Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing work from 63 artists and collectives, variously displayed on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th floors of the museum. The show was co-curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with details on the specific works included, as available:

  • Mónica Arreola: 5 digital photographs, 2018
  • Buck Ellison: 3 inkjet prints, 2021
  • Pao Houa Her: 4 inkjet prints, 2017; 8 inkjet prints 2016; 8 inkjet prints, 3 lenticular prints, 2017
  • Daniel Joseph Martinez: 5 color photographs, accompanied by 5 text panels, no date/process information provided
  • Alejandro “Luperca” Morales: 36 novelty keychains containing 35mm slides, 2020-
  • Guadalupe Rosales: 4 archival pigment prints, 2022, framed in silver engraved frames; 5 archival pigment prints, 2022

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: With the potential end point of the pandemic perhaps slowly coming into view, it’s already easy for most of us to make a list of how COVID forced us to fundamentally adapt our everyday routines. But we’re only starting to more fully comprehend how years of mask wearing, isolation, travel bans, remote learning and working, and other social and economic adaptations have changed us psychologically. We’re different now than we were before, that’s clear, but it will probably be years before we fully come to grips with all the ways that the pandemic asked us to reevaluate the priorities in our lives.

After its own pandemic-induced delay, the Whitney Biennial arrives in 2022 (in its 80th iteration) with the promise of some artistic responses to our recent years of trauma. As the most prominent biennial survey of contemporary American art, the Whitney Biennial has often (if not always) been a source of contention – taking stock of the cutting edge of art in America in real time is a task inherently fraught with complexity, and whoever makes the choices and however they are made, the resulting exhibit is inevitably a source of active discussion and debate. Given the sprawling diversity of this country and its art, there is no way to find the “right” answer to the queries of what’s artistically exciting, important, original, or even new, and so the minute the show opens, the critical wolves typically descend to pick apart the show’s apparent weaknesses and omissions.

Photographically, an analytical deconstruction of the exhibit is always relatively straightforward, as the Whitney Biennial isn’t a survey of contemporary photography, but of contemporary art much more broadly defined, and so photography is only one small part of the story being told. As a result, the exhibit hardly ever samples all of the important trends or key artists making an impact in contemporary photography at any one moment; most often, the show enters the medium from an oblique angle, catches a facet or two of interest or follows themes or motifs that connect bodies of work, but often misses whole areas of durable importance to those watching from inside the photography bubble. As seen in the last few outings (2019 (reviewed here), 2017 (reviewed here), and 2014 (reviewed here)), the show is often photographically uneven, in some cases even downright photographically mystifying, which is of course to be expected, given the constraints and priorities of the curatorial exercise.

But the looking-for-structural-faults mindset is one of the things that felt altogether recalibrated as I entered the museum for this year’s Biennial. Mostly, I just felt gratitude and relief that we were back again for another installment in this collective artistic journey. I also wondered if my own personal shocks, losses, failures, and muddle throughs of the past two years might show up in the art of others – how was the experience of the pandemic the same or different for these artists? After a quick run through, it became clear that photographically, we were once again in a place of at best partial engagement. But instead of focusing on what or who was missing (as an example, no Black photographers?), my post-pandemic eye was largely interested in what themes and voices felt like they actually hit the target – in an important and clarifying sense, what went right, rather than what went wrong.

When we strip away the photographic adjacent mediums of film/video (and there is a lot of video on display here), documentation of performance art, and some forms of native digital art and digital painting, limiting ourselves to the core of what we call photography, there are only six photographers represented in this entire show, and these six can actually be grouped into essentially two thematic ideas. So is this a cross section of noteworthy photographic responses to the pandemic, or to the other singular events of the past few years? Not even remotely. But, that said, the photography that has been included here does its job effectively, and the questions and ideas that these photographs raise are worth considering.

One of the broad realities of the pandemic era is that we were all forced to actively re-evaluate what we thought of as home; whether we were locked down in one version of home or prevented from visiting another, the personal importance of place was heightened, and three of the photographers included in the Biennial wrestle with these issues. Interestingly, all three have a Latinx or Mexican perspective, making the definition of American art fluid enough to include some works made south of the border.

Guadalupe Rosales calls East Los Angeles her home, and her pandemic-era photographs found her returning to places around town that meant something to her as a teenager. Rosales is perhaps best known for her excellent 2018 photobook MAP POINTZ (reviewed here) which took an archival look at Latinx life in East LA in the 1990s. In her new pictures, she wanders the empty streets at night, reliving memories and familiar locations, including the place where her cousin was shot. Lit by hazy streetlights and the light of the moon, the pictures have an echoing, ghostly air, the mix of freedom and violence weighing heavily in the pandemic-amplified quiet.

