Inside the Whitney Biennial:
Four Artists to Watch
Photographed by Jonathan Hökklo
The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2015 move downtown, into New York’s Meatpacking District and a stunning new building designed by Renzo Piano, marked a profound shift for the 87-year-old institution. “Downtown, we’ve recommitted ourselves to premiering younger talents and doing smaller group shows of new tendencies,” says chief curator Scott Rothkopf. That renewed focus animates and complicates the 2017 Whitney Biennial: the latest installment of the longest-running survey of American art.
“The Biennial’s promise is to provide a snapshot of this time—that is what we’re trying to do,” explains Christopher Y. Lew, who curated the exhibition with Mia Locks. The pair traveled around the country in the tumultuous run-up to the presidential election, ultimately selecting 63 participants that range from emerging to well-established individuals and collectives working in painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, film and video, photography, activism, performance, music, and video game design. Adds Lew, “The show may have very dark overtones, but there’s another side to it that shows that artists can envision a future that is different.” Here are four that do just that.
Look closer. The Seattle artist’s interlocking—and collapsible—grids resemble square excerpts of chain-link fencing or narrow cages, but each one is carved from a single block of wood. “I started wood carving a long time ago, and I’m particularly interested in the technique of whittling ‘whimsies,’ a trick style of carving that was popularized during the Great Depression and often employed by folks who were out of work and traveling, producing objects for amusement or in exchange for meals,” notes Browning. “The chain links came out of that.”
New York-based Reaves (who worked briefly as upholsterer after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design) is represented by her sculptures: Frankensteinian furniture that brings typically concealed materials and techniques front and center. “Reaves’s work is a hyperbolic take on the artisanal aesthetic that pervades Etsy.com while simultaneously riffing on iconic modernist pieces,” writes Lew in an essay in the Biennial catalogue.
For Rothkopf, work such as Reaves’s “oddly disheveled furniture” is a welcome contrast to recent large shows that have focused on the promise of digital fabrication and technology. “In [this] Biennial, I’ve noticed that when the work gets closer to design or a functional aesthetic, it typically takes a hard left turn from high style or, on the other hand, from the look of IKEA,” he says. “It feels much humbler, very DIY.”
A breathtaking installation on the Whitney’s fifth-floor terrace, Bell’s six boxes of laminated red glass are cubes within cubes, each reflecting the shifting light, changing skies, and neighboring buildings. “My media is the interface of light and surface,” says the artist, who is based in Taos, New Mexico and Los Angeles. “The material is about light—it reflects, transmits, and absorbs light all at the same time. When I improvise with it, I put coatings on it that alter its ability to do those things, so the compositions are totally random but the technique is not at all random.”
“I paint those subjects I have love and sympathy for,” says Los Angeles-based Taylor, whose expressionist style of painting captures the spirit as well as the likenesses of friends and family members, lovers and heroes, real and imagined. The canvas above depicts Philando Castile after he was fatally shot last July by a Minnesota police officer, but Taylor primarily paints from life, explains Lew, creating portraits through hours-long sessions with his subjects. Notes the artist, “Mostly I just let a person get comfortable.”