PRINT May 2017

Johanna Fateman

An-My Lê, November 5, Sugar Cane Field, Houma, Louisiana, 2016, ink-jet print, 40 × 56".

THE 78TH WHITNEY BIENNIAL is full of beautiful, smart, and trenchant art. It unfolds as a series of crisscrossing conversations and exhilarating moments where things simply feel good together—and yes, everything feels better in the new building. Cauleen Smith’s glittering, handmade banners, emblazoned with poetically mournful slogans in protest of black lives lost to racist violence, announce both the museum’s most inclusive Biennial yet and curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks’s attunement to injustices that long predate Trump’s win, but that are sure to tragically intensify under his rule. The statement Everything feels better in the new building takes as a given that everything, in general, is worse. The show benefits from—and is burdened by—an anxious climate that no one wished for, and it offers some encouragement, if not solace, with its earnest back-to-work persistence.

The “political” works on view did not spring up in outrage on November 9. Here we see, in striking visual terms, the contours of the long game—resistance in registers of anguish, vigilance, and humor, drawn conscientiously from all quarters of the art world. But good D&I (shorthand for diversity and inclusion in the field of human resources) is no panacea for the thorny problems of representation that traditionally attend the Whitney’s biannual survey, as the significant, ongoing outrage occasioned by the inclusion of one particular painting clearly demonstrates. Malicious cruelty and privileged naïveté alike, we see, can pour salt in the most American of open wounds. Painter Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, an abstraction of the famous 1955 photos that show fourteen-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till’s brutalized corpse, was met with immediate objections, as you’ve likely heard. Artist Parker Bright stood before the work during the exhibition’s opening in a T-shirt bearing the caption BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE; Hannah Black, a multidisciplinary artist and cultural critic (who has written for these pages), composed and circulated an open letter, with only black signatories, addressed to the curators and museum staff, calling for the removal—and recommending the destruction—of Schutz’s work. In her text, she bluntly states that it is “not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.”

As of this writing, nearly a month after the Biennial’s opening, the controversy surrounding the painting—and Black’s letter—still dominates discussion of the exhibition in my social-media feed as well as in mainstream reporting. The maelstrom is not simply part of the backdrop. Along with all manner of very recent, relevant news stories of varying magnitudes—Trump’s proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts; his bombing of a Syrian government air base; the murder of Timothy Caughman, who was black, by a white-supremacist terrorist not far from the museum; and Pepsi’s deranged commercial starring itself as an olive branch proffered by Kendall Jenner to a cop on behalf of messageless demonstrators—it truly is part of the show. The curators have chosen to keep Open Casket in, and to reckon with the fallout as a kind of evolving addition to the Biennial. The painting itself—now an illuminated elephant-in-the-room, a perplexing tourist attraction—is like a symbol, perhaps an asterisk, denoting a profound, rancorous debate that’s happening elsewhere, outside, online.

Smith’s heraldic compositions, which hang in formation from the lobby ceiling like an invisible procession paused above us, appear on the fifth floor, too, right off the elevator, not far from Schutz’s contested work. The title of her series, “In the Wake,” 2017, echoes that of scholar Christina Sharpe’s recent, influential book (subtitled On Blackness and Being), which mobilizes multiple senses of wake—the trail of a slave ship, the afterlife of slavery, and the custom of sitting with the deceased, often with the casket open, before a funeral. Aptly underscoring the stakes of the debate instigated by a white artist’s appropriation, one banner reads WE WERE NEVER MEANT TO SURVIVE, in dark script on a ground of silver sequins. Velvet, felt, quilted pleather, acrylic hair beads, and barrettes are among the materials used in Smith’s compelling iconographic designs, which incorporate such imagery as jewels, guns, an eight ball, a bleeding heart, and a No. 2 pencil stabbed into the corner of an eye.

