park Service webcam. It’s as if this roughly physical object has been broken open to reveal the slice of wildfire imagery.

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Read more about: A.L. Steiner, Academy Records (Stephen Lacy), Carol Jackson, Catherine Opie, Danh Vo, David Wojnarowicz, Dawoud Bey, Fred Lonidier, Gary Indiana, Julie Ault, Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Public Collectors, Sarah Charlesworth, Stephen Berens, Tony Greene, Triple Canopy, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Zoe Leonard, Whitney Museum of American Art

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