By Sam Swasey
July 19, 2019
The Whitney Biennial, now in its 79th year, is regarded as an exhibition that holds its finger to the current pulse of American art. Every two years new curators select work by scores of artists, often young and lesser known, which exemplifies the thrust of artistic production in the country. Works by seventy-five artists and collectives are on view at this year’s biennial, curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley. More specifically, there are five collectives present, two deceased artists, and sixty-eight living. Of the living, thirty-five are women, twenty-eight are men, and four artists who identify as gender-nonconforming. Additionally, three are of Middle-Eastern decent, six Asian, eight Native American or First Nations, 13 White and 29 Black artists—three of which were born in Africa and two who identify as Black Puerto Rican. While writer John Yau has pointed out most of the artists selected live and work on either the Western or Eastern seaboards, neglecting the “flyover states” in between, this is nonetheless the most diverse showing in the Biennial’s history.
On the surface it would seem a shame that a group of artists should be introduced as such—focusing on a shallow and statistical breakdown of identity rather than simply letting the work speak—but thus far in America we have blown our chances pretending that “we don’t see color,” or for that matter, “we don’t see” difference at all, thereby making invisible much of the population that makes America what it is. It was, after all, only five years ago, in 2014, when of the one-hundred-plus artists exhibiting at the Biennial, only nine were Black.
The American Myth: a nation of folks pulled up by their bootstraps because the early bird gets the worm. Justice for all and the land of the free; America, God sheds his grace on thee. The American Myth, its roof broken open and re-thatched continuously, is in a constant state of rupture. Right now, unlike historically, the deconstructionists shattering the myth are significantly more diverse. There is a transformation in the air. It is everywhere and it is now, and it’s due time we took a look around.
Much of the work at the Biennial is political though most of it has nothing to do with the politics of the late-night talk shows and Twitter feeds to which we’ve become accustomed. Instead it speaks of the polis, of the cities or even the country in which people live, their conflicting histories, and the divided present. Most of the work is deeply personal.
5825 NE 2nd Ave. is located in the Little Haiti section of Miami where artist Eddie Arroyo lives and works, and a building which he made a painting of four times between the years 2016-2019. In his 2016 painting 5825 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33137 we see the twisted clouds and sharp Floridian sun at left giving way to the muffled glow of street lamps. Half lit, at center, and smothered in streaks of Tang-like orange is the awning of the “CAFE CREOLE.” Beneath this, a painted wall mural of an admiral, gazing proudly at whatever does or does not exist beyond the street below. In Arroyo’s painting of the same name from 2017, the building is depicted more matter-of-factly. Sunlight is barely visible except, perhaps, at the edges of some cumulus hanging in the sky. The awning is gone; so is the Cafe Creole. Left only is a box-like structure, barbed-wire encasing its frame, and what may or may not have been a mural of an admiral, covered in a brush-soaked smear of grays. These paintings are not objective. How could they be when, as the wall text reads, they depict the gentrification of the artist’s neighborhood, and his witness to more than just murals being washed away?
On another wall, hung in a line, are screenprinted pages from the 1989 New York Daily News, from Alexandra Bell’s series, No Humans Involved—After Sylvia Wynter (2018). The artist has blacked out the images from each page, leaving only the text—headlines, quotes and clips—with certain words or phrases highlighted in yellow: WOLF PACK’S PREY, SAVAGE,‘WILDING’ TEENS… RAPE. These were the actual words chosen at the time to describe the five innocent, teenage boys of color who were falsely convicted of beating and raping the white woman who was victimized in the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case. Reflecting on them today, the words deliver a guilty sentence—unserved—to the journalists who wrote them, as well as to the populace of a city that was caught up in a pandemonium of fear and hatred, grasping for answers in the simplest and most horrifically self-aggrandizing location: racism. Again: SAVAGE, WILDING, WOLVES. Bell caps off her series with the full-page advertisement that Donald Trump bought in the Daily News in 1989, entitled “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.” (The sitting president of the United States paid for the publication of this ad in the city’s other three major newspapers at the time, as well.)
Elsewhere, the photographs of Paul Mpagi Sepuya hang on all four walls of an alcove. The images are of bodies—both the artist’s and his collaborators’—photographed in a mirror so that the camera that shoots is likewise shot and you inhabit the space just as they do, another body in the room. The individual figures, male and female, have varying body types and skin tones. Often (though not always) nude, Sepuya and one other figure are seen photographing, and being photographed by, themselves. There is honesty and an intimacy to this because they appear to be also seeing what you see, as you’re seeing it. You are together in this, creating a composition that is as elegant for how the figures are framed together in space as it is for how it plays on the rhythm between your own fragility and tenderness.