View of the Whitney Biennial, 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Background: Raúl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016. Floor, from left: Raúl de Nieves, Man’s best friend, 2016; Raúl de Nieves, The longer I slip into a crack the shorter my nose becomes, 2016; Raúl de Nieves, UUU MEE, 2015–16; Raúl de Nieves, Somos Monstros 2, 2016. Photo: Matthew Carasella.

Inexpensive craft materials and a palpably laborious process are likewise powerful elements of Raúl de Nieves’s breathtaking site-specific installation in the windows at one end of the floor. His bead-encrusted sculptures draw on the intricate manual craftwork he recalls from his childhood in Mexico, while evoking the monstrous drag tradition of artist-designer and club personality Leigh Bowery. Here, de Nieves’s fantastically papal, distorted costumed figures stand before “stained glass” panels of meticulously cut-and-pasted, light-filtering colored paper, telling an irreligious story of transformation that features the housefly as a leitmotif. His club-like cathedral of humble means is an elating moment of respite (from anything) and the curators have deftly balanced it with an equivalent tour de force at the other end of the space—Samara Golden’s dizzying installation The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, 2017. The tiered work deploys an ingenious infinity-mirror effect, reflecting unpeopled miniature interiors furnished with items such as tiny potted plants and filthy toilets. The tessellating compartments speak to class divisions, social isolation, and apocalypse, as the museum’s majestic view of the Hudson beckons just beyond.

The horizon doesn’t represent escape or a receding dream in Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s remarkable short film The Island, 2017, but rather something to swim away from, in desperation. The present-day parallels hardly need to be elaborated. Shot entirely on the Malaysian island of Pulau Bidong, which became the world’s largest refugee camp after the Vietnam War, and where the artist and his family once lived, the hybrid work chronicles the plight of the “boat people” who risked everything on their harrowing journey. Many didn’t survive, and their battered, makeshift vessels were sometimes pushed away from the overcrowded shore. As Nguyen chronicles the island’s devastating history, he uses the camp’s abandoned, overgrown site as a backdrop for a postnuclear-holocaust fable. A similarly transfixing, seductively pessimistic marriage of fantasy and research figures in Anicka Yi’s voluptuous 3-D video meditation on biochemistry, consumer lust, and neocolonial prospecting. Sultry voice-over illuminates the elliptical narrative of the The Flavor Genome, 2016, in which a flavor chemist searches the Brazilian Amazon for an apocryphal shape-shifting plant rumored to feed on human remains. In an exhibition not short on visual pleasure, Yi stands out for enlisting the production values and immersive illusionism of Hollywood to dramatize the terrible true cost of beauty—or luxury—under capitalism. Her dispassionate narrator enumerates deforestation and the genocide of indigenous peoples as “key elements that comprise the flavor profile of the Tropics,” before noting, more generally, that “if pleasure is to give the world gloss, then pain must be its pores.”

Pain as a requisite to permeability, as an entry point to, say, understanding, is a sobering notion, and Pope.L’s bologna room demands discomfort at the very least. It’s the work I returned to on each of my several visits to the Biennial; I’d stand in there as long as I could bear the smell. In the context of the show’s nearly perfect flow, the fetid provocation of Claim (Whitney Version), 2017, sticks out as a spatial disruption—a yucky stop about midway between the fifth floor’s transporting windowed poles—and as a kind of unresolved memorial, an intriguing, troubling conceptual feint. The “venerable black artist,” as he sardonically but accurately refers to himself in the cryptic explanatory text mounted inside of his installation (next to an open bottle of MD 20/20), is known for his unflinching, often confrontationally funny, experimental explorations of race, racist cruelty, capitalism, and homelessness. Here the ostensible subject of his work is Jews. Slices of lunchmeat (there are 2,755) are placed in a penciled grid that spans the walls of his pink structure inside and out. And stuck to a daub of white acrylic paint in the center of each is a tiny photocopied picture of a person who may or may not be Jewish, we’re told. Altogether, the images represent approximately 0.25 percent of New York City’s Jews. The absurdity of this imprecise population-modeling of a historically persecuted group—combined with the poignancy of the little blurred faces of both adults and children, the smell of curing flesh, the resemblance of the bologna to flaps of skin—gives way to dread. The work’s arbitrary, outlandish manipulation of data registers as a warning and a shock—it conjures the Holocaust—and is anchored by the text’s invocation of a personal (black) vulnerability to disappearance. The fortified wine, Pope.L writes, “intoxicates the architecture,” by “creating a sweet warm substrate of reference that seeps through the discourse of the work like freedom the pores of a citizen . . . listen . . . listen . . . can’t you hear . . . us . . . evaporating . . .” The artist does not play it safe here. Toying with the transposability of genocide, he takes the very idea of polite sensibilities and puts them to the test with a spectacle that does not merely risk offending but ventures into the territory of the obscene.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, The Island, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 42 minutes 5 seconds. Production still.

