PRINT May 1993


Bruce W. Ferguson

“RACE,” “SEX,” AND “GENDER” have lately become neutral, even stylish terms for the real conditions of active racism, boundless homophobia, and institutionalized misogyny that threaten the fabric of urban democracy. While such terms—and why not add “difference” and “otherness” to the melting pot?—designate legitimate difficulties, as appropriated by “cold” academics their uses and meanings are shifted and diluted. All too often the effect is to neutralize authentic suffering, textualizing the contradictions and challenges of prejudice. At the same time, the ensuing “political correctness” offers a handy target to the right, which casts it as a sign of intolerance rather than of the utopian democracy in whose defense it might more appropriately be summoned.

To navigate this territory—indeed to posit in the sphere of visual culture a space where genuine resistance is still possible—is, I think, one of the goals of the curatorial vision of Elisabeth Sussman and her team at this year’s Whitney Biennial. No longer the ad hoc, laissez faire echo of market concerns, this Biennial has been constructed as a deliberate argument with many of the museological and commercial habits of the art world. There is an attempt to turn from a paternalistic curatorial “overseeing” to a position of receptive listening or witnessing. Yet this loosening of the knots of power is turning normally reasonable people into reactionary monsters as they confront the exhibition. Somehow, the Hilton Kramer-ization of the ’80s has such a hold on fearful New Yorkers that if you dis the show, you’re a racist or a woman-hater; while if you’re for the vision it champions, you’re a pluralist liberal pussy. But to buy into that kind of binarism is to buy into moral superiority in one form or another. In the context of the known and knowing environment of which it is a part, the Whitney Biennial deserves not only respect but engaged critique, as a committed cultural intervention. For while its threat to the status quo is its challenge, its argument is open to debate, if only because the art it presents ranges from the informed and rigorous to the silly and adolescent. It is a group exhibition, after all, and as with groups in general there are some voices that will speak to us now and urgently, some that have already been heard, and others that are probably not worth hearing from, either now or in the future.

I like the fact that there is a curatorial position, but I don’t agree with all of its particulars or even some of its epistemologies. For instance, painting, as everyone mentions, gets little play (and what we do see is superficial in the extreme). But if painting is so limited, how can Robert Colescott’s or David Diao’s work (which is not included) continue to be such a source of subversive pleasure? By reducing painting to bad examples, as if to prove a point, Ms. Sussman et al. buy into an essentialism that reminds one of a Clement Greenberg or a Benjamin Buchloh—an ideological rigidity that is supposedly what this exhibition is not about. It was never the medium that produced power, it was power that produced a privileging of that medium. Confronted with such deliberate absences at the Whitney, we, as viewers, are then in the position whereby we reprivilege the medium precisely by virtue of this highly invested repression. In other words, I think that Sussman doth protest too much.

But, at its best, the exhibition included Donald Moffett, for instance, whose work actually has both humor and beauty. It might seem a small point but within the context of sociocultural revisionist efforts, I find his to be provocative, accessible, and, in the best tradition of homosocial esthetics, tongue in cheek. Moffett seems to have moved beyond the literality of the “politics of reading,” which informs much dull academic work found on the Whitney’s floors, to a mature visual vocabulary in which history and the present productively collide.

Lorna Simpson’s haunting rendition of Mayor Tom Bradley’s assimilatory privilege in Los Angeles during the riots speaks volumes about the contradictions within Afro-American attempts to construct solidarity. And she does it powerfully by use of sound, tactility, suggestion, metaphor, and allegory, to create a space of listening. The communality of a room full of lips and possible ears suggests the possibility of self-critique without self-destruction.

Mark Rappaport’s fanzine deconstruction of Rock Hudson’s cinematic persona in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, 1992, is a finely tuned and finely honed video collage in which the “personal as political” is reclaimed and extended to and through the gay domain of popular culture. It is as entertaining today as Pillow Talk was in 1959, and the methods of cross-cutting, cross-referencing, and cross-indexing make of Tony Randall and Doris Day two “straight” angles to Hudson’s role of hypotenuse in an ever renewing Eternal Triangle.

Other highlights include Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Charles Ray’s Family Romance, Maureen Connor’s The Sixth Sense, and Robert Gober’s Newspaper. Low points include Jack Pierson’s Nothing, George Holliday’s videotape of the Rodney King beating (why not the Anita Hill hearings? or George Bush lying to the country? or the fall of the Berlin Wall?—you get my point), Francesc Torres’ overly complicated pretensions, and the miniminded Spike Lee’s Money Don’t Matter, where credibility (his and the curators’) is probably most in question. Shu Lea Cheang’s installation of Channels of Desire answers the question of how an artist is to make money in the recession: answer—charge a quarter for the viewing and confound notions of political correctness by constructing lesbian capitalism so that no one can really know where they stand (or sit). Over to you, Chet.

Bruce W. Ferguson is a freelance critic and curator living in New York.