While Open Casket has dominated the discussion, the latest Biennial—the first in the Whitney’s new digs—features the work of 63 artists and groups curated by Mia Locks and Christopher Lew. The show explores the diversity of contemporary art practice in America today. Separated into smaller shows that unite works by the same artist, the exhibition offers a snapshot of the most urgent conversations about art taking place today, delving into race, gender, class, violence, technology, and beyond.
This being the Biennial, the show is a beast, sprawling across two full floors, down stairwells, and into a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces. And while the controversy has unleashed a vital discourse, it’s also left several worthy works by today’s most exciting contemporary artists less explored.
We’ve done some curating of our own, culling five key pieces that are not to be missed.
This work’s dimensions are, in a sense, infinite. Viewers walk onto a raised platform across from large museum windows that overlook the West Side Highway and the river beyond. Sectioned mirrors lie above and below, reflecting each other, the street, and doll house-like spaces at both sides that are filled with miniature beds, toilets, and other relics of daily life. Viewing the work is like peering into the windows of a creepy, deceptive high-rise. Honestly, the piece doesn’t photograph well and the best possible written description doesn’t suffice. Go see it.
Photographer Deana Lawson’s subjects confront the viewer with direct, challenging stares that ask us to reconsider that narratives that we might construct about them and their intricately staged backgrounds. Situated within the same gallery space as Henry Taylor’s colorful paintings of contemporary black life that lean toward abstraction, Lawson offers an alternate, sharper focus. In the center of this image, a man with a tattooed torso holds a baby to his chest. To his right, an arm holds a handful of cash and to his left, a mini Chips Ahoy! package sits on a table. These elements, combined with a variety of other symbolic objects, make the work perplexing, mysterious, and provocative.
At first glimpse, Kaari Upson’s paper towel roll sculptures look kind of cute, like little pets or cartoon characters dispersed among what appear to be contorted pink furniture propped at strange angles and mounted on the wall. Deceptively so: they’re actually made of aluminum, and their colors appear more grotesque and decaying the longer you stare. Riffing on Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures of food and ordinary objects as well as Jeff Koons’s aluminum-cast pool toys, Upson updates ideas about readymades and the place of discarded domestic objects in an art museum.
From winning the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize to commanding full spreads in publications from The New York Times Style Magazine to Art in America, Anicka Yi has received a lot of attention this year. Just watch her strange, evocative 3-D work to see why. In the film, the artist prospects in the Amazon, raising questions about exploitation, exotification, and scientific manipulation. Striking images of blue smoke emerging from the crevice of a ready-to-cook bird, a hand injecting various fruits and vegetables with a mysterious liquid, and pink-painted fingernails next to what looks like a squid head will stay with you long after you remove your 3D glasses.
Exhausted by the amount of work in the Biennial? Fatigued by the invocations of violence and turmoil and the reminders of our tempestuous political climate? Decompress in Raza’s installation filled with 26 potted trees as forest-simulating scents waft through the air. Serene “caretakers” with soothing voices wander around the carpeted room to discuss the trees, the personal objects in the planters, and the artist’s conception of natural space within an art museum.