Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet (2019), Janiva Ellis’s contribution to the latest biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a painting of a border: fence, river, palm trees, storm on the horizon, and figures making their treacherous way across. The landscape—something of a departure for Ellis, who often paints surrealist portraits—captures a woman, partially dressed, carrying a child as she wades through the stream at a break in the fence. With a third hand, the woman is peeling back the skin from her face, revealing an expression that falls somewhere between fatigue and resolve. The child she bears is an animal, a bizarro canine creature. Another woman lies stretched out on the riverbank, possibly dead. Her lower half is a messy red pattern that could be a tie-dyed skirt—or maybe her intestines, strewn over the shore.
Where Ellis’s mother figure is running, or what she’s fleeing, remains unseen. But the tension is apparent in her face and posture, and in the fact that she is in this moment crossing, or trespassing, the boundary marked by the fence. Such precariousness is also a theme of this year’s show, which explores an America that is, like the woman on the border, suspended between exhaustion and determination. The 2019 Whitney Biennial—which comprises the work of 75 artists and collectives, the majority of whom are nonwhite, half of whom identify as women, and three-quarters of whom are under 40 years old—is a steadfast survey of anxiety and identity. It is a quiet show, compared with recent editions. And it arrives at a difficult time for the Whitney program, especially after the 2017 biennial was marked by protests over a portrait of the body of Emmett Till by a white artist, Dana Schutz. But the latest biennial finds balance in a cogent and underutilized curatorial strategy: First, assemble a group of American artists that comes close to actually resembling what America looks like today.
The choice to center women and artists of color in this year’s Whitney Biennial, curated by Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, is abundantly apparent in figurative artworks. One of the first pieces to greet viewers leaving the elevator of the Whitney’s still-new building in New York City’s Meatpacking District is Kota Ezawa’s National Anthem (2018), an animated projection that shows the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players taking the knee as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. Elsewhere, a wall-sized mural by Pat Phillips depicts two black hands as they reach down from the ceiling and tack up a Gadsden flag. Phillips’s mural, which appears behind a wooden fence (another border), also features a pistol, bullets, and a riot-control canister. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag dangles from one corner, an incomplete gesture that hints at the irony of a black man objecting to state violence using a symbol whose meaning has drifted toward white nationalism.
Abstractions on view underscore the political consciousness laced throughout the biennial, too, including Eric N. Mack’s Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag—Permanently (2019). The title of this installation of fabric patches suspended from the wall and ceiling refers to works by the famous black quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Very much unlike those exquisite quilts, Mack’s piece is in tatters, a choice that points to the untenable concept of a single America. Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist, offers a critique of white monoculture through indigenous craft in White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2018), a woven textile that depicts the abstract static flicker of a television set. Bronze and ceramic sculptures rooted in West African forms by Simone Leigh and garmentlike pieces with Native American and minimalist influences by Jeffrey Gibson also tease out the tension between traditional craft and contemporary aesthetics.
The shining moments in this Whitney Biennial come in works that truly marry formal anxieties with lived experience. Steffani Jemison’s spellbinding Sensus Plenior (2017) is one such piece. The documentarylike video begins with a sequence that follows Susan Webb, an ordained minister who leads Harlem’s Master Mime Ministry, as she applies her white face paint. But Jemison has supplanted the conversation with a brutalist noise-jazz composition (performed on a violin and double bass). When Webb begins preaching—through a mime performance choreographed to the song “Anointing,” by the gospel artist J. Moss—Jemison runs the footage straight at first. But she gradually slows down the video’s frame rate, drawing out the ecstasy of Webb’s exhortation to the point of agony for the viewer. Watching it is a distressing experience: In Jemison’s stark depiction of the Reverend Webb, the line between homage and warning blurs; the piece reads in some ways as a demonstration of how black art forms are co-opted.
There are missteps in the show, for sure. Charcoal drawings by Christine Sun Kim, a deaf artist, feature charts that measure her frustration with institutions that cater only to the hearing. (In Degrees of My Deaf Rage in the Art World (2018), one such frustration, “visiting artists who aren’t comfortable with interpreters,” rates as “obtuse rage.”) These are memes, really—and a missed opportunity to showcase Kim’s work, since she is known for engaging sound performances that examine the links between sign language and music. Agustina Woodgate’s National Times (2016/2019)—an installation of clocks outfitted with sandpaper arms that slowly grind away the numbers—is simply didactic.
But there are no outright mistakes in this biennial—nothing like the divisive abstraction in the 2017 show by Schutz that depicted the 1955 funeral photograph of a mutilated Till. That painting sparked protests that forced museum leaders to reckon with issues of cultural appropriation and representation. (One artist, Parker Bright, obstructed Schutz’s painting while wearing a shirt that read Black Death Spectacle.) This time around, outrage has focused not on the content of the biennial, but on the institution itself. Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi American artist, dropped out in protest over the Whitney’s relationship with Warren Kanders, a vice chair of the museum’s board, who owns a weapons-manufacturing company. In a twist, Kanders is also the subject of a protest piece included in the Whitney Biennial: Triple-Chaser (2019), an 11-minute documentary by a group called Forensic Architecture that details the use of tear gas produced by Kanders’s company.
Crucially, very little Donald Trump is on view. By my count, the president’s name comes up just once, in a sound installation by Marcus Fischer recorded the day before the president’s inauguration. The omission might seem unlikely for a show that is in many ways clearly attuned to America’s political dynamics. For comparison, at the height of the Iraq War, the 2006 Whitney Biennial included a painting by Richard Serra called Stop Bush (2004), featuring those words over the notorious silhouetted image of the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib. This year’s exhibit includes no such call to arms.
Flash points around race and identity didn’t start with Trump, the curators could be signaling, and they won’t end when he leaves office. Maybe the broader point is that the polarizing president just isn’t a factor here. This Whitney Biennial is a subtle show built on a whole host of themes, no single one of which represents America. But the exhibit is, for once, representative. That choice might be obvious, but it’s striking—and something museums should adopt as the norm.