Art Inspection

5 Must-Sees at the 2017 Whitney Biennial

Since opening in March, the every-two-years American art survey has created quite a stir, arguably eclipsing some true gems.
You know weird times have arrived when Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar of The View are weighing in on a contemporary art controversy, and yet, here we are! Such is the nature of the Whitney Biennial, that every-two-years art moment where controversy is rarely in short supply (just not usually to this degree). In brief: curators, artists, activists, journalists, academics, and publicists have been duking it out over Open Casket, (white) artist Dana Schutz’s abstracted rendering of gruesomely murdered black teenager Emmett Till, who was killed in 1955 by two white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman (who recently admitted she lied). The piece has launched thoughtful, passionate, and enraged arguments (including calls for its removal/destruction) across just about every media platform that exists.

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. 

1. Samara Golden, "The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes"
Installation view of Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, 2017. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Matthew Carasella.

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. 

2. Deana Lawson, "Sons of Cush"
Deana Lawson, Sons of Cush, 2016. Inkjet print. 

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. 

3. Kaari Upson, "Transitional Object Six-Pack"
Installation view, Kaari Upson. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Matthew Carasella.

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.

4. Anicka Yi, "The Flavor Genome"
Anicka Yi, still from The Flavor Genome, 2016. 

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.

5. Asad Raza, "Root sequence. Mother tongue."
Asad  Raza, Installation view of "Root sequence. Mother tongue," 2017. Photograph Bill Orcutt  

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. 


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