The most interesting thing about it was how uninterested the panelists were. Baker happened to mention that he hadn’t read Berwick’s feature-length article in New York magazine, none of the panelists had seen the installations or performances in the Whitney’s adjunct space at the Armory, and I’m guessing they also didn’t bone up by reading about the artists on the Whitney’s Web site, since it seems unlikely that anyone could encounter the verbiage I cited and refrain from commenting on it.
I’m not as interested in the Biennial as I am in the phenomenon of its dwindling cachet. On her blog, Joanne Mattera asks, “What if they gave a Biennial and nobody went?” That may already have happened.
Past Biennials, at least, generated controversy and discussion, which is always good for art, while the universal reaction to this one is shrugged shoulders.
Reasons given by the panel revolved around the Biennial’s abject subject matter and “bleak” atmosphere (“try bland,” the woman behind me muttered) and competition with art fairs. To my mind, however, it’s more about a segment of the art world that’s lost touch with its purpose and audience, and signifies a definitive break between idea-based art, as promoted by many art schools, and practice-based art—that which evolves from a more intuitive long-term exploration (where “work comes out of work” as Richard Serra has put it and I more recently heard Julie Mehretu say) as well as being grounded in visual experience.
When did we lose the “visual” in “visual art”? It's a long story, that goes back to suspicions about “beauty” that emerged during the 20th century, but I think there’s another component that comes out of my observations as a teacher--which is that many attending art school and going into the art professions today are not driven by an interest in things visual as much as they are in experiencing a creativity and autonomy (and lack of rigor, I might add snarkily) they don’t see offered by other professions. Add to this the “gathering tsunami of newly rich, clueless collectors infatuated with bright, neatly-made vision-free art” (as Michael Kimmelman put it in his review of the 2006 Biennial) and you get the current Biennial and art fair scene.
However I’m optimistic when I think about the enthusiastic responses Olafur Eliasson at MoMA and PS1 is generating, and how much intelligent, visually satisfying art I’ve seen this season in Chelsea galleries, of all places, by mid-career artists as well as new faces, much of it based on loose variations of pattern and geometric abstraction: Chris Martin, Juan Usle, Dan Walsh, Ann Pibal, Roberto Juarez, Thomas Nozkowski, Valerie Jaudon (this list is off the top of my head, so I may have left out some important examples).
To me, it’s symbolic of an important cultural shift, one that includes, yes, Obama. How do I make that leap? I keep going back to something my son, Matt, surmised and which I wrote about in January, that 2007 signified the cultural beginning of the new century, much in the way the Sixties, as we indentify it, really began in 1964. We’re over the negativity, fear mongering, hype, and anti-humanistic values of the last century. We want intelligence, substance, inspiration, and HOPE. We no longer want to be told what’s good for us, we know what’s good for us, and given a choice, we’ll choose that which uplifts us. Keep that thought.
Roberto Juarez, Whale (2008), at Charles Cowles Gallery through May 17th.