In their opening remarks on Tuesday, the 2010 Whitney Biennial curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari confessed that they approached the selection process (gasp) open-mindedly, without a preconceived theme. Fortunately, the exhibition itself faithfully reflects their intent, presenting a resonant sampling of contemporary art practice. That is not to say that the show selection is thematically unfocused or ungrounded. To the contrary, much of the work manifests a rediscovered attention to physicality in various ways: in its preoccupation with human vulnerability, in its juxtaposition of figuration and geometry, or simply in its palpable materiality. Notable examples include “H.M. 2009,” Kerry Tribe‘s double film projection about an epilepsy patient who lost his short-term memory in experimental brain surgery and Nina Berman’s arresting images of former Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, who was severely disfigured in a suicide bombing in Iraq; R.H. Quaytman’s series “Distracting Distance,” which riffs on the physical act of perception; and Suzan Frecon’s huge minimalist paintings, which embrace the labor intensity of making an art object that is intended to last.
Other work has a more tangential but still evident connection to the body. A case in point: the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s projection of a sardonic video on American history onto the windshield of an old hearse. The overarching emphasis on the body, combined with provocative content, signals an optimistic new direction that reframes two enduringly important aspects of contemporary art: the senses and the visual, as opposed to merely the cerebral; and collective optimism, as distinct from unbounded egos.
Unlike the last Biennial, which offered very few canvases, 2010 features paintings around every corner. In line with the broader theme of physicality, the inclusion of so much painting signals the importance of sustained physical engagement and a renewed interest in the lifespan of the art object. Here are images from the eighteen painters (and artists who use related media) included in 2010–an impressive, thoughtfully curated exhibition.
“Aurel Schmidt’s intricately detailed drawings include objects and creatures such as flies, condoms, and cigarette butts that are pieced together to form larger figures. Master of the Universe: FlexMaster 3000 is a portrait of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull mythic creature who represents both creation and destruction.”
“Dawn Clements draws directly from objects or images; she never invents elements to complete a picture. Her dedication to working from images—in this drawing she uses parts of My Reputation paused on screen—often results in gaps or omissions and a flattening of space and time. The result is an image that appears seamless but is in fact uncannily distorted—a constructed portrait of a space, both physical and psychological.”
“Roland Flexner expands the definition of drawing by creating intricately detailed works of ink on paper using only his breath, chance, and gravity as tools.”
“Jim Lutes integrates representation and abstraction through his use of images and lyrical marks in the same pictorial space.”
“Suzan Frecon plans her images carefully, first deciding on the dimensions of the work and the paint colors to be used (often grinding her own pigments to achieve the desired effect). She then figures out the precise imagery in sketches, using geometric formulas as well as her own visual intuition to create related forms in which dissonant features are suspended in balance.”
“In these enigmatic portraits Storm Tharp investigates the performance of identity and the point where the myth of a person supercedes reality and becomes truth.”
“Maureen Gallace finds inspiration in the modest edifices and rural environs of her native New England. She paints intimate landscapes featuring serene, unpeopled houses. Deceptively effortless in their appearance, Gallace’s paintings take shape through careful observation and decisive omission.”
“Inspired by the seventeenth-century Spanish still-life tradition, Lesley Vance carefully arranges and lights objects such as fruits or shells. The artist then photographs these arrangements, and the resulting images serve as the basis for her abstract paintings.”
“Tauba Auerbach’s methodical compositions deconstruct the conventional ways visual and perceptual information is conveyed. To produce these paintings, Auerbach manipulates large pieces of raw canvas into various configurations through folding or rolling. She then lays the canvas out flat and paints its surface with an industrial spray gun aimed at different angles to achieve a trompe l’oeil effect. By creating an object in which two supposedly discrete states—flatness and three¬dimensionality—are merged, Auerbach confronts the limitations between these states, revealing an ambiguity that is often overlooked.”
“Robert Williams’s watercolors picture a world in which the laws of physics wreak havoc on suburban neighborhoods and tommy gun–wielding cowboys with tomatoes for heads haunt the forests.”
“Reminiscent of Dadaist photomontages from the 1930s such as those by German artist Hannah Höch, Ania Soliman‘s montage is a hybrid of two digital images, sourced from the internet. The accompanying panels of text are written by the artist and informed by her research and impressions on the subject of the pineapple and its historical significance.”
“Julia Fish produces paintings that approach abstraction but in fact derive from the imagery of her home, studio, and garden. Her most recent series, Threshold, comprises six paintings (three of which are on view in 2010) that depict the space between two rooms.”
“Verne Dawson investigates the continuities between ancient culture and contemporary life through myths, folktales, and traditions that have vanished or become detached from their origins and meanings. Dawson is also concerned that we have lost our connection to the natural rhythms that governed our ancestors’ lives.”
Note: Not all images shown are in the exhibition.
Roundup of early 2010 Biennial reviews and articles:
Holland Cotter: At a Biennial on a Budget, Tweaking and Provoking
Todd Eberle: The Whitney 2010 Ambienalle
Charlie Finch: The Thrift Shop Biennial
Howard Halle: The Whitney finally figures out how to put on a Biennial
Paul Laster: Surveying the 2010 Whitney Biennial
Jerry Saltz: Change we can believe in
Sebastian Smee: Whitney show is an anthem to the awful
Linda Yablonsky: Women’s Work