On the third floor, 2014 Whitney Biennial curator Stuart Comer professed to “provide a kaleidoscopic glimpse of this historic moment,” emphasizing work that seemed in flux and in transition from one medium to another, one state to another, or even across borders and identities.
Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationship series (2008–13) is the most obvious example, and also the most successful, as the couple documented their relationship as a transgender couple transitioning in opposite directions (Drucker from male to female, Ernest from female to male). The images are intimate, feeling almost alchemical at moments as flashes of light and loving gestures demonstrate a closeness one can only have with a lover. The distance between the two bodies or, in this case, the camera and the subject sometimes feels so close you can almost hear them breathe.
None of the other works on the floor approach that level of magic, except perhaps the ink drawings and abstract works by Etel Adnan. The Lebanese-born artist presents a poetic vision of the world in flux that can feel simultaneously universal and intimate with her simple landscapes and long pages of ink drawings.
Morgan Fisher’s “Ro(Ro(Room)om)om)” (2014) addresses another type of flux, of the Whitney Museum itself, which is in the state of transitioning to another location further downtown. Fisher has taken three distinct spaces from the new, still under-construction building and distorted their scale so that the largest is the smallest and vice versa. The result is a strangely attractive display of the reversal of power. A closet-like form stands in the middle, inaccessible and monolithic like an obelisk surrounded by a stepped plinth. All of the spaces look hollow, like they were abandoned and will never be complete.
This floor also had the misfortune of having some of the worst pieces in the show, most of which looked like frat house hijinks gone wrong. Ken Okiishi’s painted flatscreens and Bjarne Melgaard’s plush, room-sized installation, which incorporates mannequins, projections, and pillows, both look like the remnants of a college rager that resulted in someone turning in the refuse as their art project.
The most perplexing display was the room of paintings by Tony Greene, curated by Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie. Greene’s work often looked like kitschy paintings in a suburban Italian restaurant, but there were moments of clarity, as in “Untitled (orange pour)” (1990), where you could see the push and pull of desire framed by the thick veneer of sentimentality. Even if I left the room ambivalent about the works, they were some of the most memorable, for better or worse.
That tension of art that walks the line between bad and good and what criteria we use to make that decision is at the core of two other displays, including a room full of paintings by Keith Mayerson and a display by Triple Canopy. Mayerson’s oil paintings have a breezy sentimental streak, but there’s something attractively self-conscious about them. Triple Canopy focused on systems that circulate objects and images, many of which are banal, but the intellectual structure is fascinating, even if a little dry and academic.
Comer’s role in the Whitney Biennial appeared to be to poke and prod the boundaries between various categories, exploring the state of becoming again and again. That sense of experimentation was most certainly welcome.
The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens Friday, March 7 at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and continues until May 25.