Jessi Reaves’s sometimes functional, one-of-a kind furniture pieces provide a kind of unruly connective tissue linking disjunctive works. Her sculptures are revealed as chameleonic decor elements, easy to pair with other artworks despite their big, vaguely dystopian personalities. But Reaves’s repurposed, in-process aesthetic, that of a discerning landfill scavenger and couture upholsterer, finds its best companion in the queer hedonism of Carrie Moyer’s trickily layered, biomorphic compositions. The painter’s loud, seductive canvases synthesize an alternative history of abstraction, one dominated by women’s innovation, from Helen Frankenthaler’s vibrant stains to Georgia O’Keeffe’s radically magnified vulvar compositions to Elizabeth Murray’s dynamic, cartoony armatures. Reaves’s love seat Chenille Couch After Ruhlmann, 2017, resembles Snuffleupagus as much as it does the Art Deco designs of its namesake, and the curves of its velvet piping mirror the rust accents of Moyer’s royal-blue underwater scaffolding in Swiss Bramble, 2016.

Mostly, the painters chosen by the curators are exceptional, and their canvases luxuriate in the spacious new accommodations. One standout among standouts was Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, whose convivial work on the sixth floor is relatable in the best sense of the word. Her wryly detailed, cartoony fly-on-the-wall observations of gatherings, interactions, and well-worn spaces are rich with contemporary references to daily life and pop culture. And there’s humor in her rendering of the crowd in Trump Rally (And some of them I assume are good people), 2016. But in its only slightly exaggerated index of the slogans and styles of the MAGA set, her tone is ultimately more fearful than mocking. The devil is in the details: I believe that’s the Charleston church mass-shooter Dylann Roof staring us down from the third row; farther back there’s a glimpse of a Confederate flag T-shirt, and two Klansmen. This work resonates powerfully with An-My Lê’s striking images of Louisiana, which also evoke our not-so-distant antebellum past. There’s a haunting photograph of a burning sugarcane field; another of a film crew shooting a Civil War battle scene for a period film; and one more, November 9, Graffiti, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2016, that shows an empty street on the day after. Spray-painted on the side of a shop is the sentence FUCK THIS RACIST ASSHOLE PRESIDENT.

Another successful dialogue, a heartfelt rapport, is staged between Henry Taylor’s figurative paintings and Deana Lawson’s rich photographic tableaux, which both present African American subjects in complex ways. Lawson’s family-photo-album-inspired photographs are painstakingly cast and art-directed to simulate real domestic settings and to summon rich backstories. In Nicole, 2016, a young woman, nude, looks up at the camera, unsmiling, provocatively prone on an earth-toned geometric rug, a tangle of plastic children’s toys pushed into the corner. Taylor likewise imbues his figures with compelling specificity, but he does so by abbreviating their forms and effacing detail with bold areas of flat acrylic paint. The 4th, 2012–17, is like a monumentally scaled snapshot, easily capturing the July heat and a backyard chef snacking at the barbecue. His The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough!, 2017, is based on the video live-streamed on Facebook by Diamond Reynolds in the minutes following the fatal traffic-stop shooting of her fiancé Philando Castile, who bled to death in the driver’s seat last summer, a screaming policeman’s gun still trained on him. In a chilling composite of the footage, Taylor tells the terrible story in a single vibrant frame, remembering Castile in paint, distinguishing the singular tragedy of his death from the raw digital data accumulating year after year—the smartphone evidence of beatings and murders that energizes and then fatigues families, communities, and activists, while somehow always failing to indict the perpetrators. Looking at the work, it occurred to me that the purpose of making such a painting today, from excruciating historical source material like the footage captured by Reynolds in the wake of Castile’s murder, might be, paradoxically, to take the image out of circulation, to freeze it, to imagine that there is only one of it, and that it could be kept private—or that it could be destroyed. Which, of course, is impossible.

