Essays

The Whitney Biennial Reminds Us America Is Not Post-Race

A slow reading of Ajay Kurian’s work is influenced by a desire to view, parse, and converse with more work by artists of color, and is one of many strategies needed to challenge a dominant, incomplete idea of “American” art.

Ajay Kurian’s “Childermass” (2017) at the 2017 Whitney Biennial (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It is difficult to approach the Whitney Biennial without already having read reviews, or overheard chatter, about the ur-significance of this survey of American art, rolling out in the dense consolidation of a racist regime. A raft of socially amplified framing devices are in play, along with the viewing role of our senses and id. The current political context is as amplified as the 2006 Day for Night Whitney Biennial, which opened in an America riven by overseas wars. Yet, somehow, I encountered Ajay Kurian’s “Childermass” (2017) stairwell sculptures without having read any advance press.

Characters as frogs in Ajay Kurian’s “Childermass” (2017)

Lacking contextual aids, I took in Kurian’s sculpted welded steel figures and remained stuck on one piece — a woman wearing a t-shirt reading “All Holes Matter,” climbing up a set of ropes that connects the figures. Maybe the slogan is a humorous provocation, but that night I could not take it lightly. In last year’s cultural semantic wars, “All Lives Matter” was a circuit jam, seemingly channeling Rodney King’s “can’t we all get along” into a call for race-blind humanity, but actually delegitimizing the unique violence experienced by black and brown bodies in America. Hearing giggles from young men behind me, as they spotted this t-shirt, opened another possibility: that audiences were zeroing in on the potential of having sexual carte blanche. “Lives” might become “Loves,” but I worried about the signifiers of group violence associated in pornography.

The next week I revisited the piece, wanting to think through my initial, opening night dismay. On a second viewing, and with less of a crowd crush, the sculptures’ balletic relationship with, and dialectic struggle against, each other became more apparent. Now it seemed to me that each of Kurian’s sculptures was linked to the next, in a chain of sincerity and irony, within that stairwell. The characters included figures that resembled frogs, pit bulls, a chromed chameleon, a she wolf, the “all holes” woman, and a giant baby. Halfway to the apex were two moon men in a death spiral — these were “Satters and Pulley,” names borrowed and modified from Wyndham Lewis’ modernist, and reactionary, novel Childermass (1928). The upper figure was in the motion of delivering a lethal kick to the lower one’s blown glass face. On the back of the victor was an American flag with Arabic stencil and the words “Never Forget. September 11th.” That last motif hints at Kurian’s appropriation of the Childermass title as an ironic nod to the interwar fascist ideology Wyndham Lewis held — perhaps, like many others, he sees a revival of this ideology now.

The “Satters and Pulley” characters in Ajay Kurian’s “Childermass” (2017)

As I later discussed Kurian’s work with friends, I began to verbalize why I had taken the time to enact multiple readings of Kurian’s intent. In the past, I have participated in many discussions in New York’s South Asian art spaces about the absenting of South Asian artists in both the Whitney Biennial and MoMA PS1’s Greater New York Show. A cursory review shows no South Asian American artists in the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014 Whitney Biennials, and only between one and three artists of South Asian origin in the last four PS1 Greater New York shows. Kurian is one of two artists of South Asian origin in this biennial. I also noted the curatorial transition — this is the first time two Asian-American curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, have curated this biennial of American art. This meant that I approached this biennial, and Kurian’s work, looking for and presuming a new perspective in the address of race, class, and gender.

Kurian himself has commented on the position of artists of color, and the role of black/brown bodies within American art. In a piece on Jordan Wolfson’s “Colored Sculpture” (2016) he wrote:

The white body, through its repetition in a history of art that is largely painted white itself, has become an easy and lazy signifier for a universal body, for a metaphorical body, one that becomes symbolic and slippery, that can always be more than its mere representation. The non-white body, I believe, has greater difficulty in attaining this metaphorical bounty.

A lion-like figure in”Childermass” (2017)

My reading of Kurian, outside media spotlights, brings up a contrast with the debate over Dana Schutz. The position and strategies of white artists is central to that debate, playing out in the context of activist anger over a national political crisis of redeployed racist structures and language. The current racial-political conjuncture also increased the volume of protests against Kelley Walker’s show in St. Louis in 2016. Similar work by Kelley Walker did not evoke as many aggrieved responses at the 2006 Whitney Biennial (or at his companion show at Paula Cooper); but by this year, the political specificity within which audiences live has come into sharper relief.

America’s racist legacy is an essential terrain for memorializing, as a first step toward redress and reparations. In fact, the Whitney’s permanent collection of 1930s work around lynching and the KKK (Harry Sternberg, Hale Aspacio Woodruff, Lamar Baker, Phillip Guston) were a moral center of the America is Hard to See show. But the debate over Schutz’s painting runs through the question of the fitness of abstraction as a technique for addressing charged events, the role of accusatory speech by a white woman in Emmett Till’s death, and Schutz’s past traces of aestheticizing black bodies in fight or repose (Fight in an Elevator, 2015; The Autopsy of Michael Jackson, 2005).

The non-white body, and the non-white artist, are in a conflicted and suffocatingly delimited space within American art. Chitra Ganesh wrote about this in a post-election editorial for Artforum:

[N]ext time you encounter an opening/ gala/ meeting/ propaganda-making party/ birthday/ exhibition/ group critique/ feminist event, count the number of brown people in the room. Is everyone able-bodied? What about the queers? How did this come to be and why? Were you the only person of color in the room? Or one of three? What could be done to change this?

From another angle

The reaction to Schutz takes in, and puts into crisis, the position of a white artist making work about a brutalized black body. Meanwhile, my slow reading of Kurian is influenced by a desire to converse with, and underscore, more work by artists of color within what is called “American” art. This is a contradictory and conflictual way to view any exhibition, but it is context specific and it won’t go away. It is one of many strategies needed to challenge a dominant, incomplete idea of “American” art — a hegemony that stunts creative possibilities for artists and audiences in America. Political earthquakes have now reinscribed the reality that we are not living in any halcyon, post-race era. Contemporary artists, curators, venues, and audiences should not strain to construct a post-race bubble either. Critical conversations, about the work of art and its makers, need to accept an urgent and continuing foregrounding of Stuart Hall’s “fateful triangle” — race, ethnicity, and nation.

The 2017 Whitney Biennial continues through June 11 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan).

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