If—because of the mirror’s reflection—in each photograph there are essentially two images, then in his composition, Ariel Goldberg, Camera Lesson (2018) there are four. Hung side-by-side two photographs, nearly identical, picture Sepuya seated alongside his friend Ariel Goldberg, each holding cameras. Goldberg looks straight ahead through circular eyeglasses, a medium format camera on her lap. Sepuya sits physically to the left of her and photographically to the right, arms bent and eyes looking downward at the viewfinder of the smaller camera he holds aloft. The images, though, are in fact different. One is the resultant photograph produced by the camera in Goldberg’s lap, and the other, the photograph produced by the one in Sepuya’s hands. The image reminds us of what photographs usually do not, namely, almost everything. Like an old, disposable camera in which the viewfinder is disconnected from the lens, creating a photograph that is always slightly off from what you had actually seen, the perspective we have of ourselves and others is always incomplete. In this composition the other makes up for what his or her friend could have missed, and we make up for the rest. It reminds you of the infinite things in the world, hidden in plain sight, and otherwise forgotten.
People who have historically been placed on the outskirts of the American status quo have been pushing for an awfully long time. With the inclusion in this Biennial of so many distinct perspectives a viewer might benefit from knowing the background of an artist as they ponder their work. But this style of looking—identity-first, art-after—has risks. The possible aha moment (that’s why they produce work like that) opens the door to the benefits of considering difference, but it can potentially lead to self-aggrandizement on the part of the audience, especially if a given audience comes from a position of power or privilege.
Four paintings by Marlon Mullen, all Untitled (2018), are composed of thick paint strokes and a seemingly unrestrained grab bag of color. At times the strokes form into a Mondrian-like grid pattern, minus the straight edge. At others, an explosion of Miróesque figures drift across the canvas. And letters, which appear everywhere, sometimes combine to form discernible words and sometimes instead float, unsignified, in open space. Mostly though, they are like nothing you’ve ever seen, having fallen straight through the history of painting, taking nothing from it and asking nothing of it. Their affect is refreshingly jarring for having done so. Mullen’s imagery portrays covers of Artforum and Art in America, as seen and painted by the artist, who has autism spectrum disorder and communicates mostly nonverbally. Knowing his backstory transforms the paintings. This melding of art with identity is not only indicative of the entire Biennial, but perhaps also the times in which we live. Prior to the Renaissance an artist would not sign their name on a canvas, for example. Now, a person’s output is not only linked to their name, but also their being. It is not far removed from the American obsession with stardom—the music is enhanced when we know what our pop stars self-medicate with, or what they do with their kids on Sundays.
In the case of Mullen, the narrative might go something like this: he produces great paintings because he has autistic spectrum disorder. Or, possibly worse, he produces great paintings in spite of his autistic spectrum disorder. And any Biennial artist whose identity historically sits outside the status quo can fill this narrative. The difference alone becomes glorified and the viewer, in the name of self-congratulatory ‘open-mindedness,’ begins to praise their accepted inability to understand another’s perspective. The backstory is both our vice and our imperative.
Our position in the world, surrounded by other people, can be broken into two points of perception: our perception of ourselves and another’s perception of us. The thing that stands between these points is the body. (We cannot see into another’s mind, after all.) Bodies in prison cells, death counts, protesters in the streets—all of these have greater personal and cultural significances, but they all begin and end with the body. This is why somatic transformation has such a visceral effect on most people. We can hardly comprehend the magnitude of an avalanche or the rising of sea levels, but we cringe when we see another fall to the ground from fatigue, or tremble when they raise their fist to the air in defiance.
In photos by Elle Pérez (Mae [three days after], Wilding and Charles, and Dahlia and David [fag with a scar that says dyke] [all 2019]) we see the near-instantaneous result, self-inflicted or other, of outside impact on the human body. In one, a young woman recovering from feminization surgery stares deadpan at the camera, yellowing bruises beneath her eyes. In another, a woman holds wrapped ice lovingly over the ribs of a recently tattooed woman. In a third, the word “Dyke” is carved into a thigh and the blood that seeps from it recalls the life of a person in whose eyes, outside the picture frame, it cannot be seen. The bruise, the swollen rib, the inscribed word— these marks are the impact of the outside world, results of the long slog of living within it. But the subjects are just as much struck by the world as they are striking back. They’re getting there first, beating it to the chase. Rather than being acted upon, their entire beings escape through their wounds.
