Whitney Biennial 2014: The Last Blast Of Visual And Material Juice

I had the privilege of viewing this year’s Whitney Biennial with Douglas Dodds, Senior Curator of Word and Image at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and artist Barbara Nessim, who had a one person show at the V&A a year ago.  We went there informed by a review written by the venerable NY art critic Jerry Saltz for Vulture.com.  In the review, Saltz urged viewers to spend the bulk of their time on the fourth floor, which was curated by Michelle Grabner.  He said, “it’s the last blast of visual and material juice that you’ll get in this optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up, pedantic biennial.”

We agreed! We had a great time on the fourth floor, which was curated by Chicago artist and gallerist, Michelle Grabner. The installation was an unpredictable confluence of unusual work, which in it’s entirety was an art piece of its own. Grubner made complexity simple.  Everywhere you looked you saw a connection between differing artistic sensibilities, and the sum was even better than the parts.  If I had to title the fourth floor exhibit, I would name it after the Joni Mitchell song: ‘Both Sides Now’.  The sculptures were like paintings, and the paintings were three dimensional. We found ourselves having to walk around each piece in order to fully take them in.

The third floor on the other hand, curated by Stuart Comer, who curates media and performance at MOMA, is cluttered with flashing, screaming, multimedia installations. It made me want to go meditate in a serene forest somewhere to block out all the noise. Perhaps that was the point (?) but after taking in the third and fourth floors, we all three had sensory overload and needed to get out of there. We left the remaining second floor, curated by Anthony Elms, to view on a later date. Stay tuned.

Allow me here to share our favorite works in the show with pictures we snapped along the way.

Top Photo: Installation shot by Douglas Dodds

Notice in this installation shot, a glorious merger between the esteemed painter, Amy Sillman, and painter/sculptor, Pam Lins.  On the wall is a large Sillman canvas, “Mother”, 2012-1013, sidled next to a collaborative work by both Sillmans and Lins, “Fells,” 2013-2014, made from plywood, oil paint, plaster, ceramics. This hybrid structure explores the overlap and relationship between painting and sculpture (one of Pam Lin’s ongoing artistic pursuits).

The pieces by John Mason, “Tile Wall”, 2010, “Blue Figure”, 2002, “Spear Form,” 1999, “Vertical torque,” 1997, are all ceramic pieces. While these look like a pairing of painting and sculpture, they are in fact a clever arrangement of ceramic tiles on a wall, with free standing vases perfectly positioned nearby.

ACROSS from the Sillman/Lins piece,  hangs the double sided paintings of Dona Nelson, made from dyed cheesecloth and acrylic on canvas. Nelson stitched them with dyed thread, which allowed paint to seep through the untreated canvases to emphasize their structure and surface. The stretcher bars give the magical feeling of looking through a window.

 The colorful emporium of works in the opening room segues into the next room with Sterling Ruby’s stunning suite of three ceramic works all titled “Basin Theology”.  Douglas Dodds’ photo gives you perspective on how the shapes are gracefully in context with the other pieces in the room.

The inner guts of the sculptures show once again how painting and sculpture have no divide in this show.

In the next room is a piece of many pieces by Shana Lutkar. It reads like a magical garden of objects. “Protestation”, 2014, is made from stainless steel, felt, lead and lots of angled mirrors. Doug took this shot through one of the mirrors, and it serves as a subtle selfie.

Almost as call and response to the Lutker, is a large, simpler, but not quieter, painting by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung that says “NO”. The intestinal and rib cage shapes throughout the Lutker installation are matched in the painting, “Notly.” Oil, latex, enamel and spray paint on cut linen, and folded muslin are ripped and curled, which again suggests that this painting is also a three dimensional object.

We LOVED these two Chromogenic prints by Sarah Charlesworth, “Regarding Venus”, 2012.

Perhaps our favorite piece was “Sans Papier”, 2002-2014, by Peter Schuyff. It is a colorful collection of carved pencils and sticks artfully displayed in an enclosed case.  Once again we see the clever marriage of sculpture and painting. The two dimensional impact of the piece is shown in Douglas Dodds’ photo


Another euphoric exquisite example of color complementing form comes from the thirty-nine porcelain and stoneware vessels by Shio Kusaka.

This is just one of many shots Doug took of Kusaka’s installation, and I noticed that he kept taking snaps from many angles. This shelf reads like a Morandi painting with a sensitive syncopated use of color.  

I am going to finish up our selections of the fourth floor with a picture I took of a 2013 painting, “Steve and John”, by Suzanne McClelland.  I thought it was beautiful.

Alas, a great piece resides in the elevator. It is by Jeff Gibson, “adapted from Metapoetaestheticism”, 2013. The piece is a high-definition video, color and sounds, running for 5:27 minutes. The video monitor hangs in the elevator, with the artist’s creative montage of MUZAK wafting. I wanted to snap a picture in situ, but one moment can’t capture the lyric roll of the images and clever text, which speak to the banal preoccupations that fill ¾ of our day. A young artist in the elevator with us said this was her favorite piece, because it was so current and reinforced the consumerism rampant in art today. The fact that it reads as an advertisement in an elevator was a smart call for it’s placement.  (FYI) That ghostly figure below is Douglas Dodds.

What follows here are snapshots from the cluttered and crazy third floor of the Whitney. The curator Stuart Comer, in his curatorial statement, said that the galleries on his floor are “playing multiple roles—from white cube, to theater, to cinema, to publishing forum, and sometimes all of these at once.” The “all of these at once” crashed my brain, but there were some quieter, poetic works I will share.

 Stepping off the elevator area is a work “gesture/data” by Ken Okiishi. They are a series of paintings directly on the surfaces of flat screen televisions, which binds together the painterly trace of a brushstroke with electronically recorded media-derived images.


Off to the right is a huge room filled with photographic and media works by A.L.Steiner, which is titled “More Real than Reality Itself,” 2014. I took this picture mostly to highlight the iconic Whitney windows, which here look like a monitor displaying (real) reality.

There is a wall of T-shirts by Fred Lonider titled “GAF Snapshirts”, 1976. He is an older artist, and this is an older piece. I am not sure what he meant, but from a distance the red rimmed t-shirts looked like they were laughing

This next photo illustrates yet another overwhelming Hodge Podge of video, sculpture, and, believe me, cacophony of sounds. It is a collection of pieces by Travis Jeppesen, who is also a novelist, art critic and poet. He calls this sort of installation “object-oriented writing”.

The above photo includes a detail of the piece. I include this dicey detail for it’s shock value, which may have been the artist’s intention.

I’d like to end our little survey of this year’s Whitney Biennial on an uplifting note. We discovered an amazing artist, Channa Horwitz. She is from LA, born 1932, deceased 2013. For over four decades, Ms. Horwitz produced drawings, paintings, installations in relative isolation.  The pieces here are from 1991, made with casein and ink on mylar. Horwitz uses numbers and colors in her own systematic and methodical way. They have great beauty. While all artists work from an inner initiative, as Barbara Nessim pointed out, Horwitz’s work is a stunning example of how an artist makes a plan and then follows it.

Words: Lizanne Merrill Photos: Douglas Dodds © 2014 Artlyst

The Whitney Biennial runs until 25th May 2014 Whitney Museum Of American Art NY

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