American Art Abundant: Colombian Artists Stand Out at 80th Whitney Biennale

“It’s like a circus,” I heard someone say, above hovering bells and disembodied melodies. Screens flashed, sculptures gleamed, crowds mingled between strange feats of beauty. There was even a huge dark panoramic wheel spinning softly. The long-awaited Whitney Biennale 2022 is reminiscent of Carnival, one that brings together the contemplative and captivating in American art, humming social and political currents.

The panoramic wheel-like sculpture is the work of an assistant professor of visual arts at the School of Art Sable Elyse Smithtitled Clockwork (Aluminum, steel, engine, 2019). It is dominated by a window facing east of the exhibition space on the fifth floor of Whitney. Turning with painful slowness, the smooth octagonal faces move like the treads of a hanging wheel, industrial and creepy. It seems whimsical, but the longer you stare at its relentless effectiveness, the more you can’t help but think about what it’s designed for, especially when you learn a terrifying detail: the sculpture is made of tables and chairs designed for use in prison visiting rooms.

Clockwork was accompanied by a Smith video installation Laugh, or look who’s peeking out my window (high definition video, color, sound, 7:58 min, 2021.). The silent video uses footage from the Live PD TV show, a real-time broadcast of police patrols. Flashing blue and red lights, night arrests, blurred faces, house on fire; video is a gathering that haunts, its silence raises the question: why do we broadcast images of the state of cancer as entertainment?

Buck Ellison CC ’10 uses a carefully detailed series of photographs to imagine the private life of Eric Prince, best known as the founder of the infamous security company Blackwater. The plot of the series is set in 2003, when Blackwater won the first US contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One photo shows the ‘Prince’, played by a model directly from the Abercrombie catalog, in a Chambrean button clasped on a rug, his fingers touching his lips shyly. He holds a copy of Clausewitz About the war open in the other hand, on which shines the wedding ring; an LLBean-style slipper lies abandoned in the foreground. Ellison created an intimate portrait of a war criminal as a young man, full of cunning details that reward an attentive viewer.

Biennale curators Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin created special habitats for each part of the exhibition. The fifth floor is open, bright, diafan, all white walls and blue wood.

Along one wall, three pastel-colored panels Walking in the mountains (Oil on canvas and handmade wooden easel, 2022) from Leidy Churchman ’10 wraps the viewer in the exciting land of fairy tales. It moves through tree branches, mountains and waves, in airy pink, blue and green colors like curly smoke. A pale yellow net covers the scene like a quilt. Churchman was inspired by a thirteenth-century Zen text Mountains and waters Tomorrow by Ei Dogen, and the plates are squeezed with carved claws, reminiscent of the Buddhist patron deity.

At the west end of the gallery, assistant professor Aria Dean‘s piece Little Island / Gut Punch (Sculpture, 2022) stands like a green punching bag, shiny and pliable on its proper pedestal. I learned that it actually is edges green, the color of movie green screens. Dean created the work by going through a digital model of a monolith through a collision simulation and then making a simulation sculpture.

On the one hand, it seems more or less stable, perhaps a little melted, like plastic foil fluttering over scaffolding. But as you walk around, you discover its bend, the power of an unprecedented blow, an obelisk that twists around a heavy blow, like a visual representation of a tradition bent by modernity.

The space on the sixth floor is dramatically dark, as if you were on the wings of a stage; veiled but full of energy. It is a rich environment in which numerous video installations can be set up.

Sound-busy but visually discreet, the space felt like a cinema where the point was to wander around and poke my head into every cinema door to take a look at every movie, every installation. In keeping with that mood, there was even a small queue to enter the installation limited to three people, An introduction to nameless love (tin, nickel, charcoal, 2019) by Jonathan Berger.

The darkness of the sixth floor also accentuates the bright images, like Untitled (Power) (90 x 81 in, acrylic and vinyl on canvas, 2022) by alumnus Cy Gavin ’16. Untitled (Power) is a dazzling, eclectic place that attracts the viewer’s attention with its orange and yellow colors. It features a slate blue figure like a trunk, knots and a base sketched in an energetic white color, investing in this almost common sight a significant sense of wonder.

Back down on the fifth floor, where bright palettes explode in all directions, prolific interdisciplinary artist, recent MacArthur Fellow and mentor in Columbia’s Visual Arts Program Ralph Lemon contains pictures from an as yet unnamed series, which were quietly some of my favorites on the show.

They are oil and acrylic on paper, which is slightly twisted at the edges, fastened to the wall with modest needles. Once you see them, these modestly placed pieces have gravity. The honeycombs are intertwined with irregular multicolored squares, marked with shapes such as butterflies or ovals or eyes, rhombuses and rings. Such sincere, cheerful symbols and colors, huddled together, punctuated by moments of shadow, develop cosmic density.

They seemed to me like the microcosm of the Biennale itself; dizzying and abundant, light and dark, textures and shades that push each other together and create something like a city, like a country.

As a celebration of contemporary American art, the Whitney Biennale is the longest-running exhibition of its kind. This 80th edition explains the diverse politics, uncertainty and beauty of the present moment. The exhibition is open to the public and will run until September 2022.

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