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Irony Lives

This year's polite, eclectic Whitney Biennial -- featuring less painting than ever -- demonstrates that post-September 11 reports of the death of irony were greatly exaggerated.

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Mix and match: Julie Moos's Friends and Enemies, Will & Trey.  

At every Whitney Biennial, I think of the poet Randall Jarrell's waspish definition of the novel: a work in prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it. And yet if it's inevitable that the Biennial "has something wrong with it" -- and we would be strangely disappointed if it did not -- the exhibition regularly displays certain prosy virtues. Every two years, the Biennial, like a novel of manners, holds up a mirror to the fashionable subjects, approaches, and attitudes of its day.

The 2002 model carries on this tradition. Organized by a team led by the Whitney's new curator of contemporary art, Lawrence Rinder, the show includes work by 113 artists and collaborative groups from across the country. It fills three floors of the museum; five of the artists have pieces in Central Park. Many forms of contemporary art are on display -- notably, extensive collections of Internet-based work and sound and performance art. While browsing through the galleries, you will come upon flickering TV and computer monitors; hear various whines, buzzes, and snatches of music; and walk into rooms where something, you know not what, awaits.

My overall impression was one of fluency -- of artists in comfortable command of certain prevalent ideas of the moment. Foremost among these ideas is the conviction that artists should cross-fertilize their work; they should mix and match elements of high and low culture, juggle historical periods, and combine different forms, genres, and technologies. Their lens is wide-angle and absurdist; they relish a mongrel vitality. For example, Luis Gispert depicts cheerleaders (of various ethnicities) in poses that evoke many sources, from Bernini to Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he also makes objects that he calls "a mix of ghetto style and Danish modern design." Using a computer to help with the three-dimensional-design process, Robert Lazzarini can stretch the perspective of a familiar object -- a New York City pay phone -- until it resembles a sharply planed work of high-modern abstract sculpture. In another era, many of these artists would have been landscape painters. Today, their "landscape" is not mountains, valleys, and towns but the cacophonous environment of pop culture and its efflorescent media.

Finding a perspective point in the mishmash of modern American society is not easy. Many young artists choose to focus their art with ethnic facts. On the outskirts of San Juan, where luxury beachfront development is displacing the local population, Javier Cambre has cut a shack that sells food into two pieces and then brought one half to the Whitney. He then rejiggered it to echo both the museum's eccentric modernist window and his childhood bedroom. The result evokes what the catalogue calls "the persistence of memory in dislocated space." One of the wittier works in the show -- witty because it plays against expectations -- is a collaboration by Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Zackin that contrasts home movies from middle-class Jewish and African-American families; they are almost equally dull, suggesting that class is becoming more important than race in modern America.

For many artists, the childlike provides another focal point. Some use cartoonish imagery and the props of childhood, such as skateboards or crayons; frequently, their art has a slapdash, homemade air. Critics have often complained -- rightly -- about the infantilism of contemporary art. However, the better work does more than just reflect some larger childishness in American society: It lampoons or darkens the cartoon. Raised on the mother's milk of the media, some class clowns know exactly how to satirize the phony gravitas and absurd cadences of the talking heads on the tube. Others take the childishness to a tantrumlike extreme. In almost daily performances in a sequestered room over four years, Hirsch Perlman has endlessly built, destroyed, and rebuilt crude figures made from the same duct tape and trashy cardboard packing materials -- creating what the catalogue calls "a grotesque apotheosis of the archetypal Romantic artist: tortured, alone, and struggling with the brute materials of his craft." The other side of this messy childishness is the obsession that many artists here have with techno-toys, contraptions, and special effects. In much Internet art, you can create make-believe worlds with mouse play.

Compared with some models, the 2002 has few rough edges. Nothing disgusting or outrageous is on display. There is no confrontational gender-bending, no disturbing exploration of the sexual margins, no furious political attacks on the power structure of Western society or arcane meditations on the aesthetics of deconstruction. Some critics may blame Rinder for assembling too polite a show, but his selection more likely reflects the general lowering of art's temperature. Despite the new technological means, artists today are mostly elaborating upon the known rather than making particularly original work. (In the catalogue, Rinder himself wonders what effect September 11 will have upon the sensibility of the time, the implication being that it may well transform the scene.) The most surprising absence in the show is that of painting: It's hardly there at all. In fact, paintings do not live well with the kind of all-over-the-place art that Rinder specializes in. However, if the Whitney is going to snub painting in its Biennials, then it has the responsibility occasionally to survey contemporary painting in other shows, perhaps using its light-filled galleries on the top floor. The institution could even divide the contemporary job, hiring a curator of contemporary painting and a curator of -- what would you call it? Contemporary eclectics?

A survey like the Biennial invites generalizations but comes to life only in the details. The works have been thoughtfully juxtaposed in Rinder's spacious installation, which helps create some unexpected connections. There are a surprising number of visionary works, for example, although irony remains important. Using a darkened and spotlit stage, Christian Marclay has replaced musicians with their instruments, which seem to have come to life: A guitar bends its neck, an accordion ripples like a snake, and a drum set is climbing the stairway to heaven. On a white table, Anne Wilson has fashioned a landscape of pins and delicately cut pieces of dainty black lace that simultaneously evoke town and country, the astral and the microscopic, old-fashioned reserve and fiber-optic zip. Not far away are the lacy spiderwebs of Vija Celmins, another world entirely unto themselves. And within steps of each other are Lauretta Vinciarelli's radiant watercolors of geometric forms, which create an architecture of light, and Stephen Dean's swirling images of ecstatic worshipers at the festival of Holi in Uttar Pradesh, India. The last two offer a particularly striking juxtaposition, one rarely found in contemporary art -- Apollo, meet Dionysus.

2002 Biennial
At the Whitney Museum of American Art; through 5/26.


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