Museum  May 19, 2022  Howard Halle

“Quiet as It’s Kept”: Whitney Biennial Returns with Middling Show

Installation View of Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept

Silenced by the pandemic last year, The Whitney Biennial returns with an exhibition named, appropriately enough, Quiet as It’s Kept. The title seems intended to acknowledge an art world suffering from its own version of long Covid after the lockdown blew a gaping hole in the zeitgeist, leaving a mostly bare cupboard from which the show could take stock of current trends. 

That said, if you accept the idea that contemporary culture has become listless and unmoored, attempting to grab ahold of something/anything with a reach exceeding its grasp, then, certainly, the Biennial succeeds in accurately reflecting the times. Whether that makes for scintillating viewing, however, is another matter. 

The bulk of the proceedings are spread across the museum’s sixth and fifth floors. The topmost is plunged into a gloomy gloaming of low ambient lighting and dark gray walls, with paintings, for example, picked out from the murk by spotlights throwing each into high theatrical relief. A case in point is Cy Gavin’s Snag, a fiery, expressionistic rendering of what appears to be a blackened tree trunk set against broad slashes of yellow and red that explode off the wall with De Kooning-esque fury.

Rebecca Belmore, prototype for ishkode (fire), 2021. Clay and bullet casings.
Collection of the artist; image courtesy the artist. Photograph by Henri Robideau.

Rebecca Belmore, prototype for ishkode (fire), 2021. Clay and bullet casings.

 Adam Pendleton, still from Ruby Nell Sales, 2020–22—Press Assets
Courtesy the artist.

Adam Pendleton, still from Ruby Nell Sales, 2020–22. HD video, color and black-and-white, sound; 61:03 min.

ishkode (fire), a sculptural tableau by indigenous Canadian artist, Rebecca Belmore, sits opposite Gavin both physically and tonally: It features a life-size, cast-clay rendering of an upright sleeping bag that is twisted to resemble a wrapped body and surrounded by thousands of bullet casings arrayed on the floor to form a bristling brass palisade. The cartridges are spent, suggesting the commission of some past genocide haunted by a mummified ghost.

Videos make up the preponderance of the works in this part of the show, the strongest of which is Adam Pendleton's filmic profile of Ruby Nell Sales. A scholar, public theologian, and legendary civil rights activist, Sales joined the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 at age seventeen, and almost died at the hands of a shotgun-wielding assailant. Instead, a White colleague was killed as he attempted to shield her. Now seventy-three, Sales speaks about her queer identity, her commitment to social justice, and her faith, as the imagery jumps back and forth between grainy color footage and black-and-white closeups that linger on Sale’s face and hands with cut-crystal clarity.

Collection of the artist.

Daniel Joseph Martinez, Three Critiques* #3 The Post-Human Manifesto for the Future; On the Origin of Species or E=hνÓ (+) We are here to hold humans accountable for crimes agains humanity OR In the twilight of the empire, in the spider hole where the masters of the earth have gone to ground with their simulacral weapons, reality gives way to a violent Technological Phantasmagoria Celestial Event or Homo Sapiens are the Ultimate Invasive Species on the Earth or MODERNISM has failed us, the EMPIRE is collapsing, humans are MORALLY indefensible or A world between what we know and what we fear or Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one Or Homines corruptissimi Condememant quod non intellegunt. Five photographs, 59 1/8 × 73 3/16 × 3 5/8 in. (150 × 185.9 × 9.1 cm) each.

Elsewhere, Daniel J. Martinez is given his own room to present a series of color photos of himself laden with prosthetics to resemble a rogue’s gallery of auteur monstrosities: The Engineer from Ridley Scott's film, Prometheus; Dracula from Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre; the titular creature from Kenneth Branagh's version of Frankenstein; and the shape-shifting alien bounty hunter and Drone Host from TV’s The X-Files and Westworld.

Connoisseurs of Biennial deep cuts may remember Martinez from the controversial 1993 edition, for which he handed out admissions badges that read, “I can’t. Imagine. Ever Wanting. To Be. White.” Here, he channels Hollywood horror icons to imagine himself as a “post-human” in a future where mankind has destroyed itself.

On the fifth floor the atmosphere becomes sunnier with the lights turned up and works hung in place on open partitions, resembling empty windowpanes. 

Notable contributions include Matt Connors’s compositionally compact abstract canvases, and Jane Dickson’s oil stick renderings on linen of neon signs. Best known for her early-’80s renderings of Time Square, Dickson remains in good form. Also on view is a nocturne by Harold Ancart, which vaguely recalls Whistler.

Jane Dickson, Big Terror, 2020. Acrylic on linen, 65 × 73 in. (165.1 × 185.4 cm).
Collection of the artist.

Jane Dickson, Big Terror, 2020. Acrylic on linen, 65 × 73 in. (165.1 × 185.4 cm).

Harold Ancart, The Guiding Light, 2021. Oil stick and graphite pencil on canvas, artist's frame, 99 1/2 × 137 1/2 in. (252.7 × 349.3 cm). 
Collection of the artist; image courtesy the artist; David Zwirner, New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong; and Clearing, New York and Brussels.

Harold Ancart, The Guiding Light, 2021. Oil stick and graphite pencil on canvas, artist's frame, 99 1/2 × 137 1/2 in. (252.7 × 349.3 cm). 

Elsewhere, the exhibit features two artists of very different temperaments who died prematurely. One of them, the conceptualist Theresa Had Kyung Cha (1951–1982) has been accorded a mini-retrospective of her photo-and-text reflections on family, exile, and displacement. The other, Jason Rhodes (1965–2006), rode in on the early-millennium “bad-boy” wave with scattered, deconstructive installations evoking left-coast car culture, and his own Northern California upbringing—the latter referenced in Sutter’s Mill, a sort of cabin cobbled out of aluminum scaffolding titled after the site of the 1848 Gold Rush. 

Best in show, however, goes to Charles Ray’s trio of figurative sculptures stationed outside on the fifth-floor terrace. With features smoothed to mannequin-like uncanniness, each monumentalizes some quotidian activity: A guy holding a burger, immortalized in painted bronze; another piece, in Corten steel, of an average joe sitting on a stack of beer cases; and still another that suggests what might have happened if the mirrored, liquid-metal robot from Terminator 2 had frozen into a pensive pose.  And for sheer weirdness, it’s hard to beat Alex Da Corte’s video installation, which morphs an homage to Brancusi into Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Trying to evaluate the quality of an exhibit stuffed with quantity is always a mug’s game, though the highlights make the overall result…well, not good, exactly, but also not bad. Ultimately, it scarcely matters since the Biennial is a lot like the ballpark in Field of Dreams: People come because the Whitney has built it.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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