Apr 04 2014

Different Strokes for Different Folks: Whitney Biennial 2014

by Lilly Lampe

The last Whitney Biennial to take place in the museum’s iconic modernist building on 75th street has met with some criticism due to the curators’ decision to divide the exhibition in three—each curator governs one floor—rather than work under a single overarching theme. The result, however, benefits the viewer, who is given the opportunity for comparison; each of the curators—Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms and Michelle Grabner—inevitably exhibits his or her own styles and methodology. Overall such comparison enlivens the Biennial, making the tripartite show stimulating in a multitude of ways. Below is a brief overview of the Whitney Biennial 2014’s diverse selection.

All photos by Lilly Lampe for ArtAsiaPacific.

A selection of the 39 porcelain works by Japanese-born artist Shio Kusaka.

On the third floor, Michelle Grabner, a professor in painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has used her allotted space to make a case for female abstract-expressionist painters. But rather than focusing on the medium itself, this exploration extends further to include artists who exhibit similar sensibilities. From Sheila Hicks’s resplendent ceiling-tall fiber installation to Shio Kusaka’s pottery, Grabner challenges hierarchies that render craft as merely decorative. This openness to art forms that have historically been sidelined by the Western art world lends an air of excitement to what might otherwise be a somewhat stuffy presentation.

Sheila Hicks’s long fiberous Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column (2013–14) extends from floor to ceiling.

In Ken Lum’s Midway Shopping Plaza (2014), names from the Vietnam War are inscribed in an American strip-mall sign.

Moving down a level, Stuart Comer, who is chief curator of media and performance art the Museum of Modern Art, New York, hosts what appears to be a series of presentations within presentations. Progressive publishing groups such as Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy have been accorded side galleries, while New York-based Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard has transformed another room into a trippy den filled with whimsical furnishings, inhabited by sex dolls and plush creatures. In a far corner of the floor, a small heliogravure by Vietnamese-born artist Danh Vo abuts exhibition ephemera and a painting by late Chinese-American painter Martin Wong, creating a delicate note that is slightly overshadowed by the rest of the display.

Biennial artists Carissa Rodriguez and Ei Arakawa wear one of Arakawa’s “Hawaiian Presence” sculptures (2014) while standing in front of Rodriguez’s Limbs of the Pacific (TTC) (2014). 

Bjarne Melgaard’s psychadelic folly of pillows and plush toys.

Chinese-American painter Martin Wong’s painting Closed (1984–85) is a bleak depiction of a shuttered storefront.

On the top floor, Anthony Elms, associate curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, presents several serial works. One wall is covered in black-and-white gestural paintings by Charline von Heyl alongside steel and cymbal sculptures by Terry Adkins. Elms seems to operate under the logic of all inclusiveness and, though the works may not necessarily come together to form a coherent message, they certainly make up for this lack in atmosphere. Charlemagne Palestine’s sound installations in the stairwell and the room-size camera obscura by Zoe Leonard are both awe-inspiring.

Curator Anthony Elms in front of Untitled (#15-13) (2013) by American artist Rebecca Morris.

Charline von Heyl’s “Folk Tales” (2013) a series of collages made with enlarged copies of photogravure reproductions from a midcentury book on Russian and Polish folk art.

In her installation 945 Madison Avenue (2014) Zoe Leonard has transformed the museum’s signature Marcel Breuer–designed window into an enormous camera obscura, drawing attention to the city outside. 

The Whitney Biennial 2014 runs from March 7–May 25, 2014.

Lilly Lampe is a writer based in New York.