Photography in the Whitney Biennial 2017 @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A large group show containing works from 63 artists/collectives, displayed across four floors of the museum and in other adjacent locations (stairwells, outdoors, shop, etc.). The exhibit was curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks.

The following photographers (or artists working in photography/video) have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their process and dates as background:

  • An-My Lê: 7 inkjet prints, 2016
  • Deana Lawson: 6 inkjet prints, 2016, 2017
  • Oto Gillen: 1 HD video, silent, color, 107 minutes, 2015-present
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: 2 MiniDV to digital video with 4 silk panels, 1 3-channel video, 1 2-channel Hi8 video, 2016
  • John Divola: 8 inkjet prints, 2007, 2008
  • Dorian Ulises López Macias: 5 inkjet prints, 2013, 2014, 2015 (as part of Rafa Esparza’s installation)

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: For photography watchers, the Whitney Biennial always offers an intriguing case study on what the medium looks like to outsiders. The landmark every-other-year survey of contemporary American art is generally organized by curators who are not photography specialists, and so their photographic choices are by definition mediated by both their familiarity with the specifics of the cutting edge of the medium and their own views of where photography fits in the larger sweep of recent artistic activity.

In years past, this mindset has mostly led to an uneven selection of photography, where the included photographs have often failed to represent the important trends in recent work and instead singled out worthy examples that fit the large thematic constructs or conceptual ideas that ran through the various shows. This inevitably led to the conclusion that the photographic choices were made top down (framework first, examples later) rather than bottom up (key works first, and the thread that ties them together later), perhaps due to a lack of awareness of the nuances of what had been happening inside the bubble of photography.

When we split out the photography in the 2017 Whitney Biennial from the rest of the artworks on view, the main thing that stands out is that none of the photographs interrogate or explore anything digital or networked. Aside from the back end technologies of capture and printing at work, all of the photographs in this show could have been made decades ago with standard analog technology. There is no overt software manipulation, no digital mark making, no image/object duality or unusual materials, no image appropriation, combination, or reuse, and in short, no interest shown in these many new threads of photographic exploration. At the highest level, the photographs on view are all truthful pictures of people and places, and while there is some subtle staging going on in a few cases, these photographs are fundamentally “about” their content rather than their processes or circulation.

If there is any overall feel to this particular Whitney Biennial, it is a simultaneous mood of thoughtful confidence and persistent anxiety. The confidence resides in the curatorial work and the installation – the show feels well-edited, deliberately connected, and broadly expansive, the roominess of the spaces allowing for clusters of work to be shown and for intriguing pairings and dialogues to develop. The anxiety comes from the interrelated undercurrents found in the works themselves – racial injustice, financial inequality, social uncertainty (especially with gender and sexuality), and political resistance all make forceful appearances. The curators have rightly recognized that this is a historical moment of layered cultural friction, and have selected artists in all mediums who are engaging with different facets of these wider issues and concerns.

So when we turn back to the photography, what we find is work that largely socially aware, and that centers its inquiries into how individuals and communities interact given the context (and history) of the world around them. An-My Lê has spent time in modern day Louisiana, capturing strong single frame vignettes that seem to encompass the fraught relationship between past and present that simmers in the humid air. Her subject matter is constantly uneasy – an obscured monument to a Confederate general, a house of prayer disturbed by road construction, a stale swamp punctuated by a dead tree, a burning field of sugar cane – and the reasons for that tension are many and long standing. In these works, the smoky, explosion-filled Civil War film set offers layers of deeply ingrained social nuances, while the cellphone store with the graffiti scrawl of “fuck this racist asshole president” cuts more bluntly.

Deana Lawson gets in closer with her portraits of African-American families, but her piercing pictures have similar layers of dissonance and muted personal conflict. A nude Nicole poses seductively on the floor with baby toys stacked neatly behind her, swaggering shirtless young men show off their gang hand signs, and bleary eyed Uncle Mack cradles his shotgun with tenderness, each straining to create identity within the available circumstances. Lawson’s most complex image centers on a father cradling a baby, and while this may represent the man he wants to be, the nearby details (the inspirational poster, the African history timeline, the tinfoil over the window, and the friend with a wad of cash) allude to a more complicated story.

Two artists, Lyle Ashton Harris and Oto Gillen, use diaristic still-photographs-as-video projects to document the shifting world around them. Harris intermingles candids from black activism and contemporary art circles with more personal portraits of friends and lovers, mixing party pictures with fiery speeches and panels to tease out the current environment of cultural and political engagement. And Gillen lingers near the World Trade Center site, making straightforward images that tap into the rhythms of the rebuilding community. In each, the pictures capture not just individual moments but a process over time, where collective energy pushes toward change.

John Divola’s photographs from his Abandoned Paintings series are the only photographic works in the show that really step out of this social consciousness mold. Once again using the neglected and decaying buildings of Southern California as his artistic playground, he has installed leftover student paintings amid the rubble and stained walls, exploring the formalism of the flattened geometric spaces. The “death of painting” metaphor is ready at hand, but it is the interplay of surfaces that is of interest here. Paint gives way to corrugated tin, silver insulation and wood framing flank see-through holes in sheetrock, and doorways telescope into layers of depth, each image a study in spatial control and unexpected juxtaposition.

Given the strength of the rest of what is on view in this vibrant Whitney Biennial, it is difficult to give the exhibition a “go for the photography” kind of recommendation – there just isn’t enough photo-based work included to merit such a pronouncement, and the aggregate power of the works in other mediums generally overwhelms the isolated impact of the photography. But the images by An-My Lê and Deana Lawson undeniably provide consistent photographic firepower, and the pictures by John Divola are an inspired but seemingly skew addition to the overall flow, so there are certainly highlights to search out. In the end, the show misses the opportunity to bring more experimental boundary-breaking photography into the contemporary mix, but maybe this omission indirectly tells us something important – if cutting edge photographic work is going to be urgently relevant to the wider artistic discussion, maybe it needs to make more of an effort to reconnect to the messiness of human existence.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. The included photographers are represented by the following galleries:

  • An-My Lê: was Murray Guy (here), but the gallery is now closed
  • Deana Lawson: Sikkema Jenkins (here)
  • Oto Gillen: Eli Ping Frances Perkins (here)
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: David Castillo Gallery (here)
  • John Divola: Gallery Luisotti (here)
  • Dorian Ulises López Macias: unknown

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Read more about: An-My Lê, Deana Lawson, Dorian Ulises López Macias, John Divola, Lyle Ashton Harris, Oto Gillen, Whitney Museum of American Art

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Insightful review. The Photographers’ Gallery in London went in for a very similar curating strategy in the 80’s and 90s. It was rarely about ideas in photography but how a gallery could serve as a platform for ‘social work’.

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