PRINT May 2002

Bob Nickas

“Where’s the art? There’s nothing to see.” Thus spoke the well-dressed dowager as she teetered dangerously over the mutant sculptures of Luis Gispert. The artist, by way of a nearby wall label, refers to Remix (Extended Beats), 2001, as “a unique mix of ghetto style and Danish modern design.” She wasn’t having any of it. And Gispert’s photos of cheerleaders seemed more taunting than cheering. She blinked in my direction, and though I shrugged sympathetically, she scowled—that grandmotherly look that says quite plainly, “You, mister, are this close to being cut from the will!” The museum can only hope that she is not one of its benefactors.

Ladies from her tribe are everywhere in this part of town—just one of the reasons I so rarely venture north. Yet here I was, following her through the show, trying to listen in on her crankiness. But we were moving along too slowly and she didn’t have much more to offer. Help arrived in the form of a junior high school group—two gangly boys in particular, who I tailed back down to the second floor.

“Wow! This is so cool!” They were entranced by Ken Feingold’s talking heads, disembodied but with moving eyes and lips (If/Then, 2001). The buzz of the crowd around the heads made their conversation hard to follow. Feingold’s own name for the software that enables them to speak to each other is “artificial pseudo intelligence.” But after shadowing the boys a while longer, I realized they were fitted with a similar program, and the “Oh wows” wore thin.

Now I was on my own, though it was hard to shake the feeling that I was still in junior high. Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphically distorted pay phone (2002) and an installation by Forcefield, Third Annual Roggabogga, 2002, a terrific cavelike sideshow, were both being met by viewers with that same geeky, dumb wonder. So why was I turned on by one and not the other? The pay phone, given a room to itself, virtually basks in its own strangeness. And yet an everyday object made strange, and in the middle of a museum, is nothing more than a normal art object circa now. With Forcefield, the energy level is high and wild.

I was reminded that many expect the Biennial to function as a report on the state of art. Maybe that’s why it’s often criticized for not having a point of view. But moving from one floor of the Whitney to another, it’s hard to miss the schizophrenic mood: all high-tech, gimmicky, and gadgety one minute then homemade, crafty, and funky the next. Uninteresting shows, like shortchanged humans, may have little or no personality, but this Biennial’s personality is decidedly split.

On the way to Feingold’s AI heads, you pass the wondrous realm of Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose works are among the few I would happily have spirited home. In the forest he pieces together on canvas, the trees are entwined with the phrase REMEMBER WITH MEMORY, forming an endless stream of roots and vines. Nature, like memory, appears as a place that is very much alive and ultimately untamable. An equally fantastical landscape can be found in the drawings of the architect Lebbeus Woods, with cities envisioned as the rise and fall of the earth itself. While there are sections of sustained and heightened mood (Anne Wilson’s black lace webbing as a prelude to Vija Celmins’s gorgeous spiderwebs) and passages that flow hilariously (Christian Marclay’s stretched-like-taffy musical instruments set the stage for Destroy All Monsters’ Strange Fruit: Rock Apocrypha, 2000-2002, a Who’s Who and a Who’s That? of Detroit luminaries), gears abruptly shift even when proximity isn’t an issue. Am I the only one who simply can’t reconcile hand-stitched quilts with a hard drive? Or is the quilt the original version of the laptop? I started to wonder if Larry Rinder was on a mission to wed futures and pasts, whether that was possible, and whether I wanted to go along for the ride.

At that point, the show turned into something of an amusement park, and not exactly for the worse. The fourth floor radiates from Main Drag, 2001, a big fun house of a room given over to the late Margaret Kilgallen, a beautiful tribute. Nearby are Janine Gordon’s kinetic photos of kids in mosh pits, Christian Jankowski’s televangelist (The Holy Artwork, 2001), and Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Zackin’s video a small world . . . , 1999. Their collaboration is built around Super-8 home movies from the artists’ childhoods, one next to the other, and although they grew up in very different environments—in African American and Jewish families, respectively—the overlaps are at times seamless, as if you were seeing double. The footage from parallel vacations at Disneyland carries over through most of the rooms that follow; a theme park after all.

I was exhausted—no big surprise—not to mention dispirited, and I wasn’t altogether sure why. The show has its sublime moments, but they are separated by only the thinnest of membranes from some real clinkers. (How impermeable are white walls?) In an art fair, one expects sudden, disturbing jolts at every turn, quality to rise and plummet, but in a museum? I thought about something I already knew: Big shows don’t work.

Slowly the pleasures of the day came back to me. Trenton Doyle Hancock, Lebbeus Woods, Vija Celmins. And then there was Rachel Harrison’s what-the-hell-is-that? sculpture, Collier Schorr’s boy-take on Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga” series,1999-2002, Yun-Fei Ji’s magical/sly panoramas, Lorna Simpson’s Easy to Remember, 2001 (who doesn’t love Rodgers and Hart?), Hirsch Perlman’s creation-as-Pandora’s-box, and the Rural Studio in Alabama, now the legacy of the late Samuel Mockbee. Recycled/reclaimed architecture this exciting—a wall of car windshields!—makes the now tasteful vernacular look like an ad for Home Depot. On my way out of the museum I thought about how you have to be inside architecture to have any real feeling for it. I say let’s go down to Alabama and see for ourselves.