April showers bring May flowers, as the saying goes. For me, this year’s showers came in March, and the flowers (and sometimes pain yet always beauty) of new growth made their glorious, tentative reentry at the beginning of April. April has been a month dedicated to rediscovering my passions and reconnecting with the things that make me happy as I enter a new chapter of my twenty-something life in the city.
In the spirit of such, I recently had the pleasure of taking some time out of a perfect spring Sunday to wander down by the Hudson to the Whitney Museum of American Art. My primary reason for going was to check out a special exhibit on the museum’s 8th floor, devoted to paintings from the 1980s. While my formal training was in Italian Renaissance Art History, my favorite professor in undergraduate was my Modern and American Art History professor. He brought Modern and Contemporary Art to life in a way that this hardened “realist” had never before considered, so much so that for one of my senior projects I wrote a paper on Transavanguardia and the Italian Neo-Expressionists from the 1980s, focusing on the artists Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente, and art critic Achille Bonito Oliva.
Inspired by the evocative portraits and painterly gestures found in the works of Chia and Clemente, hearkening back to the 1950s and the quintessential Abstract Expressionists, I developed a deep appreciation for the urban grit, grime, social and political commentary, and pop culture references found in much of the art of the 1980s. When I saw that the Whitney was showcasing this era at a special exhibit, I knew I had to meander down to the waterfront to check it out – especially as the museum touted the presence of works by one of my favorite artists, Jean Michel Basquiat.
As excited as I was to finally be re-immersed in art, I have to admit – I was largely underwhelmed by the exhibit. There was only one Basquiat that I was aware of, and the rest of the show consisted of largely disconnected lesser-known works scattered among what seemed like attempts at bulking up the show’s quality – i.e. remarking on the “Keith Harings” in the show, when in actuality there was only one Haring and a large wall covered in Haring-esque wallpaper (pictured above) which was, at times, quite distracting to the works of art placed on top of it. Placing a Haring on a Haring, or even a Basquiat on a Haring, skews the viewer’s visual field and takes away from the work itself. On top of that, it was a pretty meager collection that I spent less than 20 minutes viewing, and I would have left disappointed were it not for the Whitney’s 2017 Biennial Exhibition taking up the remainder of the museum’s floor space.
Showcasing young contemporary artists engaging with current political and social climes, the Biennial started off with a bang – literally. The first work of art that the viewer is confronted with is Puppies Puppies’ series, Triggers, referring both to the actual mechanical trigger of a handgun as well as to the catchy buzzword used today to refer to words or situations that might set off certain unwanted emotional reactions. Puppies Puppies removed the firing mechanism from three handguns and placed them on the wall, where they ominously, yet innocuously, confront the viewer. This certainly set the tone for the rest of the politically-charged show and its confrontational undertones.
Continuing through the exhibit, several works of art stood out to me – An-My Le’s photographic series titled The Silent General, for example. In this series, the images showcased the ways in which present-day Louisiana alluded to its (oftentimes unsavory) past, including issues of racism and immigration. While the images were striking for their sense of nostalgia, they were all taken in present day. The below inkjet print is an image of a town square in New Orleans where a statue of a Confederate general can be seen appearing through a sheer banner, alluding to both the “hidden” racism of the present and the outright racism and social injustice of the past.
Another image in the series showed a movie set’s reenactment of a Civil War Battle on Louisiana state grounds.
The irony of replicating the Civil War in modern times on former Confederate landscape is not lost. Nor is the notion that the past and the present are fluid and oftentimes shifting into and out of each other, one and the same, written on joint pages and sharing the same genealogy. Are history and the present equivocal? How do we distinguish and separate ourselves from the past? Do we even have a right to do so? Are we able to extract ourselves to create an objective viewpoint, or are the cultural, social, and historical structures in which we’re enveloped restrict our abilities to see beyond ourselves in either direction?
Another interesting series challenging our ability to perceive was Deana Lawson’s staged inkjet photograph scenes.
Deana Lawson, The Key, 2016. Inkjet print, collection of the artist.
