PRINT May 2002

Bruce Hainley

Poor Joseph Cornell. Never the most gregarious guy when he was alive, he's now commanded to speak from the grave by the annoying collective Archive (Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh), who, by interviewing dead artists “through dances conducted by professional spirit mediums and psychics,” put a necrophiliac spin on starfucking. I feel about Archive's lousy project, A Visit with Joseph Cornell, 2002, pretty much the way I feel about most of Lawrence Rinder's show: It's dead.

This would explain Rinder's veiling his curatorial objectives in the spiritual. Given his catalogue intro, which manages, sleazily, to screen his entire escapade through the events of 9/11 (despite almost all of the works' having been created before that date) and to invoke “truth” and “sincerity” while warning that “perhaps beauty and irony are luxuries of peacetime,” I'd have hoped he could instill another of those much touted patriotic/spiritual values: trust. I'm not sure which is more depressing—that Rinder distrusts his own authority by including a bit of everything even possibly thought of as artsy (thereby rendering good work a statistical fluke); that he demonstrates a lack of trust in his audience's intellect, peddling the stridently kooky, the cute, and the home-styled (from quilts and stained glass to an embarrassing“performance artist” who paints open eyes on her closed eyelids); or that careless decisions about the presentation of even the strongest work derail the viewer's trust in his curatorial capabilities.

Rinder attempts what I guess might be called an antiestablishment Biennial, “outside the New York–LA axis,” which is, I gather, something like George W's axis of evil: “What are the assumptions that underlie the divisions and boundaries that we have come to take for granted and which stipulate that this, but not that, is suitable for museum display?” Fine, I suppose, but Rinder backpedals rapidly, writing that his Biennial “opens the door only hesitantly to the possible richness of a truly expanded view of artistic practice.” Why so timid? Blow the door open so wide it flies off the hinges. If the task is to interrogate or display the pervasive infiltration of media deemed “culture,” include the sadly canceled NBC high-school drama Freaks and Geeks, Steven Meisel's “Hollywood Wives” Versace ads, and, given Rinder's intro, raw footage of the 9/11 disasters. As with the inclusion of the Rodney King video in the 1993 Biennial, I'm not sure what I would make of such decisions in the context of art, but at least it would show the curator's conviction to his stated vision.

I trusted that with 130-plus artists and a “truly expanded” view of artistic practice there'd be some exciting new work. The galleries are so chock-full that there is rarely an opportunity to consider anything without bumping into something or being subjected to highfalutin Muzak. Yet despite the sheer quantity of contributors to the show, there wasn't a single artist of whom I'd never heard (and I'd not heard of most of them) whose work matters—with one bright, saving exception. The miraculous thing about seeing great art is its palliative effect. Rinder's inclusion of the Rural Studio provides an oasis in the desert, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels grateful for the introduction. The late Samuel Mockbee and his students at the Auburn University School of Architecture in Hale County, Alabama, made structures that were bracingly innovative in form and in their use of salvaged materials (e.g., the amazing Mason's Bend Community Center with its wall and roof of Chevrolet Caprice windshields), and they revisited and reinvigorated the aesthetic, and economic concerns of such architectural predecessors as Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, whose inexpensive materials and streamlined open-air designs weren't just a matter of affect but the upshot of decisions made in hope of effecting change.

The paintings in this Biennial are (also with a single enthralling exception) dreadful. But—even though I can in a moment come up with radically dissimilar yet excellent painters at different points in their career (Maureen Gallace, John Tremblay, Brian Calvin, Lecia Dole-Recio), none of whom has ever been in a Biennial and all of whom demand something new of the medium while responding to its historical exigencies—whatever. And after seeing Vija Celmins's superb, heartbreaking yet sinister cobweb paintings—wonders in gossamer grisaille, meditations on the medium and its fusty history-juxtaposed with and dwarfed by one of Vera Lutter's large, god-awful X ray-ish black-and-white photos, any vestige of trust one might have had in the curation evaporates.

