American Art Abounding: Columbia Artists Stand Out at the 80th Whitney Biennial


“It’s like the circus,” I heard someone say, above the floating chimes and disembodied melodies. Screens flashed, sculptures shone, crowds gathered between strange feats of beauty. There was even a huge dark ferris wheel, turning silently. The long-awaited 2022 Whitney Biennial is reminiscent of a carnival, one that brings together the contemplative and the astonishing in American art, buzzing with social and political currents.

The ferris wheel sculpture is the work of the assistant professor of visual arts at the School of Arts Sable Elyse Smithentitled A clockwork (Aluminum, steel, engine, 2019). It dominates the east-facing window of the Whitney’s fifth-floor exhibition space. Spinning with painful slowness, the smooth octagonal faces move like the step of a suspended wheel, industrial and strange. It sounds whimsical, but the more you look at its relentless efficiency, the more you can’t help but think what it was made for, especially when you learn a chilling detail: the sculpture is constructed from tables and chairs designed for use in prison visiting rooms.

A Clockwork is accompanied by Smith’s video installation Laugh Track, or look who peeks out my window (high definition video, color, sound, 7:58 min, 2021). The silent video uses footage from the Live PD TV show, a real-time police patrol show. Flashing blue and red lights, nocturnal arrests, blurred faces, a house on fire; the video is a haunting assemblage, its silence asking the question: why do we broadcast images of the prison state as entertainment?

Buck Ellison CC ’10 uses a series of meticulously detailed photos to imagine the private life of Erik Prince, best known as the founder of the famous security firm Blackwater. The series is set in 2003, the year Blackwater received its first US contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the photographs shows “Prince,” played by a model straight out of an Abercrombie catalog, in a button-up chambray shirt lying on a rug, his fingers shyly touching his lips. He holds a copy of Clausewitz’s On the war open in his other hand, on which shines a wedding ring; an LLBean-esque slipper sits abandoned in the foreground. Ellison has created an intimate portrait of the war criminal as a young man, full of devious details that reward the attentive viewer.

Biennale curators Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin have created distinct habitats for each part of the exhibition. The fifth floor is open, bright, diaphanous, all white walls and blond wood.

Along one wall, the triple panel in pastel shades Mountains on foot (Oil on linen canvas and handmade wooden easel, 2022) Leidy Churchman ’10 envelops the viewer in an aspiring fairy tale land. It moves with tree branches, mountains and waves, in airy pinks, blues and greens like rolled up smoke. A light yellow grid underlies the scene like a quilt. Churchman was inspired by the 13th century Zen text Mountains and Waters Sutra by Ei Dogen, and the panels are gripped by sculpted claws, reminiscent of a Buddhist protective deity.

At the west end of the gallery, Assistant Assistant Professor Aria Deanpiece of Little Island / Gut Punch (Sculpture, 2022) stands like a kelly green punching bag, shiny and malleable on its matching base. I learned that it is actually chroma green, the color of green screens in movies. Dean created the piece by subjecting a digital model of a monolith to a collision simulation and then creating a sculpture of the simulation.

On the one hand, it looks more or less stable, perhaps slightly melted, like plastic sheeting undulating on scaffolding. But while walking, we discover its curvature, the force of an unprecedented impact, an obelisk that wraps around a punch, like a visual representation of tradition bent by modernity.

The space on the sixth floor is dramatically dark, as if we were behind the scenes of a stage; masked but bursting with energy. It is a rich environment for staging numerous video installations.

Sonically busy yet visually understated, the space felt like a cinema where the goal was to walk around and poke your head through every theater door to catch a glimpse of every movie, every installation. In this atmosphere, there was even a small queue to enter the installation limited to three people, An Introduction to Nameless Love (tin, nickel, charcoal, 2019) by Jonathan Berger.

The darkness of the sixth floor also accentuates the luminous paintings, such as Untitled (Hic) (90 x 81 in, acrylic and vinyl on canvas, 2022) from a former Cy Gavin ’16. Untitled (Hic) is a flamboyant and eclectic place that grabs the viewer’s attention with its leaping oranges and yellows. It features a slate blue figure like a tree trunk, knots and chains sketched in energetic white, investing this almost common sight with appreciable wonder.

Back on the fifth floor, where light palettes explode in all directions, prolific interdisciplinary artist, recent MacArthur Fellow, and Columbia Visual Arts Program Mentor Ralph Lemon features paintings from an as yet untitled series, which were quietly among my favorites in the exhibition.

These are oil and acrylic on paper, slightly curling around the edges, mounted to the wall with humble thumbtacks. Once you see them, these unassumingly staged pieces have a gravitational pull. They are honeycombed with irregular multicolored squares, badged with shapes like butterflies or ovals or eyes, diamonds and rings. These symbols and these frank and cheerful colors, piled up, punctuated by moments of shadow, develop a cosmic density.

They seemed to me like a microcosm of the Biennale itself; dizzying and abundant, light and dark, textures and hues jostle and create something like a city, like a country.

As a celebration of contemporary American art, the Whitney Biennial is the longest-running exhibition of its kind. This 80th edition reflects the multifaceted politics, the precariousness and the beauty of the present moment. The exhibition is open to the public and will run until September 2022.


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