Lawson’s powerful inkjet photos challenge their viewers in many ways, most obviously through the penetrating, central gaze of her subjects as well as the subtle yet stark juxtaposition of seemingly dichotomous objects. To the first point, the figures featured in Lawson’s photographs boldly confront the viewer with their intense frontal gazes, raising the question – who is looking at whom? I felt a sincere sense of unease and discomfort as concepts of reality and space-time were challenged through the somewhat personal interaction that each viewer has with each photographed subject. Are we the viewer or the viewed? Who ultimately remains the voyeur? Lawson sets up her photographs to challenge the balance of power between spectator and object in a striking way.
To the latter point, the artist highlights our somewhat comedic ability to simply assume that we know a person’s story, to strew together a biography based on piecing together certain objects. In this instance, for example, we see that the central figure is a seemingly rough-and-tough shirtless African-American male with a fierce stare covered in tattoos – protectively holding a sweet, chubby-cheeked baby boy dressed in powder blue. These two seemingly opposing sentiments share both the physical space of the photograph and our mental image of their joint “story” in one of Lawson’s pointedly-jarring juxtapositions. Furthermore, to the left we see a heavily-muscled and tattooed arm hovering over a thick wad of cash, yet no other bodily context, which ultimately begs the question: what do we as the viewer automatically assume about these people through a flash-analysis of context clues? Do we assume the worst? How would you characterize these people if you were attempting to describe the painting to a friend? Do you say that these men are thugs? Would you indicate that perhaps the money was earned through ill-begotten means? But why would you? Look closely in the background and you’ll notice the famous Christian “Footprints” poem displayed on the table to the left; a whiteboard tracing biblical genealogy/history; and framed pictures of school children and families. These objects certainly do not seem to be the typical objects one would associate with criminals or gangsters; in fact, they are objects typically associated with family and traditional values. Lawson’s powerful and seemingly opposing juxtapositions make the viewer question his or her preconceived notions of reality and truly emphasize the importance of not jumping to conclusions, stereotyping, or judging a book by its cover.
One of my favorite parts of the show was artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings, modern-day scenes tinged with nostalgia, a somewhat retro-throwback to the art of painting that seems to have gotten lost in today’s contemporary art world.
The beauty of Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings is in the details. I found myself spending a significant amount of time with each one, connecting with some more than others due to the presence of relatable every-day objects that establish an intimacy between the viewer and the subject, as well as the viewer and the actual painting as an object itself. At times I held up the line of eager viewers behind me, looking closely for hidden details as I visually devoured the somewhat rough, gestural brushwork of Dupuy’s paintings, admiring its simple yet emotive qualities. It was a delight to the eyes as they wandered over the canvas in search of recognition, familiarity, and signs of the self – something to connect with. In this particular painting, I loved the fact that if you got close enough, you could read the actual iTunes playlist on the Macbook; you could admire the Sam Cooke vinyl and collection of records (drawing your own conclusion about the man’s taste in music), the blue ashtray with stumped-out old cigarettes, a couple of meager houseplants and unframed posters adorning the walls. These specific details create an intimate connection between the viewer and the subject – who, completely unaware of us, shoulders hunched and jeans sagging as he looks through his playlist, is completely wrapped up in his own little world. We the viewer are given a very personal, yet lovingly rendered glimpse into one man’s life, again able to draw our own conclusions based on the objects present.
Many of Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings contained such sweet, specific details. A can of Cafe Bustelo coffee. A book I might have read in high school. Text messages exchanged between a group of teenagers. The relatability of her works, rendered with such sympathy and understanding, make them something to be savored.
Not shying away from controversial contemporary issues, Anicka Yi’s 3D film The Flavor Genome explored biology at both the micro and macro level as it evolved throughout the past and into the present; or rather, a past that mutates into the present through human-controlled biological modifications. In her film, Yi explores the idea of a piece-meal Nature constructed by man. One particular example that stuck out to me was video footage of the liger, the infamous 19th-century cross-breeding experiment between a lion and a tiger. She discussed how ligers were found to have certain traits particular to lions only – such as sociability – as well as traits found only in tigers – such as a love of swimming. Ligers only exist in captivity and would be unable to survive in the wild – their existence, she states, is personified futility and purposelessness – a mere whim of the human mind.
There were hundreds of other interesting pieces at the Whitney, so I highly suggest you go and check out the biennial for yourself. For more information on individual artists, works present, museum opening hours, and ticket prices, check out the museum website.
For a quick pick-me-up after your visit, I’d recommend a cappuccino at Blue Bottle Coffee on W. 15th St. to round off a cultured (and caffeinated) afternoon.