June 6, 2004

The Whitney Biennial: polymer bliss.

This morning I saw the Whitney Biennial. There will be no photographs, because you're not allowed to take photographs in art museums (at least in the United States). So how was the show? Of course, there's always a lot of stuff in the Biennial that seems like somebody is trying to help somebody by letting them hang their things in the company of things that deserve to be there. There are always dismal installations and videos. There are always messy, self-indulgent things trying to look good by being tacked up in large multiples and bathed in very strong light.

But go to the top floor and take a right turn and look at the first two rooms. Okay, stop for a couple minutes and read the absurdly leaden and pompous art-prose they've painted on the wall, but don't take it seriously! If you're an editor-nerd like me you can think about how someone might have written these words if they had actually wanted the reader to understand the actual meaning as opposed to wanting to create a general sense of the loftiness and political importance of the whole affair. And then you can think about the meaning and decide if it was worth saying at all. Or even if anything at all was said. But why are you wasting your time? Take that right turn and hang out in the first two rooms. That's where I spent my time. What most impressed me were two artists that have worked out an elaborate style involving thick use of synthetic polymer (i.e., clear plastic), that gave a fascinating dimensionality to what appeared as a flat surface. (Why is that such a fascinating effect? Why did we like Magic Eye posters even when the images that seemed to pop out were not even interesting images?)

The two artists were Julie Mehretu and Frank Tomaselli. Mehretu's large canvases with built up layers of polymer were done mostly in black ink painted and drawn on in great curving lines and hard ruled lines within the polymer layers. Tomaselli had elaborate swirls of cut out paper birds and hands and eyes along with real pills embedded in his polymer. For both of these artists, it was not just the brilliant technique but also the images. Mehretu's were surrealistic landscapes/cityscapes that brought to mind ancient Chinese ink paintings and abstract expressionism. Tomaselli's were druggy hallucinations on a black background.

Here's the link to the official Biennial site, which tries to be a clever website but is pretty annoying and ugly. I can't link to the particular artists I liked--you can click your way to them though--but it's just as well because their works don't look at all impressive reproduced on line.

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