Art on the Road: Whitney Biennial

The power of codes in the art of American black women: This year's adventurous Biennial talks smartly and deeply with art on the streets


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


Sometimes I wonder if I am actually visiting the same exhibits that I have read about in the mainstream reviews. Take the Whitney Biennial. Introduced by the Museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, in 1932, the Biennial is the longest-running exhibition in the country to chart the latest developments in American art. This year’s exhibit was reviewed as Young Art Cross-Stitched with Politics by Holland Cotter in the New York Times; explained by ArtNet’s Ben Davis as The 2019 Whitney Biennial Shows America’s Artists Turning Toward Coded Languages in Turbulent Times; and featured by the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Plagens as Still Protesting, but to What End? (with an entry paragraph that describes the exhibition as filled with work expressing political and social grievances, but feels like it may be preaching to the converted.)

The Whitney museum as seen from the terrace

I won’t waste energy on debating if the time for protests is over or on wondering where you possibly find circles of “converts” at the WSJ.

I will also mention only in passing that the NYT review’s title sets a condescending tone that is utterly misplaced. Young art implies, however subtly, that maturation is yet to come, and cross-stitch is a stab at a predominantly female activity that amounts more to craft than art (with apologies to the embroiderers of the Bayeux Tapestries…). If he meant interwoven, a far more neutral term, he might have just said so.

I do want to give reviewers’ claim of “(artists) turning to coded language or deliberate obscuring” some closer inspection, though. Code has always been part of visual language, as anyone having taken Art History 101 or graduate seminars on Renaissance painters, the old Dutch Masters or Expressionist woodcuts – you name it – can tell you. What is obscuring code for one, however, is a potent signifier for another: it all depends on knowing the language immanent to the “code.”

And this is where the power of the exhibition kicks in: demonstrating the brutal division between those of us who are clueless about what many of the artworks imply, and those who get it in the blink of an eye, being familiar with the expressed contents via the reality of one’s daily existence. We might share the same space, in world and museum alike, but we surely do not share a language or the experiences eventually captured by that language when it relates to race, gender, disability, and access.

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THESE ATTRIBUTES ARE NOT RANDOMLY CHOSEN: Rujecko Hockley, who brilliantly co-curated the exhibit with Jane Panetta, described them in her catalogue essay as those, when made central, that were the most relevant works found across the country. What the curators, in turn, made central in this first exhibit organized completely during the Trump era, are women of Afro-Diasporic heritage, the majority of artists on display. They include Alexandra Bell, Janiva Ellis, Steffani Jemison, Tomashi Jackson, Autumn Knight, Simone Leigh, Jenn Nkiru, Las Nietas de Nonó, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Wangechi Mutu, Jennifer Packer, and Martine Syms, among others. Smaller numbers of African American and Hispanic men are also included, as are artists from the LGTBQ community or those living with disabilities, and the occasional white person, who convinced with equally intense and allusive works (Nicole Eisenman stands out in this regard with a gargantuan, ebullient, scatological installation that I will try to decipher at another time.)

Nicole Eisenman, Procession (2019) Details

The exhibit is dominated, then, by work from artists whose daily experience is incomparable to that of average well-to-do white folks visiting this show. The work alludes to the aggressive assaults on minority existence, both by individuals and state-sponsored power, in no uncertain terms. Nowhere could I detect “a retreat from clarity (… one of the hallmarks of the show,”) or “an emphasis on interior life rather than performing for an audience,” as stated by previous reviews.

Quite the opposite: all falls into place once you read the work in the context of its connection to or reflection of each respective community. Public exposition of dissent, not interior life, marks what is on display, once you put the work in the context of current expressions of resistance by groups of people who up until now did not show up in the halls of the elite art institutions, or only as token individuals.

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LET ME MAKE MY POINT CLEAR BY JUXTAPOSING some of the art I either particularly liked or found representative of racial discrimination in the show, with communal artistic expressions that I photographed during the 48 hours before and after visiting the Biennial, on the streets of Harlem and Bushwick, the East Village and Williamsburg, respectively, during my short visit to NYC. The call and response between art in the museum and community context outside of it will hopefully convey what I’m after.

