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75th Whitney Biennial: No SIlver Star Here

 Pae White, Smoke Knows

There was some gold amid the dross at the 75th Whitney Biennial, but the majority of the work left me cold--sophomoric, turgid, gimmicky, derivative and just plain dull was my overall impression

On the plus side, Pae White’s Still, Untitled a massive tapestry made from a photograph of smoke sensuously curling upward—a suspended moment captured in woven textile—is a gorgeous meditation on the ephemeral.

Kate Gilmore’s video, Standing Here, passed my elevator rule keeping my attention riveted. Dressed incongruously in cheery red schoolmarm dress she begins by breaking into a narrow shaft of sheetrock (installed in the room with the video), maybe 15’ high. Once in, she battles her way upward punching and kicking hand and toe holes until she finally reaches the top and turns off the camera. The determination goading her on for what unknown purpose is quirky and curious. You can’t help but be drawn into what I surmise is a metaphor for being an artist.

I loved Lesley Vance’s moody little bonbons for the eye—abstract paintings featuring lush slashes of paint applied with a palette knife against a dark background, inspired by seventeenth-century Spanish still-lifes.

In the room with Marcel Breuer’s famous trapezoid window were R.H. Quaytman’s classic minimalist riffs on it—a nice palette cleanser after the visual cacophony of the previous rooms. I loved his diamond dust paintings. What can I say? I’m a bit of a magpie.

I like Charles Ray’s work. What’s not to like? But I couldn’t shake the feeling it was on a par with the great Swedish textile designer, Josef Frank—I love his work, don’t get me wrong, but is it Whitney Biennial-worthy?

Scott Short explores issues of authorship in his work. His creative process, in collaboration with a photocopy machine, is painstaking. The result is elegant and compelling with a backstory of dogged obsession.

As to the rest, I hate to sound cynical, but I feel like I’ve seen it all before. Just invoking the name Beuys doesn’t give your work credibility, as in the case of The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s overly pretentious piece, We Like America and America Likes Us. Babette Mangolte’s reconstitution of her 1978 work A Photo Installation, retitled: How to Look at Art, composed of more than 450 wall images and a case of duplicate photos made into playing cards is didactic and dry. You may admire the amount of work Hannah Greely put into her restaurant booth, but then you also wonder why she bothered. And yes Suzan Frecon’s paintings are pleasing, but they look like something you’d see in a flossy corporate boardroom: expensive, well-executed, safe—hardly earth shattering, or even boat rocking.

I know there’s better art out there, I’ve seen it. A show like the Biennial makes me angry because it mostly rewards the wrong people, but more than that, when the work shown doesn’t have the chops, it muddies the water in an already hard-to-decipher field, ultimately doing Contemporary Art a disservice.