Parker Bright protesting in front of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 17, 2017. Photo: Michael Bilsborough.

In the fracas surrounding Open Casket, many have drawn parallels between it and this work of Taylor’s (and the latter has drawn ire as well). While the assertion in Black’s letter that, as a white artist, “the subject matter” of Till’s murder “is not Schutz’s” would seem to make the difference between the paintings cut-and-dried, at least from her point of view, there is more at stake in a consideration of Taylor’s painting as a kind of counterimage in this context. Black frames her grievance with Schutz’s work by pointing to a long history of white appropriations of black culture, as well as “the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as the public lynching.” If one is to compare the two artists’ images of racist extrajudicial killing, many things must be taken into account, including such factors as the artists’ different investments in the depiction of black lives (and deaths), the formal qualities of their paintings, the ideological or emotional implications of their abstract approaches, the historical contexts of their particular subjects, and their photo-based imagery’s origins in radically different regimes of technological reproduction. While it’s not the work of a single letter, a single controversy, a single show, to articulate and instate a new ethics of representation, the juxtaposition of the two tremendously consequential images points to the work that must be done—particularly, I think, by those who would blithely defend Schutz’s artistic prerogative.

Open Casket, of course, is everywhere, the specter of its proposed destruction egging on its reproduction alongside every opinion piece weighing in on the matter. People want to see it IRL, too. Thanks to the painting’s installation in one of the exhibition’s few bottlenecks, I had the chance, during my most recent visit to the museum, to overhear several conversations between viewers as I waited for the headphones accompanying Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, 2014–15 (a suite of inventive video works that pair unexpected public dance performances outside Detroit liquor stores with interviews in which curious passersby reflect on their changing neighborhood). The most dispiriting theme expressed by those searching out Schutz’s famous work was their uncritical reverence for it as a beacon of free speech, its continued presence understood to represent a brave stand against censorship, a principled refusal to hide even under threat of violence. This, to the exclusion of the issues of appropriation, representation, and harm raised by Black and other critics.

Such discussions “go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode,” the letter reads, “with humility, clarity, humor and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded.” The implication that “we,” as a society, or as art viewers, are engaged in a shared, self-reflexive, ethical project to live in a “reparative mode,” reveals an unexpected optimism beneath the letter’s strident refrain that “the painting must go.” While not doubting the sincerity of her demand (or dismissing its danger), I read Black’s statement as a gauntlet thrown, a limit case, a proposition that deploys polemical excess in order to cut through the gross complacencies that help sustain our violent and unjust reality, and to remind us that, while such steps forward as improved curatorial diversity at a major museum are meaningful, even the very best D&I can’t and shouldn’t insulate us from discomfiting challenges to white supremacy.

With its ambitious, openhearted array of artists and forthright grappling with discord, the exhibition does, I think, regardless of what one feels about the choice to include Schutz’s painting, powerfully contribute to the effort to discuss and imagine—if not yet to implement—a reparative mode of working with and within art’s institutions.

The Whitney Biennial is on view through June 11 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Johanna Fateman is a musician, a writer, and an owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is currently coediting a collection of Andrea Dworkin’s writings for Semiotext(e).