Here is a Biennial sculpture by Simone Leigh, who has had a meteoric rise as an artist with her sculptures and installations exhibited and collected by major institutions, including a major commission for the Highline. Leigh exposes and reframes assumptions about Black female experience, undermining the stereotypes at the same time as she describes them. (She also integrates her artistic practice with real-life engagement, having opened self-care centers targeted at minorities to counteract the health threats faced by women of color.)

Simone Leigh, Corrugated Lady (2018)

The ceramic sculpture has the proportions and solidity of a tank, which stands in tension with the transience of alluded housing materials reminiscent of the makeshift shantytowns of poor African or Caribbean countries, corrugated metal and thatched roofs. The face, as is often the case in Leigh’s work, lacks eyes. Another woman who perhaps does not want to see the world, which, to begin with, does not see her or gazes at her with racist or male contempt. The power emanating from the squatness of the Gestalt comes across as a summons to those of its likeness: Strength exists, and it exist in you. The refusal to look hints at the possibility of choice: it is up to you to not grant eye contact to a world that has forever kept you from power and choices. The reference to poverty warns of the obstacles in the way.

The real-world counterpart, the daily experience of young women of color, is spelled out in a public display at West 125th Street and Malcom X Boulevard. The power to choose, in this case softness, is impeded by various oppressive factors in the social realm, poverty included. Each female portrait has text on the reverse side, listing the impediments to a freely elected state of being. Inside and outside the museum, then, we are called on to acknowledge the obstacles for women of color that are not usually shared by their white counterparts. This is not about interior life, but about external constraints, and non-random constraints at that. Scientific studies by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality support this point. Read them and weep – maybe your eyes will be washed away, too.

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THEN THERE IS TOMASHI JACKSON’s WORK, which focuses on NYC’s ways of taking away housing and buildings from African-American and Hispanic property owners in manners possibly illegal and assuredly immoral, throughout the history of the city – as early as 1853, when Seneca Village was dislodged to make room for Central Park, to 2019, when whole suites of buildings were snatched to make way for gentrification in Brooklyn.

Tomashi Jackson, The Woman Is King (Mary and Marlene )(Simultaneous Contrast) (2019)
A portrait of Marlene Saunders, 74, who almost lost her Crown Heights brownstone.

A detailed description of the artist’s approach and artistic decisions can be found here. Jackson encountered an investigative series in Kings County Politics describing the contemporary scandals around property theft and linked them to similar events more than 150 years ago. We are not talking about redlining, or similarly Jim Crow-inspired tactics, but actual confiscation of property through trickery.

The work is collage-like, merging time periods and representative faces into each other seamlessly, with gradations of color-induced abstraction to concrete representational photographs, buttons or other three- dimensional objects. In form it reminded me of the street collages you find in so many of New York’s doorways, layers upon layers of images and text merging into meaning; in content it is reminiscent of murals that depict ethnic connections to certain neighborhoods. Echoes of the core issue, housing scarcity and discrimination in exclusionary societies, can be found whenever you open a newspaper – if the topic still seems obscure, read this!

Door Collage in Bushwick
Williamsburg: The Rich killed NYC
Mural depicting a map of the Lower Eastside neighborhood and Hispanic inhabitants

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THE LINK TO ARTISTIC PREOCCUPATIONS OUT IN the community is perhaps best exemplified by a painter who started out as a graffiti artist, Pat Phillips. Born in England in 1987, he grew up in Louisiana with a father who was a corrections officer. His work focuses, often with a wickedly satirical bent, on Black experience through the lens of the history of racism and violence tied to or emerging from cultural divisions. His contribution to the Biennial consists of three works, one rather large, that connect the dots between slavery, imprisonment, and the resurgence of symbols that originated with the Revolutionary War: the Gadsden flag. As symbols go, this one has seen many interpretations, but IT is generally embraced by Tea Party members, Second Amendment defenders—and even Libertarians who are perpetually worried about government overreach.

