Photography in the Whitney Biennial 2019 @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): Work by 75 artists and collectives displayed across four floors of the museum as well as in a variety of other spaces in and around the building. The exhibition was curated by Whitney curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley. Among the artists in the show, 15 are photographers or artists/filmmakers whose work incorporates photographic images:

  • Alexandra Bell: installation comprising 20 photolithography-and-silkscreen prints on paper, 2019
  • Lucas Blalock: 1 billboard with augmented reality app, 2019; 3 color inkjet prints mounted on aluminum, dated between 2017 and 2019
  • John Edmonds: 17 black-and-white and color inkjet prints, dated between 2018 and 2019
  • Forensic Architecture: 1 high-definition video, color, sound, 26 min.
  • Ellie Ga: 3 high-definition videos, color, sound, 13:57 min., 12:30 min., and 12:04 min. respectively, 2019
  • Todd Gray: 3 wall reliefs comprising black-and-white and color inkjet prints in artist’s and found frames, dated between 2018 and 2019
  • Curran Hatleberg; 16 color inkjet prints, dated between 2013 and 2018
  • Tomashi Jackson: 3 mixed-media wall reliefs, 2019
  • Josh Kline: 8 mixed-media photo objects, 2019
  • Troy Michie: 4 mixed-media collages, 2019
  • Elle Perez: 9 pigmented inkjet prints, 2019
  • Carissa Rodriguez: 1 high-definition video, color, sound, 13.22 min., 2018; 1 silver gelatin print, 2018
  • Paul Mpagi Sepuya with additional works by Dicko Chan, James Garcia, Ariel Goldberg, Clay Kerrigan, Clifford Prince King, Giancarlo Montes Santangelo, Emerson Richard, A.L. Steiner, Peter Tomka and Derrick Woods-Morrow: 14 black-and-white and color inkjet prints, dated between 2017 and 2019
  • Heji Shin: 7 inkjet prints, dated between 2016 and 2018
  • Martine Syms: installation incorporating 8 color inkjet prints, 2019; 1 high-definition video, color, sound, 4:32 min., 2017; wall painting, 2019

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: As is traditional for this institution, the 2019 Whitney Biennial has been provoking criticism from various quarters of the art world—this time, ironically, for not being provocative enough. But while outwardly a more subdued affair than 2017’s raucous iteration, it’s a more radical exhibition than it initially appears, not least because its demographics—in a first for the Biennial, out of 75 artists and artist collectives, over 50 percent are nonwhite and half are women—reflect the very real waning, no matter how contested, of white male power in the art world and in the country as a whole.

The show may also be more activist than it seems. It addresses many of the same sociopolitical issues as its predecessor, but while that Biennial was conceived during the run-up to the 2016 election, this one comes two years into the Trump presidency. Given the daily onslaught of presidential provocations and untruths, the measured response—to, among other subjects, rising income disparity, rapid technological change, a looming environmental crisis, racial and gender inequality, and an uptick in nativist rhetoric across the globe—offered by many of the artists here may constitute less a retreat than an antidote.

For those exhausted by his antics, it will be a relief that Trump only appears (and obliquely at that) in only two works in the show. They include Alexandra Bell’s series of reproductions of New York Daily News articles about the 1989 Central Park Jogger case, in which five Latino and black teenagers were convicted—and later exonerated—of raping a white jogger. Redacting everything but the headlines, Bell emphasizes the racist overtones of the paper’s coverage of the trial. The final work in the series is an image of a full-page advertisement that ran at the time in the New York Times and other papers. Calling for a return of the death penalty, it was paid for and signed by Donald Trump.

For the most part, though, the show looks beyond Trump’s outrages in order to examine America’s broader societal, political, and economic structures. These include the art world; and, in Triple Chaser, a new film by Forensic Architecture, the governing body of the Whitney itself.

A research group founded by British-Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture gathers, analyzes, and presents forensic evidence of human rights violations around the world. In the past, for example, it has created it has created a virtual map of Syria’s notorious Saydnaya prison using sound memories from survivors’ sound memories and a timeline for the disappearance of 43 Mexican students in September 2014.

Triple Chaser, produced by Laura Poitras, follows on calls (including by one of the curators of this show) for Whitney trustee Warren B. Kanders, whose company, Safariland, manufactures tear gas, to resign from the museum’s board. It recounts how, through photographic training sets, Forensic Architecture has taught AIs to recognize the use of Safariland’s Triple Threat brand tear gas on civilians in countries from Turkey to Canada. Though the film is tough to watch (it includes video footage of people shot with bullets made by a Safariland subsidiary), the Whitney’s inclusion of it without asking for Kanders’s resignation effectively defangs it.

