The Whitney Biennial makes a bold return after a pandemic hiatus

One of the most prestigious exhibitions in the contemporary art world – and at times one of the most controversial – has just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The 80th Whitney Biennial is titled “Quiet as It’s Kept,” a slang adage that simultaneously evokes a 1959 Max Roach album, a phrase used repeatedly by Toni Morrison, and an annual exhibition curated by David Hammons 2002 designated.

Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, the Whitney exhibit is now on view exclusively for members and will open to the general public April 6 through September 5.

Curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards began setting up the exhibition in late 2019, then rushed to keep up as COVID-19, social justice demonstrations and the presidential election repeatedly transformed national discussions.

Works by 63 artists and collectives are on display, including five who have already died – a fact that attracts attention in a show that is expressly rooted in current affairs. The exhibition includes paintings, photographs, sculptures, sound art installations, and film and video displays, as well as objects less easily defined as one or the other. Live performances and dynamic installations, which are subject to change throughout the duration of the show, encourage viewers to plan multiple visits.

With exterior works by Jason Rhoades and Rayyane Tabet, you’ll be immersed in what the Biennale has to offer before you even reach the front door. Inside, glowing Tony Cokes video screens with glowing slogans and hanging Renée Green banners immediately inspire contemplation and confrontation. A video installation by Moved by the Motion is hidden in a ground floor gallery, which will soon be joined by a large format video by Moby Dick with live music at The Shed.

Offerings from Cassandra Press and Terence Nance are confiscated on the third floor, but the vast majority of the Biennale’s presentations are on the museum’s fifth and sixth floors. These two settings are designed to contrast sharply. The fifth level is light and airy, with works mixing in a studio style against white walls. The sixth is dark and labyrinthine: a gloomy antechamber housing a vial said to contain Thomas Edison’s dying breath and a subliminal soundtrack recorded by Raven Chacon near Standing Rock directs a labyrinthine configuration of black draped galleries and enclosures.

At first glance, nothing in this latest biennial seems to be sparking the kind of controversy that was sparked by the 2017 edition – either intentionally, as in Jordan Wolfson’s VR installation real violence, or accidentally, like Dana Schutz’s portrait of Emmett Till, open coffin. That’s not to say the show avoids conflict directly; 06.01.2020 18.39a black box video installation and sensory experience by Alfredo Jaar, is designed to stimulate debate.

But for the most part, the 2022 Biennale subtly articulates even its more polemical points, whether through the unsettling appeal of fabricated Erik Prince portraits by Buck Ellison, the aggressive physique Emily Barker has built into her eerie domestic tableau, death by 7,865 paper cuts, or the chilling critique of consumer culture embedded in two works by Andrew Roberts.

In these and many other cases, the exhibition offers a mixture of styles, practices and perspectives that invite contemplation, dialogue and mutual engagement. The Whitney Biennial makes a bold return after a pandemic hiatus

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