Pat Phillips, Untitled (Don’t Tread on Me), 2019

Phillips’ large painting, Untitled (Don’t Tread on Me) depicts someone’s hands nailing a snake skin with the first words of the flag slogan, with part of a weapon and a holster visible and a tear gas canister lettered Riot Control all stashed away behind a fence.

Pat Phillips, The Farm (2018)

It hangs opposite to a painting called The Farm (the nickname for one of Louisiana’s most notorious prisons, the State Penitentiary named Angola) that contains references to agricultural slave labor seamlessly morphing into contemporary prison labor, field-bound as well. The third painting in the group, Mandingo (DON’T TREAD ON ME), combines the snake, prison uniforms, and a headless body trying to cut off the head of the snake, in the saturated yellows and blacks that we also find so often in large graffiti.

Pat Phillips Mandigo/DON’T TREAD ON ME (2018)

The paintings perfectly embody current developments resulting from anti-immigrant policies and a resurgence in racist practices: “Under lucrative arrangements, states are increasingly leasing prisoners to private corporations to harvest food for American consumers.” If you find this message obscure, may I suggest you crawl out from under your rock. Or better still, stay there and read Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope by former Angola inmate Albert Woodfox.

Opportunistic violence is part of both worlds, within the incarceration culture, and outside of it, both in the world of rightwing zealots and that of gangs or rivals in environments that foster toxic masculinity.

My community match was found in Bushwick, depicting hands, prominent in Phillips’ art, holding on to some type of tool or weapon,

and a large mural of Biggie (the notorious B.I.G.,) a.k.a Christopher Wallace, a pathbreaking Brooklyn rapper, who had seen prison multiple times from the inside, was heavily involved in the growing East Coast–West Coast hip hop feud, and was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1997.

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CURRENT EVENTS, LIKE THE SUFFERING AND DEATH brought upon Puerto Rico by the 2017 hurricane Maria, are evoked by Daniel Lind-Ramos‘ Maria-Maria (2019). A stylized Virgin Mary, clad in the traditional blue veil made from disaster relief tarps, coconuts, tubing and other materials, might be a spiritual beacon but seems, bent in grief, no good for practical relief. The lack of government intervention on any reasonable scale left humanitarian assistance to nonprofit groups like Mercy Corps, which lists the harrowing consequences of the hurricane now, two years later, here.

Daniel Lind-Ramos, Maria-Maria (2019)

Puerto Rico, and echoes of spiritual longings, are remembered in the streets as well. Take this mural by the Italian duo Rosk&Loste which depicts a Hispanic young child surrounded by a halo filled with tropical ferns, holding what is perhaps a crisp but might as well be a communion wafer. The false promises of the Ray-Ban advertisement (more Magdalena than Mary) above it only enhances the sense of innocence and fragility of the young one.

If we open our eyes in the communities around us, we’ll be able to gather all necessary vocabulary to take back to the museum.

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GUGGENHEIM FELLOW AND NATIONAL BOOK AWARD winner Ibram X. Kendi has a new book out – How to be an Anti-Racist – that invites contemplation of what anyone can do to move forward beyond discrimination and hate. The son of Kendi’s formidable literary agent, Ayesha Pande, told her and me over dinner how he and his classmates on their way uptown in the subway would always stand in front of a seated white person, knowing with certitude that the last ones would get up and leave by 96th street, freeing a seat for the rest of the ride into West Harlem. But a decade and a half ago, the worlds were strictly divided, a reality known to a child. That might be different today with ever-creeping gentrification, but little has changed in principle. Exhibits like the 2019 Whitney Biennial bring home the fact that race and class perpetuate separated space, with sets of knowledge confined to each community, and shared language is still a missing link. We have to believe that it can be changed. Reading Kendi might be a first step. Learning to decode in front of marvelous, gut-wrenching art might be another small move in that direction.

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The WhitneMuseum of American Art. 99 Gansevoort St., New York, NY 10014. The exhibit closes September 22nd, 2019.

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Friderike Heuer’s photographic essay first ran on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, on YDP – Your Daily Picture, and is republished here with permission.

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