Alejandro “Luperca” Morales’ pandemic backstory is more literal – prevented from traveling to his hometown of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico and visiting his family during the border closure, he decided to make a portrait of the city using images drawn from Google Maps. The ongoing drug war and the violence along the border have created a certain stereotypical image of Juárez, and Morales wanted to push back on those visual tropes and offer a more personal vision of life in the city. In an intriguing digital to analog reversal, after selecting the images of storefronts, streets, and people out and about, he transferred them back to 35mm slides and has displayed them in plastic novelty viewfinders that hang from chains in a side hallway gallery. As seen above, the viewer is forced to peer into each small toy to see the various images, making the exchange between artist and viewer, and the overall experience of Juárez, much more intimate. It’s a playfully endearing and original way to frame the project, adding a layer of wistful nostalgia for home that will feel familiar to many.

Mónica Arreola’s approach to photographing her hometown steps back a bit, to a more conceptual view of the many abandoned development projects that dot the landscape in Tijuana. The 2008 recession that upended the American economy had similar ripple effects in Mexico, and many new subdivisions being built were left unfinished. Arreola’s sparse architectural photographs capture these hulking forms (and the associated empty roads and blank billboards) against cloudy grey skies, documenting the remnants of the collapse. Like Rosales and Morales, Arreola is using photography as a way to search for a feeling of home, even when broader economic and national forces are visibly transforming her place into something altogether different.

The other three photographers included in the Biennial have taken a different set of lessons from the pandemic, particularly in the ways they are engaging with personal identity. If there is a common thread that ties their works together, it is a questioning of who we are becoming, as various forces push us to reinvent ourselves.

Pao Houa Her’s photographs interrogate the ways that memories of a home country intertwine with life as an immigrant, creating an evolving sense of diasporic identity. Her was born in Laos, and is part of a large Hmong community that has settled in Minnesota. In three different photographic projects that cluster on one wall and are displayed on another adjacent free standing wall segment, Her leverages various symbols and motifs from Southeast Asia (from tropical flowers and mountainscapes to French colonial portraiture styles) in photographs that tease out facets of this new hybrid identity. The strongest of these projects stages elders now living in St. Paul amid jungle plants in a local nature conservatory, creating resonant portraits that place the sitters in visually familiar but ultimately artificial surroundings, amplifying both the estrangement of being “non-native” and the desire to recreate a sense of home and belonging.

Buck Ellison’s recent photographs try to get underneath some of the destabilizing polarization we’ve felt of late. The images on view here are an outgrowth of his 2020 photobook Living Trust (reviewed here), which incisively skewered different forms of white privilege via staged reenactments and portraits. One group of pictures from that project reimagined the family of Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater. For many, Prince has become a symbol of the sketchy politcal dealings and more overt corruption of recent years, with Blackwater’s massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians in 2007 the most dubiously memorable headline of Prince’s shadowy career. Ellison’s photographs here extend that interest in Prince and go back to imagined moments in 2003 when Prince was just getting started, where he hangs out reading von Clausewitz and shoots a gun wearing a camo Lockheed Martin hat. In these scenes, Ellison seems to be looking for something more complicated than just Prince as war criminal, instead showing us a good looking young white man of a certain class cashing in on an entrepreneurial gold rush. Ellison leaves more troublingly open-ended what such a riches-to-riches story might say about our contemporary selves and the whole notion of authentic American opportunity.

Taking characters from science fiction as his inspiration, Daniel Joseph Martinez pushes several steps further in considering how we humans are changing, as a result of the pandemic or otherwise. In performative self-portraits filled with internal anguish, Martinez inhabits various monsters and extraterrestrials, from Frankenstein and Count Dracula to an alien bounty hunter from the X-Files and a drone host from Westworld. His photographic results, shown as a continuum of otherness behind a hanging cloth veil, are unsettling, but not perhaps as stinging as the artist might have hoped; the indirectness of cosplaying the visions of other artists (rather than offering his own original post-human vision) deflates some of their potential bite. That said, as seen in the context of other artworks that struggle with the broader evolution of personal identity in contemporary society, they provide an uneasy link to an anxiously uncertain future.

While other critics will likely have more expansive opinions on the entire expression and meaning of the art in this year’s Whitney Biennial, my own narrower perspective on its photography is rather modest and understated. The photographs included do amplify some emerging or lesser known names we’ve seen before and introduce us to a few new ones, and this element of discovery is always part of what the Biennial can deliver. Thematically, the photographs coalesce around sensitively probing notions of home and identity, two broad ideas that have become even more urgent during the struggles of the pandemic years, and we can use them as a jumping off point for further investigations in contemporary photography that would enrich the outlines and frameworks they have set forth. That other equally worthy themes, and equally worthy photographers investigating those ideas, might have been chosen instead of these is certainly possible, but what the curators have offered us photographically is a tidy grouping of largely relevant choices. As a first step back toward something we might call normal, in art and in the world around us, this year’s Whitney Biennial is enough. It provides a sense of resonant connection to know that others, in their own personal and individual ways, have felt as we have.

Collector’s POV: Since this is museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. And with such a broad group of artists included, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Alejandro "Luperca" Morales, Buck Ellison, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Guadalupe Rosales, Mónica Arreola, Pao Houa Her, Whitney Museum of American Art

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