The identity-first, art-after style of looking has the dangerous potential to freeze frame the artist, generalize their being, and lock them into that label, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s notion, as paraphrased by the anthropologist Michael Taussig, “that in capturing reality through photography,” (or in the case of Mullen, through identity texts) “the thing thus represented is more irretrievably lost.” Or, Michel Foucault’s notion, paraphrased by Taussig again, “that the modern sciences of society and of the person depend upon a clinical way of seeing that comes close in order to distance itself in the orbit of control.” We are at a precarious moment in which we could just look at the images or interpretations of difference and leave them as such, untouched, unspoken to, misunderstood, at a distance. But it should be our imperative to do the exact opposite: to consider one’s check-box identity as only a single part of a whole and to attempt to understand that whole, all the while knowing that it’s an impossible task. This is the only approach that has the possibility to benefit us all.
Though many of the works become political through the intimate there are a few that begin broadly, working their way towards a refined point. Triple-Chaser (2019), an 11-minute video produced by the collective, Forensic Architecture outlines their mission to train a computer vision classifier to identify, amid the great cacophony of images online, any instance in which the Triple-Chaser tear gas canister has been photographed. By doing so, they will be able to identify when it has been used—and more specifically, used against civilians—such as in November 2018 when U.S. border agents fired teargas grenades at migrants along the San Diego-Tijuana border. The video explains that “the export of military equipment from the U.S. is a matter of public record; the sale and export of tear gas is not.” Companies like Safariland, the producer of the canister grenade called the Triple-Chaser, can profit from the sale of so-called ‘less-lethal’ munitions without oversight because of this loophole.
Warren Kanders, the CEO of Safariland, is likewise the vice-chair of the board of trustees at the Whitney, meaning that if Safariland is responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians then the Whitney, because of the reciprocal relationship of support it shares with Kanders is—if distantly—responsible, too. The effect this has is one of complete demoralization. How’s a painting or a sculpture to stand up to this? As Tom Waits crooned in his song “Mr. Siegel,” You got to tell me brave Captain / Why are the wicked strong? / How do the angels get to sleep, / When the devil leaves his porch lights on? If you wanted to make some sort of individual stance, on whose door would you knock? Even if you found the house with its porch lights on, no one would be home, for the sale and export of tear gas is not…a matter of public record.
Forensic Architecture plans to use their artists’ fee from the Whitney to further their investigation, adding a conceptual element to the work by benefitting its cause through the utilization of funds from the institution at which it is taking aim. But is the Whitney really hurt by all of this? Kander’s connection to Safariland is well established. The museum has had plenty of time to consider a reappointment. And as protesters shout their frustrations (as they did at the Biennial’s opening) and artists have threatened to back out of the Biennial (including one who did, Michael Rakowitz) the appointment of Kanders still stands. Any press is good press, as they say, even if it is as damning as this. What’s more, the Whitney wins no matter how the masquerade unfolds. If the protesters quit, the museum’s status remains unaltered. If the protesters prevail and Kanders is removed, they display a responsiveness to change. For the sake of those civilians harmed by the munitions Safariland produces, the work of Forensic Architecture declares loudly, keep protesting!
Imagine yourself reading a story. In that story, a protagonist in some location, at some time in their lives, inside this or that home, beneath this or that tree. You stop reading, halting the progression of words and allowing them to blur on the page. In your reverie, you leave the protagonist behind, continuing off and through their world over other, possible roads and to the far reaches of hills that might exist, to the cities or towns sprawled out on their other sides, and into the lives of a few living somewhere in an apartment or home filled by the objects, photographs and things that reflect their lives, instead. Whose story are you in now?
 I am indebted to John Yau for his statistical breakdown of the exhibiting artists’ ethnic, cultural and gender identities found here: the Yau, John. “How Do Artists Get Into the Whitney Biennial?” Hyperallergic, June 09, 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/503928/how-do-artists-get-into-the-whitney-biennial/
 Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Editor’s Note: As this article went to press, four artists have withdrawn from the Whitney Biennial in further protest of Warren Kanders’s continued presence on the Whitney Museum’s Board of Trustees.
The 2019 Whitney Biennial continues through September 22nd at the Whitney Museum, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York.
Sam Swasey is a New York-based writer.