Once again, the Whitney presents their biennial roundup of artistic trends and interests, this one delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept, curated by David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of Curatorial Initiatives and Adrienne Edwards, Engell Speyer Family Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs benefited from more time to assemble the show, but less opportunities to see the artists’ work practice and pieces in person. Their choices are wide-ranging, but not especially radical for either the Whitney or the Biennial itself.
The concept behind the title ‘Quiet as It’s Kept’ focuses on the idea of an open secret, that which is known but not discussed, especially with outsiders. Many of the artworks on display could be construed to have this thought somewhere in their creation, via subject matter, personal background, or materials used. And yet, by placing these artists and their work in a major American museum, located in an internationally known city, is there any reason to believe that anything on display is exposing anything unknown? Is there really anyone left who doesn’t know that every day, at every level of society, there is equality and inequity; privilege and disadvantage; oppression and liberation? Is this the biggest open secret ever? The exhibit answers this question obliquely and without showing a preference for one point of view over another.
The display areas range across the museum, starting outside with Jason Rhodes’ Caprice, a car parked near the entrance, and the billboard of Raven Chacon’s Silent Choir, at the door with Rayyane Tabet’s Becoming American (which is also on display above the elevator doors on each floor as well as on the Whitney’s website), in the lobby with the banners of Renée Green, and even on the open stairwell of the museum with its supporting pillar covered by six panels created by Rodney McMillian for the show.
The main exhibit areas on the 5th and 6th floors have a stripped-down look with either a light or dark background for the works, giving an impression of a loft-style space dominated by the art. The bi-lingual descriptive labels identifying the works are extremely difficult to find, often being placed in odd positions, such as the side of a pedestal instead of the front, or only on one side of a wall showing multiple works by a single artist. Visitors move through display spaces in different ways and the exhibit designers should have taken that into consideration. It puts in mind certain employment issues that museums have not handled well during the pandemic, such as the laying off staff, especially those who work behind the scenes, and the historically low pay for many arts workers. The Whitney has certainly saved a great deal of money by keeping the exhibit design to a minimum, but how it will benefit the institution as a whole is anyone’s guess.
The 5th floor is an open space with the perimeter walls painted white and light brown flooring. Display areas tend to be defined by short, freestanding walls for smaller groupings of work or off-white curtains semi-enclosing a collection of video monitors and other material. Occasionally large-scale pieces create their own display area, like Duane Linklater’s two beautiful textile works wintercount_215_kisepîsim and mistranslate_wolftreeriver_ininîmowinîhk, which are suspended from a horizontal metal bar placed near the ceiling. Other standout works on this floor are Awilda Sterling-Duprey’s …blindfolded, dynamic oil stick drawings (with accompanying video of their creation); Rindon Johnson’s four panels of leather treated with various materials ranging from stone to Vaseline; Rick Lowe’s painting Project Row Houses: If Artists Are Creative Why Can’t They Create Solutions; Rose Salane’s 64,000 Attempts at Circulation, a collection of slugs used to ‘pay’ fares on MTA buses along with an exhaustive list documenting each item; Aria Dean’s Little Island/Gut Punch; Ellen Gallagher’s two paintings called Ecstatic Draught of Fishes; Andrew Roberts’ CARGO: A certain doom, a sculpture shaped like an arm, covered in a silicon material mimicking skin and tattooed with the Amazon ‘smile’ symbol; and Woody De Othello’s distorted renderings of everyday items in ceramic and/or bronze. One work that seemed to be from an earlier time is by Alejandro “Luperca” Morales, whose series ‘Juárez Archive’ takes the photos of his hometown Ciudad Juárez from Google Maps, with their generalized images of streets and buildings that capture the mundane as well as signs of the local drug war and the government’s military response, and places each image in a small, hand-held viewer. The idea is to give visitors a small private moment of communication between themselves and the photo, but many people in this nervous time of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t touch an object handled by strangers, no matter how much hand sanitizer is made available, and therefore won’t be able to learn from and appreciate his work. You could interpret that refusal other ways, such as political or racial, and we wonder if the artist hasn’t considered that as well, both subtly and overtly controlling the audience response.
By contrast, the 6th floor is done up in dark floors and walls, with less space between most of the artworks. Not coincidentally, most of the video installations are in this area, although they are more seamlessly integrated into the overall show then in previous Biennials. Here, some notable pieces include Denyse Thomsos’ magnificent two paintings Jail and Displaced Burial/Burial at Gorée; Guadalupe Rosales’ selection of four photographs; Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture ishkode (fire); Raven Chacon’s Three Songs; WangShui’s mini installation with LED sculpture and aluminum paintings called Titration Print (Isle of Vitr⸫ous), Hyaline Seed (Isle of Vitr⸫ous), and Scr⸫pe II (Isle of Vitr⸫ous); and Jonathan Berger’s An Introduction to Nameless Love.
In addition to this there are dedicated spaces for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, A Gathering of the Tribes/Steve Cannon, and N. H. Pritchard: these late 20th century avant-garde writers and artists were some of the reference points for the curators while developing the show. It would have been interesting to see a little more detail about that within the exhibit itself, rather than just in the catalog.
On the whole, the 2022 Biennial meets its goals of discussion and openness to a variety of viewpoints. Some of the works are too subtle for their own good, placed on the actual margins of the exhibition space or displayed too high on the walls to be fully appreciated. Word pieces are especially difficult to enjoy in a crowded space or area with heavy foot traffic, it’s probably best to think of them as snatches of overheard conversations in physical form. And unless a visitor knows to look at the exhibit space in its entirety rather than individual pieces, or accidentally notices the phrases, the bulk of people will pass them by, never realizing that they are missing the chance to bring a secret into the light.
On view April 6 – September 5, 2022
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