Art Olympics: Ranking the Whitney Biennial


Come one, come all, bring your trash heaps and postmodern conceptualism under the big top of the Whitney Biennial 2010. Edited down to 55 artists from the 2008 version’s “sprawling” 81, the exhibition includes a lot of photography, a strong showing of paintings, and a majority of women. (Yes.) Curator Francesco Bonami — with the help of Whitney senior curatorial assistant Gary Carrion-Murayari — has chosen not to tease out any particular theme, instead concentrating on what “represents the range of ideas and materials American artists are now working with.”

As it happens, Charles Isherwood pointed out in a New York Times column last week that past Olympiads also included honors for the arts — specifically architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and literature. Applying a similar rubric to a bright and shiny Biennial, we picked a selection of competitors* with the stuff for gold medals. Winners after the jump.

Stephanie Sinclair, Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help, 2005. Digital print, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist; courtesy VII, New York.

Gold Medal in Photojournalism

Five years shooting in the Middle East for the Chicago Tribune left photographer Stephanie Sinclair with an eye for detail and a quick shutter finger. Her series depicting Afghan women who had self-immolated under stress and desperation is stunning, and impossible to ignore. One image closes in on a face hidden by gauze, a literal veil of mortality.

Charles Ray, Untitled, 2009. Ink on paper, 47 × 31 1/2 in. (119.4 × 80 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Gold Medal in Sunday Painting

Matthew Marks-represented Charles Ray is known for his sculpture, remade objects like an aluminum tractor and firetruck (parked in front of the Whitney during the 1993 Biennial), or grandly-scaled figurative works coated in white paint. Oddly, none of Ray’s 3D works appear in his fifth outing at the Biennial, instead we see a room full of watercolor flowers, which the artist says, “I do at night at home to relax. And for a long time I just gave them to friends or my wife and didn’t really show them.”

Tauba Auerbach, Untitled Fold Paintings XVII and III (2009). Photo Credit: Adam Reich.

Gold Medal in Optical Illusion

Tauba Auerbach‘s stock in trade is texturizing flat surface into something that looks three-dimensional. Three large canvases in the Biennial were folded and rolled in their raw form, then painted with an industrial-strength spray gun for a trompe l’oeil effect. The resulting work is methodical, precise, and coolly elegant.

In Rashaad Newsome: Jasmine, Dawn, and Aaliyah, the artist introduces three of the Vogue dancers he works with.

Gold Medal in Vogueing

Rashaad Newsome has reclaimed the art of the vogue from both Madonna and Zoolander — the competitive dance form that combines runway, floor work, hands, dips and spins and originated in the city’s gay ballrooms of the ’60s and ’70s. The artist (born in New Orleans, now residing in Brooklyn) invited a series of dancers to vogue on camera, cutting and splicing the performances into a new dance, then re-filming the “new” dance with no soundtrack.

Storm Tharp, Pigeon (after Shunsen) (2010) and Dolores (2010), both ink, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, charcoal and fabric dye on paper.

Gold Medal in Watercoloring

Five large-scale portraits by Storm Tharp are at first glance a nifty exercise in watercolor painting. A closer look reveals a more layered process: he contours the paper with water before sketching out enigmatic portraits, gilded them with geometric sequences of gold leaf and details in drawn pencil. The black and white Rorschach blots around his faces are a little menacing and a little ambiguous when paired with light, crisply rendered tones in costume and accessories.

Aurel Schmidt, The Fall, 2010. Pencil, colored pencil, acrylic, beer, dirt, and blood on paper. Collection of the artist.

Gold Medal in Popularity

Aurel Schmidt has been exhibited at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, Deitch Projects, and Peres Projects; she’s collected by the infamous Dakis Joannou; she’s a regular in the pages of louche hipster bible Purple Magazine; and in this Biennial, she picks up the mantle from past participants like Ryan McGinley, Dan Colen, Gang Gang Dance, Agathe Snow, Hanna Liden (all, as it so happens, acquaintances). Her skilfully-drafted minotaur — titled “Master of Universe” — is a welcome dose of levity, its anatomy a mashup of modern accoutrements like Vaseline, beer, condoms, a cell phone, a banana, smokes, and deodorant.

Josephine Meckseper, Mall of America, 2009. Video, transferred to DVD, color, sound; 12:48 min. Collection of the artist; courtesy VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Gold Medal in Consumer Culture

Josephine Meckseper juxtaposes military recruiting footage with still-life pans of retail spaces and dormant amusement rides in the Mall of America in her brilliantly-hued 13 minute film. (The tongue-in-cheek patriotism is a nod to the blue and red filters commonly used by French director Jean-Luc Godard.) In Meckseper’s own words, the piece is a “consumer critique on the collapse and failure of capitalism,” and for the record, she prefers shopping between flights: “The Munich airport is amazing. They’re even selling cars.”

And let’s not forget, the World Record for Most Hilarious Art Criticism

Responding to Kate Gilmore‘s video piece in which the artist is filmed from above while hacking away at the white walls enclosing her, a journalist trailed by a camera crew explained the concept of breaking out of a box as “very… vaginal.” O-kay. Runner-up: Art bloggers protesting 303 Gallery‘s anti-photography by mugging with the work of one of its artists, Maureen Gallace.

*This is by no means an exhaustive list; in fact, there are 55 (!) artists included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, up through the end of May (!!). We encourage you to see it for yourself; visitor’s info right here (!!!).