Similarly, I consider Vincent Fecteau one of the most important artists of his generation. Notice in Untitled, 2001, the punning wooden balls behind the latticing, the rope knots attaching them to the odd foldlike structure, the various surface textures painted black and blue: Fecteau is using modernism as a vernacular, fucking with it to explore vital sculptural issues not yet played-out by modernism (without falling into the traps of postmodernism's cool antiaesthetic critique), deranging the limits of craft and art, uselessness and waste—all while allowing open-ended referential fun and irony: the blue of “blue balls” displaced to the hue of the chamber that holds them; the scheme of black-and-blue suggesting s/m gaming as well as the bruising relations between artist and looker, roles constantly shifting. It's a relief to come upon his small but fierce sculptural provocations, but Rinder and his curatorial team put Fecteau's subtle works on pedestals of different sizes and—despite Rinder's proviso that art “perform some greater role than mere decoration”—decorated the pedestal tops with bevels instead of keeping them unadorned.

Rinder likes National Geographical, pseudo-anthropological, -museological exhibity stuff, but instead of getting a master—David Wilson of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for example—we're stuck with the ersatz: John Leaños and Salon de Fleurus. The latter re-creates the “legendary Paris salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas” by presenting “sepia copies of works from Stein's famed art collection.” Every Biennial curator selects a few more-established artists to suggest his aesthetic lineage—thus the great Celmins and the laughable Kiki Smith, neither ever exactly overlooked these days. Given Rinder's interest in the virtual and digital, given the standard use of appropriation as part of contemporary art practice, why not include (instead of the Salon de Fleurus and their quaint nostalgia-mongering and repetitions) Sturtevant, who's alive and well and an American in Paris still making her fucked-up, brain-bending work, none of which has been seen outside Europe? But theoretical acumen and memory (historical and critical intervention) are hardly Rinder's strong points. How else to explain that Collier Schorr's An Accounting of Jens F. (Notes from the Helga/Jens Project), 1999-2002—a weak, blatant rip-off of Richard Hawkins's great collages and books—is in but Hawkins is not? Or that Rinder seems not to have considered that Sanford Biggers's and Jennifer Zackin's dual-projected home movies' similarities were as much the product of the Super-8 movie camera's technology and marketing as ethno-economic happenstance. How else to explain the inclusion of the harmless work of Chris Johanson (I think skateboarders are hot, and how delightful that they're making art, but it's just sad for the Whitney, which, after all, gave a retrospective to Red Grooms, to have someone pass this stuff off as new or innovative). Or that Rinder can get away with writing that “comics have become a major inspiration to artists of every generation” (emphasis mine). Perhaps Archive could channel Roy Lichtenstein and ask him what he thinks of this recent comics fad.

Despite all the snafus, I still had some fun. The perceptually warped and warping, psychotic/psychedelic sculpture of Evan Holloway looks killer as always. Rachel Harrison's photo-sculptural constructions continue to intrigue me. What are these weird and perplexing things anyway? Unplugged, 2000, looks like an Artschwager crate gone berserk In Bustle in Your Hedgerow, 1999, Elizabeth Taylor strolls through a green minimalist equivalent of a topiary maze. Referring as much to Liz's “gardening” (and ghost busting) in Night Watch—where '70s-fabulous, boozy, busty Liz dupes everyone out of life and fortune—as to Minimalism, Harrison, with her merging of sculptural form and tabloid sensibility, could almost be seen to be meditating on the uncanny consequence and confrontation of object, objecthood, and image in the continually astonishing oeuvre of Cady Noland.

I adore that Miltos Manetas discovered—despite the wizardly digital interests of Rinder's boss, Maxwell Anderson—that wasn't a registered domain name and hijacked it to curate his own online biennial (I recommend John Tremblay's deliriously dopey contribution). I hope Manetas holds out for bucks equivalent to the Bucksbaum Award should the Whitney offer to buy him out.

The solution to this farrago: Dump curating by committee, dump the concept that any one person can provocatively and intelligently curate and install a show this large. Hire four curators of different backgrounds and ages. Give each a floor of the Whitney. They answer to no one, and if their lists overlap, well, darling, that only makes dungs interesting and produces a momentary quorum of aesthetic valence. It couldn't possibly produce anything more self-indulgent or irrelevant than what the Whitney has presented in the last few years.