Killer, Security Guard Enliven Whitney Biennial: Lance Esplund

A still from "Turning (live mix) with Antony and the Johnsons" (2004) by Charles Atlas. The work is included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Source: Whitney Museum of American Art via Bloomberg

The “Whitney Biennial 2012” is certainly not great or even very good overall (it may prove to be a disaster), but that doesn’t much matter.

Until the curtain drops, it’s an ongoing event.

This time, an unusually large portion is devoted to temporal works such as performance art, dance, theater, music, film and artists’ residencies.

“2012” marks the first time the Whitney’s fourth-floor galleries have been turned into a 6,000-square-foot performance space, which currently includes bleachers and a fenced-in, raised wooden platform, just off the elevators.

At the press preview, I spent a few minutes attending Sarah Michelson’s performance, a Balanchine-inspired rodeo ballet with loud music and a woman scrubbing the floor, while a person in a horse costume ambled about.

Sometimes, with so many boundaries being blurred, art and life, understandably, intermix.

For me, the memorable point of Michelson’s performance was when, as I took my seat in the bleachers, someone scolded me to “Keep off the stage!”

I asked if he was part of the performance.

“No,” he replied, “I’m just a security guard.”


My confusion followed me down to the second floor. In Nick Mauss’s installation “Concern, Crush, Desire” (2011), visitors are unwittingly part of the act.

Facing the elevators are two unmarked doors. I won’t spoil the surprise (go through them). But before you get admonished (as I did by another security guard), make sure to “Close the door!” behind you.

Comprising work by only 51 artists, “2012” is relatively small, scattered and incoherent -- almost scrappy.

It has a range of sensibilities, from the minimalist sculptures of Cameron Crawford and minimalist photographs by Liz Deschenes to the cluttered yet intriguing installation of mixed-media props, sets and animal puppets used by performance artist Tom Thayer.

In Matt Hoyt’s tiny, synthetic sculptures, which resemble stones, shells, nuts and bones, the show is intimate, inward -- fit for your pocket.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog’s four-channel digital projection pairs etchings by 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers with the music of contemporary Dutch musician Ernst Reijseger. Here, the show approaches the soulful.

Especially good is Kelly Reichardt’s spare and affecting feature film “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), a parable in which pioneers brave the Oregon plains.

Jungian Visionary

Best-in-show, however, goes to Robert Gober’s installation devoted to Forrest Bess (1911-77), a Jungian visionary and abstract painter who showed at the Betty Parsons Gallery.

Posthumously, Bess’s dream of an exhibit combining his paintings with his advanced thoughts on art, sex and creativity has finally been realized.

This Biennial, as usual, attempts to be hip, diverse, multicultural and multidimensional. Most of the art is bad -- especially those works nodding to “tradition.”

For instance, we get a false sense of rigor in the hard-edged though formally flaccid abstract paintings of Andrew Masullo, and in Nicole Eisenman’s flippant figurative monotypes.

And this Biennial is so performance-based (Eisenman, among other “2012” artists, will conduct a workshop inside the museum) that it feels like process is being elevated above the finished product.

Adam Weinberg

In the catalog interview, Whitney director Adam Weinberg acknowledges that “among the general public, which is looking for objects more often than not, there will be more frustration and some confusion.”

He adds that the emphasis on time-based media reflects the fluidity of the moment (like “sampling” and “surfing the web”). He feels that “people need to make several visits to get a flavor of what it’s really about.”

Of course, the “about” part seems to confuse some of the artists themselves.

If you want to see museum as theater -- or, more correctly, circus or zoo -- check out Dawn Kasper’s assemblage/performance “THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT,” an exhibitionist junk-pile-become-working-studio. According to Kasper, who will be making her art on site in the Whitney, “Everything I own is in this room.”

Killer Pictures

Another “2012” artist is also working in cramped quarters -- albeit offsite.

U.S. Prison inmate #89637-132, A.K.A. Leonard Peltier, is represented in an installation by Joanna Malinowska.

Peltier is a Native American imprisoned since 1977 for the first-degree murder of two FBI special agents during a 1975 dispute on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

Malinowska included Peltier’s paintings -- depicting charging buffaloes and grazing horses -- (think Thomas Kinkade), because, she says, “I haven’t investigated this matter, but I think probably the presence of indigenous Americans in the Whitney Museum is very marginal … [I’m] sort of symbolically smuggling him out.”

I didn’t bat an eye when I saw Peltier’s bad, kitschy paintings at the Whitney.

Although they represent some of the worst work in “2012,” his pictures feel right at home as part of the zeitgeist. Peltier may be a cold-blooded killer, but at least he’s got sincerity going for him.

If he were let out of prison tomorrow (I’m sure Larry Gagosian could flex some muscle), Peltier could be a star.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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