This week, I attended the Whitney Biennial along with 40 students, 2 art teachers, and a parent chaperone. The Biennial examines the current state of contemporary art in America which equates to a show of art by artists who go beyond traditional by taking risks in the methods they chose to convey their message. I’ve attended the Biennial many times in the last 3 decades and enjoy viewing the work of lesser known artists along with artwork I would not normally be exposed to in other venues or through printed and electronic media. The 2012 version of the Biennial contains art that may not appeal to everyone, but for me, there wasn’t one work that didn’t inspire a reaction.
Here are 5 artists I found either inspiring, intriguing, astonishing, or disturbing. The links to their pages on whitney.org contain video interviews with the artists regarding their work in the show.
1. LaToya Ruby Frasier: Our tour guide began with Ms. Frasier’s The Homebody self portraits taken an abandon home owned by her deceased step-grandfather. The four photographs show the artist dressed in her step-grandfather’s robe and pajamas as well as draped in one of his blankets.
Below is one of the photos in the series:
Hanging on the wall adjacent to these four photographs are a series of photos entitled Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital) which documents the experience of community residents when the hospital was shut then demolished in 2010. Also included in this series are Levi’s ads displayed in Braddock that the artist has altered to reflect the true nature of residents’ experiences. For example, Levi’s “Everybody’s Work is Important” is altered to read “If Everybody’s Work is equally important then why weren’t local residents and small businesses allowed a share in the profits from the demolition process of the aluminum, bricks, and windows from UPMC Braddock?”
2. If a work of art contains language or even typography, I’m immediately drawn to it. I missed John Kelsey’s “poems” on my first pass of the exhibition, but over lunch in the coffee shop downstairs, one of the art teacher mentioned it. Composed of words taken from spam emails, two poems entitled “Impoetnce” and Depesrsion” struck me as a true reflection of everyday life in the 21st century. Granted, I have some fine spam filters on my various email accounts, but every so often one of those “male enhancement” emails will sneak through with misspellings and inaccurate assumptions. The poems read, at first, like another stilted spam email, but if you read them again, they do reflect their subject including the slightly off nature of the spelling. A list of the recipients of the emails used to create the poems is included with each, and I think demonstrates the reach of this type of communication not only in volume but in the broad demographics of people who find these messages in their email. Make an effort to find this work of art; it’s on a floor with a lot of colorful pieces and the stark serif type of the poems was lost at least to this visitor on my first walk through.
3. Words attracted me to the work of Moyra Davey as well. The twelve unfolded “letters” of Mary, Marie really drew me in especially when I learned they each letter was creased and worn because the artist mailed them to her mother, sister, and nieces. The words she chose to include on each piece of post comes from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters written when she travelled to Scandanavia at the end of the eighteenth century. Her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was an infant at the time but would grow up to pen Frankenstein. Both women were strong, vocal advocates for women’s rights; my own conclusion is that the artist mailed these missives to the most important women in her life just as Wolstonecraft mailed hers to the father of her daughter confident in the woman Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley would become.
This may seem an odd analogy to some, but I recently participated in a fabric postcard swap run by @caithnesscraft on ravelry. Pairs of women in the United States and Europe mailing small pieces of art to one another? Perhaps there is power in craft! When I join another postcard swap, I might just incorporate elements of another woman’s letters in a way similar to Davey’s project. Below is a photo I took of Mary, Marie:
4. In her last podcast, Martine of iMake talked about her new love of cross stitch. I learned to cross stitch in middle school, created many a cross stitch sampler into my mid-twenties but abandon it for needlepoint and now knitting. Quite a few of the students in the knitting support group that meets on Fridays in my classroom were on the trip to the Whitney, and they couldn’t wait to show me Elaine Reichek‘s work. Five pieces by this artist hung on 3 walls, the largest a tapestry made by taking an image from the internet, scanning it into a computer, then reproducing the image on a wall sized tapestry with a computerized loom. I thought this was ingenious but my students quickly pointed out that, if the artist did this for a class project, she would be told the work wasn’t original, your grade will suffer, try again! I get that and agree that I’d much prefer this wall hanging include original artwork but at the same time as a computer geek and crafter I love the use of the computer to create art hanging in a renown museum.
Below is the tapestry entitled Paint Me a Cavernous Waste Shore:
Plagiarism debate aside, I loved her handstitched pieces. One, There’s No Need is a labyrinth of cross stitch around a quote by Jorge Borges, “There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.”
My favorite piece of Reichek’s, however, is We Construct a Narrative part of the Ariadne’s Thread series. Around a stark black stitched image on neutral fiber reads, ““We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread that we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread”, a quote from Paul Auster.
5. By far my favorite artist I discovered at this Biennial is K8 Hardy. During our official tour, the tour guide brought us to Hardy’s work after Frasier’s photographs. I loved the predominance of shoes and the retro feel of the photographs but otherwise just thought they were cool. This is where going to a museum with students is a priceless experience. The tour guide pointed to one piece and asked the students what they made of the juxtaposition of red stiletto shoes and duct tape:
A student I’ve been impressed with since the day she walked in the door explained that the woman’s feet duct taped into traditional female footwear (stilettos) suggests forced conformity. The shoes don’t fit and in fact one foot is almost completely out of the shoe and held in place only by the duct tape; the woman doesn’t fit into the role prescribed by society. The feet are “upside down” which suggests reversing traditional gender roles or the havoc of trying to confirm, and the industrial background jars with the footwear one would normally see on a woman in an office, hotel, or nightclub. (I pictured Joan from Mad Men in them but then again, she’s fighting gender expectations too!)
While I loved Hardy’s images, I got none of that until that student explained it to me. Now, I not only love the message inherent in her work, but my daughter and I are planning to attend Hardy’s fashion show at the Whitney on May 20th. Watch this space for a review!
So there you have them, the 5 artists I discovered at this year’s Whitney Biennial. If you have a chance to visit, I strongly recommend that you go. You may not fall in love with any of the art there, but you will certainly have a lot to think, talk, and write about after you go!