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Binary days at the Biennial

There are some fine works to see at the Whitney, New York's big, largely irrelevant show. And the tone is icy hot.

April 11, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

New York — For the 2004 edition of the Whitney Biennial, Los Angeles sculptor Paul McCarthy has placed a wicked version of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float on the roof of the Madison Avenue museum building. Festive and foolish, both carnival attraction and serious work of art, the bronze-colored balloon makes an ideal emblem to represent the WB.

Its lumpy, funny-ugly form, tethered against the wind by bright yellow ropes, is said to be based on a sculpture McCarthy made as a child in imitation of the classic organic abstractions by Henry Moore. (Note Moore's trademark see-through hole in its gut.) The result, a bulbous female torso-in-bondage, is essentially a giant blowup doll -- party to a biennial ritual that contemporary American art cannot escape. The work transforms the Whitney's building into a grandiose pedestal for tangled erotic yearnings.

McCarthy's shrewd gesture is one of few in the show to consider the specific context for which it was made. The Whitney describes its biennial survey of the best in recent American art as the institution's trademark event; in truth, the WB languishes in near-irrelevance.

The show has mostly been a bust since the 1980s. The early consensus among East Coast critics reviewing the 2004 installment (it continues through May 30) has been a resounding "not as bad as usual!" Not much of a headline, but the sentiment is easily explained as a sigh of relief.

The Whitney has been AWOL from its former position as flagship for contemporary American art. (The long-term turmoil is signaled by a simple fact -- three directors in less than a decade.) Manhattan is the national center of art consumption, and the resulting vacuum has been exacerbated by four things: the closure (and temporary exile to Queens) of the mighty Museum of Modern Art while it is undergoing building expansion; fiscal chaos and program reduction at the highflying Guggenheim Museum; the disastrous reception given the 2002 Biennial, the worst in memory; and finally, the slow lifting of deep psychic and emotional trauma after Sept. 11. The local yen to embrace the 2004 Biennial is strong.

And the early consensus is not wrong. The WB is, in fact, "not as bad as usual." Art overall is in pretty good shape these days. Tons of bad stuff is around (as always), but given the immense American art world it isn't difficult to fill 40,000 square feet of galleries with reasonably good material. Whitney curators Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin and Debra Singer chose 108 artists and collaborative groups. About one-quarter of their picks intersect with my own taste.

The single most compelling work is the big enchanted landscape painting by Laura Owens. Eleven feet tall, it features her patented merger of mysterious motifs from Chinese Song dynasty scrolls, 1970s pattern painting, children's book illustration, high Modernist abstraction, folk art and more. Owens cobbles together a moody, pluralistic vista that values aesthetic imagination above all else.

Ambiguous and playful, it also benefits from a smart move. Playing against type -- or maybe against hype -- she contributed just one work to art's biggest, blowziest show. Heroic grandiosity tends to cling to our ideas of ambitious art like bubble gum to a shoe, but it's not her style. Owens gives a lot in this single work, then leaves you wanting more.

Emphasis on painting

There's a lot of painting (nearly one-fifth of the exhibition), which is far more than is customary. Unfortunately, mediocrity rules. Even gifted stalwarts such as Robert Mangold are represented by unexceptional examples -- bland canvases of curved lines -- or, in the case of Conceptual artist Mel Bochner, canvases of quaint linguistic signs (cheerfully colored lists of nasty or nonsensical words).

On the plus side, intimate renderings of people by fashionable young New York painter Elizabeth Peyton use chalk, oil and colored pencil to make love to photographic reproductions. They're cleverly paired with David Hockney's refreshingly simple watercolor portraits and studio views, which use paint to make love to the activity of seeing. But the curators missed an opportunity for further intergenerational elucidation -- Hockney is 66, Peyton is 38 -- by not including the even younger L.A. painter Brian Calvin, 34, whose melancholic work successfully elaborates themes from Hockney's classic 1960s paintings.

The sliced abstractions of paper, vellum, tape and paint by Lecia Dole-Recio are strong, establishing deep physical space without benefit of traditional illusionistic devices. Cecily Brown's wonderfully lascivious nudes are pressed beneath forbidding black clouds filled with fluttering penis shapes. Incoherent chaos and excruciating control are balanced on a metaphorical knife-edge by the explosive linearity of Julie Mehretu's monumental "Rise of the New Suprematists."

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