Critics too often argue that artists “reflect” a society. Instead, many recoil from their environments, emphasizing what’s being overlooked. The body-beautiful obsession in our culture is a particular irritant today, and in contemporary art, the anxiety around the body is inescapable. Countless artists insist upon its decay, weakness, and ungainliness. But the stronger sensibilities do not just make ugly, violent images of the flesh. They work the edges between pleasure and disgust. David Altmejd creates glittering, jewel-hard altars—or tombs, or morgue slabs—upon which Gothic creatures rot and rest. Cecily Brown’s recent paintings recall more than the sexually sugared art of Boucher; the nightmarish winged creatures of Goya also seem about to erupt from the painted flesh. Katy Grannan’s photographs of strangers who want to strip down have something of the frank poignancy—or is it cruel tenderness?—of Diane Arbus.
Certain artists seek to escape or transcend the body altogether. There are two works of blissful meditation in the show: Opie’s series of surfers on the ocean and Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water, which will probably become this Biennial’s crowd-pleaser. One at a time, viewers can open a door into Kusama’s work and walk out into a dark mirrored room, filled with water, in which hundreds of tiny starry lights dangle. The effect of the piece, while astral, is neither remote nor abstract. The water in the room makes the air humid, close, and velvety.
Artists also respond to their culture by trying to transform its junkiness. Kitsch, in particular, has become a cultural challenge, a kind of holy grail for many spiritual scavengers. Who can do the most astonishing thing to fanciful crapola? Who can turn kitsch into a kind of redemptive delirium? In Grow Room, Virgil Marti created a rippled mirror interior imprinted with macramé webs based (no kidding) on the work of spiders that were fed (no kidding again) drugged flies. From the ceiling hangs an example of delirious kitsch, an antler chandelier in Venetian-style glass. Other artists work with those junky no-name, in-between, nowhere spaces found everywhere in America. Mark Handforth’s art, which includes bent signs, warped interiors, and glittery neon, seems fashioned from the environment around a highway. Still others engage in romantic gestures of Internet martyrdom by, for example, attacking the violent games played there. A group called the Velvet-Strike Team makes it possible for you to pop the bad guys with peace signs. Of course, the bad guys will splatter you in return.
Many artists in this Biennial work with history and the nostalgic aura of the old—a postmodern obsession in a society without much memory. Dario Robleto has given ephemera an enduring weight, creating objects with an almost impossibly worn patina. At War With the Entropy of Nature/Ghosts Don’t Always Want to Come Back is a tape cassette created from, among other things, every bone in the human body and glass produced during an atomic test in 1945 when the heat melted sand. The psychedelic sixties and seventies are now decades that are attracting strong interest (you can work with antique kitsch), though people who actually remember those years will find such art rather weak tea. For those who love painting, the most memorable work in the show will probably not be a painting but Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcazar, an astonishing video that shows Velázquez painting Las Meninas. As the master paints, we see the king and queen, the dwarf, the little prince, the burly dog, and the servants wandering about the room. Sometimes, they are talking, but what we hear is like the murmur of voices from another room. The work is uncanny. The characters have stepped out of art into art, our art.