Texting Under the Table: Reflecting on three works in conversation at the Whitney Biennial 2017

The Whitney Biennial 2017 has produced debate and conversation around critical cultural issues ranging from appropriation and racism to land rights and environmental devastation. Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket has been the primary site of debate, inspiring protests and an open letter signed by more than 30 artists that the painting be removed from the Biennial. However many works in the exhibition addressed these issues in disparate ways. Francis Stark’s Censorship Now featured eight large-scale panels, each painted with a page from Censorship Now!!, Ian Svenonius’s scathing (yet borderline satirical) account of how we need new forms of censorship to usurp the current default censorship produced by the free market and the corporations that exert disproportionate control over it. Irena Haiduk’s installation Frauenbank imagined and realized a bank that allows only women to be members and whose assets are used to purchase land in Serbia, the use of which members then vote on. These works imagined utopias that challenge our assumptions about the limits of what we accept as reality.

More impressive than what any of these works achieve on their own is what they produced at the Biennial together, in concert with one another. On my visit to the Whitney, dodging the herds of tours shepherded around each floor, I found myself lingering in a conversation between three works in particular—John Divola’s Abandoned Painting B, Samara Golden’s The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, and John Kessler’s Evolution—that encouraged their shared viewer to consider the particular meanings and messages that emerged from the dialogue among them, expanding, in turn, their potential as individual works.

I started my visit to the Biennial on the fifth floor of the museum and, after some meandering, found myself in a gallery of photos by the artist John Divola. The photos are of painted portraits hung in ramshackle indoor and outdoor environments. The accompanying wall text explains that these are paintings, presumably student paintings, that Divola found in a dumpster near University of California Riverside, where he teaches. The figures in the portraits look out beyond the borders of their respective canvases and into the habitats Divola has restored them to. In Abandoned Painting B the woman in the painting looks out beyond the frame of her canvas and through a window on the adjacent wall.

Abandoned Painting B by John Divola

It has been said that something becomes real to people elsewhere by being photographed. That effect is doubled in Abandoned Painting B. We can assume the painting and its canvas exist in the material world. Yet the woman depicted in it seems no less “real” than the rest of the habitat Divola has placed her in. Looking through that window, she becomes more a subject of the photo than of the canvas she’s painted on. I got the feeling that Divola captured a candid shot of this woman who happened to be looking out the window when the shutter flashed.

The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes by Samara Golden

It’s hard to miss the west-facing window on the fifth floor of the Whitney. During the Biennial it was framed by Samara Golden’s The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes. Golden’s installation was a series of eight miniature scenes ranging from the mundane—a lovingly cluttered family dining room, a modular office set-up—to the dystopic—an austere hospital room with toilets streaked by excrement (or blood?)—but with no people to inhabit these rooms. A cynical post-recession update to Laurie Simmons’ Kaleidescope House. The scenes were in rectangular frames stacked on the left and right side of the window, alternately inverted to face each other, and reflected in large mirrors below and above the windows. It took me some time to figure out how many scenes there were (eight, I think) because some were only visible in their reflections, and barely at that. The reflections were reflected ad infinitum toward earth and sky as viewers peered up and down into this kaleidoscopic stairwell of a fictional mixed-use building.

Framed in the window between the inverted stacks of scenes was a view of a construction site on the other side of the highway, its workers busily walking about, moving materials, and chatting with one another. From my point of view, they were the perfect size to make use of Golden’s miniature furniture, all of which seems to be looking for users. They appeared to be more in the frame of windows, sealed between the glass of the panes and the mat of the Hudson River, than on the other side of it. They were Golden’s adopted subjects, there only to play a role in her imagined world.

While Divola’s adopted subject was a representation, a fiction, framed by the real world of the house her canvas had been hung in, the construction workers were facts, framed by the fictional world of Golden’s mixed-use building as its inhabitants. Divola and Golden may not have intended such a reciprocal relationship, yet it became impossible not to consider The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes and Abandoned Painting B as directly in conversation: each work inverted the other’s precise layering of fiction and reality.

Evolution by John Kessler

In the center of the fifth floor between Golden’s installation and Divola’s photo was Evolution, a multi-media sculpture by John Kessler of two mannequins wading in a tide of flat screen TVs with plastic dead fish floating in their symbolically polluted water. Each mannequin was wearing virtual reality goggles as a snorkel mask while the TVs bobbed up and down like waves, manipulated by a motor under their sea. On the screens played an advertisement for One Thousand Museum, a new building designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid currently under construction on Miami’s waterfront. The luxury condo building, 62 stories high, was framed by the sculpture as a culprit in producing this dystopia of plastic people navel-gazing into virtual reality, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings of environmental devastation. The one percent is continuing to build and buy luxury condos on waterfront properties even as sea levels rise because, unlike the rest of the population, they can afford not to care.

I was struck by the similarities between Kessler’s rendering of One Thousand Museum and Golden’s tower. Kessler’s screens showed a camera pan up the side of the building, making it appear, at moments, like Golden’s building, to climb up forever. Both buildings also had waterfront views, were next to construction sites, and had an air of dystopia about them. Considering that Golden’s building is a fictional work of art and One Thousand Museum is a real building in the real world, I would have expected the former to read as a metaphor for the later. Yet I experienced the opposite effect. The images of One Thousand Museum on Kessler’s TV screens made the building appear, from the outside, as a representation of Golden’s kaleidoscopic tower that I had experienced from the inside. The works inverted my expectations for how they might relate, with One Thousand Museum reading as a metaphor for Golden’s tower.

By striking up a conversation on the subject of dystopia, devastation, and development with The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, Evolution had added its own contribution to the exchange taking place between Golden’s work and Abandoned Painting B. Various approaches to inverting each other’s effects or images was the common language between them.

Evidently, I experienced this conversation as initiated by these works themselves, rather than by their authors or curators. I’ll concede, however, that their introductions were prearranged. Christopher Lew and Mia Locks, the curators of the 2017 Biennial, invited 63 artists, duos, and collectives to contribute work to the exhibition. As Locks made clear at a public forum on April 9, 2017, convened in the aftermath of the controversy around Open Casket, as a curator “my job, of course, is to contextualize artworks and to put their ideas in conversation with one another.” That evening she used the example of Julian Wynn’s pair of paintings on the wall adjacent to Open Casket: “They depict highly fraught scenes of tragedy, horror, apathy, and alienation under the rubric of contemporary news. […] Taken together with Open Casket, these paintings call attention to the particular tension between fact and representation, between the image space of painting and that of the news.”

Considering the overtly political nature of the Biennial‘s curation, reception, response, and defense, I wonder if some of the subtler conversations, such as the one I experienced between Abandoned Painting B, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, and Evolution, had flown under the radar. Leaving my visit at the Whitney Biennial 2017, I savored the glance I had caught of this group chat of under-the-table texting at an otherwise cacophonous dinner party.

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