|A mixed-media installation by Charles Long is part of the Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum. (sara rose/associated press)|
NEW YORK - No visit to the Whitney Museum is ever a quiet affair, but visitors should know what to expect when visiting the 2008 Biennial exhibition. It's a crowded, noisy, frantic experience full of construction and deconstruction, collapsing structures and structures only half-built - watch out for the bed springs on the floor.
Deciding how to engage with the Whitney Biennial, which opens today, is an exercise in frustration. So, it's best not to try.
The sheer number of pieces make the rooms claustrophobic, a pressure only enhanced by the fact that many of the artists tried to pile as much as they could into each work: Wood, metal, glass, water, light, mirrors, video, tennis balls and more all competed for recognition in a work. Unfortunately, few artists used their many parts to construct a plausible whole.
As always, there are exceptions.
Walead Beshty's tall sepia-toned photos of destroyed hotel rooms offset by his "
A particular standout is Karen Kilimnik's room set to the side on the second floor. It's a quiet, stark white room with a traditional crystal chandelier. Centered on the walls are small oil on canvas paintings of traditional scenes: a horse with an English saddle; a grand staircase; game birds. The room is empty yet intimate, an older artist's contribution to the swirling cacophony around her.
As Jerry Saltz noted in his review of the 2006 biennial for the Village Voice, the curators don't really "appreciate how old mediums can carry new thoughts" and the two-dimensional media were treated "as if they were second-class citizens." The same seems to be true of this year's show.
Like Kilimnik's room, many of the other works that stand out employ the traditional. Melanie Schiff's stunning photographs radiate loneliness and clarity. But backed up against Phoebe Washburn's hulking wooden construction that oozes objects every chance it gets, the photos are lost. James Welling's haunting prints in blue and black are forgotten in a room absolutely bursting with pieces.
If the intent was to create a battle between the frenetic and the calm, unfortunately, frenzy will win every time. Perhaps it isn't supposed to be a battle but a juxtaposition. Even this fails. There's just too much in one space.
The job of the biennial is to bring as much of the talked-about art as possible from the galleries into a museum space. Why these particular artists or pieces are hot topics is one of the many mysteries of the art world. A frustrating side-effect of this puzzle is that the show has an unmistakable art-school feel.
New art, even the most seemingly inscrutable, has the job of engaging with the culture around it, moving and affecting it in some way. Showcasing work that rehashes common themes and styles seems an odd path for the biennial to take. When the mundane fancies itself novel, it becomes nothing more than slightly irritating.