Another time-based art work exploring photography, though in a much more lyrical way, is Ellie Ga’s video triptych Gyre 1–3. A narrative touching on migration, the garbage gyres forming in our oceans, and the loss of family, the film consists of shots of the artist’s hands as she places and replaces photo transparencies—of maps, of beachcomber’s conventions, and of a book her brother gave her before his suicide—on a light box.

Carissa Rodriguez’s filmic meditation on art as an alternative asset class likewise essentially consists of a sequence of stills, first of Brancusi sculptures, and then of Sherrie Levine’s editioned appropriation of one of those sculptures, an egg-like sphere, as seen in the homes of high-net worth collectors. The video is accompanied by a photograph of frozen embryos, conjuring a parallel between the copying of original artworks and advances in reproductive technologies.

Apart from Forensic Architecture’s piece, about the only body of photographic work that employs digital techniques is by Lucas Blalock, an artist whose ham-handed use of basic—and no doubt long obsolete—Photoshop tools transforms quotidian subjects into subtly surreal images. Here, he presents a billboard (featuring variously morphed pictures of a donkey) that, when viewed though a custom app, presents four entertaining alternate narratives for his donkey subjects.

A digital avatar does appear in an installation by Martine Syms, whose signature mix of video, wall painting, and mysterious photographs—fragmentary images of such anodyne subjects as a young man sunning himself and a strip mall sign—are by now familiar to her fans. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, Syms conflates personal and sociopolitical concerns; here she muses on the science of threat assessment, invoking both the danger to black women’s bodies and to the minefields of ordinary communication.

Perhaps because photography lends itself to both reportage and to imaginative explorations of identity, the show includes a larger percentage of photographs and photo-based work than in past years. These tend to be formally, if not conceptually, conservative, and for the most part fall into one or the other of two categories: classic color and black-and-white photographs, or collages or assemblages that combine photographic imagery with other materials.

In the first group are John Edmonds’s elegant images of black models holding (or wearing) African tribal artifacts. Like Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s portraits—which likewise invoked Robert Mapplethorpe’s fetishistic photos of black men—and Lyle Ashton Harris’s funkier and rather stronger photographs, Edmonds’s reclaim a connection to such objects, historically appropriated by white Modernist artists.

Also concerned with the black male body are Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented studio photographs, in which large-scale photographic prints, intertwined limbs, and occluding curtains destabilize space and perception even as they heighten affect. Expanding on ideas of inclusivity and authorship, the group of pictures here is attributed to a long list of artists who participated in shoots, or took photos, in Mpagi’s studio.

Working in traditional documentary mode, Curran Hatleberg, who embeds himself in working class communities, presents an unvarnished look at the fly-over America forgotten by politicians. Elle Perez, whose graphic photographs of trans people evoke the early S&M photos of Catherine Opie, is represented by—for them, relatively staid—images that include a portrait of a person who has just undergone surgery on their adams apple, and a photograph of a woman, her breasts bound with plastic wrap, in a bathtub with her lover.

Heji Shin’s fabulous photographs of Kanye West buck political correctness. Unfortunately, they have been banished, without directions on how to find them, to the museum’s basement. Go look for them. Upstairs, she’s represented by her pictures of women giving birth, which though within Shin’s range, are no substitute for her more radical and boundary-defying work.

As others have noted, the ghost of Robert Rauschenberg haunts this show, which features collage and assemblage works by Troy Michie, in whose combines fragments of clothing and sewing patterns stand in for the body; Todd Gray, whose wall reliefs, comprised of overlapping framed photographs, recall John Baldessari’s but with an eye to diasporic narratives; and Tomashi Jackson, whose brilliant sculptural assemblages, variously recalling shopfront awnings and pieced quilts, explore, though the addition of vintage photographic images, the history of gentrification and seizure of property in New York City.

The opening works in this show, Josh Kline’s photographs—of a New York luxury high rise, an American flag, and Twitter’s offices in San Francisco—set in frames apparently filling with rising water, might also serve as its coda. Though they could be interpreted as a one liner about global warming, they can also be taken as a warning that the hour is late. If there is a message to this biennial, it is that we don’t need more investigation into the problems facing America—the facts are evident. And contra a number of this show’s critics, we don’t need to be offered solutions—just like the problems, they’re in plain sight.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad number of photographers included in this group show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation arrangements and secondary market histories.

Alexandra Bell, Carissa Rodriguez, Curran Hatleberg, Elle Pérez, Ellie Ga, Forensic Architecture, Heji Shin, John Edmonds, Josh Kline, Lucas Blalock, Martine Syms, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Todd Gray, Tomashi Jackson, Troy Michie, Whitney Museum of American Art

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