NEW YORK — Like Goldilocks's critique of the three bears' beds, the Whitney Biennial generates polarized opinions.
Sometimes the survey of contemporary American art, held every two years at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is judged too hard (with a politicized agenda). Or, it's too soft (showcasing blue-chip, familiar artists instead of sharper, emerging talent). This year, the exhibition of works by 97 artists, running through June 4, is just right.
The coherence of four floors of paintings, sculptures, installations, photography, video, cinema, and Internet art comes as a surprise. A team of six curators from all over the United States chose the works, mostly by unknowns. You'd expect chaos to result. The 2000 Biennial is certainly eclectic. Yet the diverse viewpoints and nationalities - the artists are from 21 countries besides the US - explore a major theme: What it means to be an artist in American society.
Al Souza's "The Peaceful Kingdom" (1998) says it best. From a distance, the huge (7 ft. by 18 ft.) wood panel, covered with thousands of jigsaw puzzle pieces glued to the surface, looks like an abstract mishmash. Up close, we see layered fragments of iconic imagery. Bits of Americana, like a red schoolhouse, are pasted next to European beacons, like London Bridge. Instead of dissolving into cacophony, the pieces fit together in multitoned polyphony. So do the disparate voices in the Biennial choir. (Visitors can hear the artists' voices on an audio tour, available free with admission. It's an invaluable resource, as the artists describe their intentions.)
The heart of the show pulses with questions of identity. With so many recent migrs represented, it's no wonder the artists ask, "Who am I? How do I fit in?" Some of the most striking works explore the African-American experience.
Chakaia Booker's "It's So Hard to Be Green" (2000) is a gargantuan wall sculpture composed of black-rubber tire treads. Referring to African skin color, the indestructible tires show both survival and resilience of discards. In the exuberant arrangement, the tires look like flowers, snakes, even a path.
Dawoud Bey's Polaroid prints are close-ups of urban minority youths. Instead of stereotypical views, he brings out his subjects' ambiguity. "Demitri" (1998) is a triptych of a teen wearing a hooded sweatshirt. In two shots, he has a menacing look, but the hood makes him appear holy, monkish.
Salomn Huerta's "Untitled Head" (1999) is a hyperrealist portrait of the back of a man's head. One has no idea of the subject's identity. Huerta's view of a house is also anonymous. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, he paints pictures of Latino houses in California, stripped of individualizing detail.
Yukinori Yanagi's "Study for American Art - Three Flags" (2000) explicitly addresses the image of American identity by deconstructing the American flag. The work reproduces a 1958 painting by Jasper Johns in colored sand, which houses an actual ant farm behind plexiglass. Busy worker ants tunnel through the stars and stripes, gradually obliterating our collective symbol through thoughtless industry.
Other aspects of American society highlighted are the pervasiveness of sex and violence. Kojo Griffin paints toy-like figures engaged in malevolent acts. "Untitled" (1999) shows "innocent" teddy bears standing over a body - a view especially pointed with the recent outbreaks of murders by children.
Lisa Yuskavage's paintings of caricatured female figures, like "True Blonde at Home" (1999), are unsettling. "I wanted to make my work difficult to take," the artist said. "I'm interested in feeling estranged and strange."
E.V. Day's "Bombshell" (1999) displays a reproduction of Marilyn Monroe's famous white dress, shattered into shreds. Pieces are suspended in midair in the shape of a mushroom cloud. The work conflates sex and violence, suggesting, Day said, women should ignore the dictates of fashion, extract "them- selves from the props of social conventions."
Not all the works have a subtext of defining American identity. Some are about art and perception. Vik Muniz's "The Raft of the Medusa" (1999), rendered in Bosco chocolate syrup; Richard Tuttle's plywood squares; Laurie Reid's exquisite watercolor "Ruby Dew (Pink Melon Joy)" (1998); Tara Donovan's "Ripple" (1998), made of electrical cable; and Joseph Havel's bronzed curtains are exhilarating aesthetic investigations.
Looking back on the last three years of American art, as an amazing century of global dominance came to its end, most of the Biennial artists depict the idea of Americanness as a nation of searchers. The quest itself is the answer to the questions, "Who are we, and why are we here?"
Physical appearance does not equal truth, these artists assert. Start with the act of seeing, based on observation of sensory phenomena (we're practical Yankees, after all), but don't settle for superficial answers.
The Texas artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz sums it up. He creates a replica of a Hispanic-American store, a botanica selling knickknacks and religious trinkets. His version, complete with candles and marshmallow chicks, could be considered kitsch - like much of American pop culture. But he insists his work is "bright, campy, and pretty - a lot of different worlds converging."
In an interview, Mondini-Ruiz insists, "What I'm getting at is inclusivity." What others see as junk, he views as beauty. "I've been converted." Mondini-Ruiz sells his objects on the street outside the museum like a vendor, to "break down the barriers between the museum and commerce. I'm mixing the business of art and the passion for art," he says.
Mondini-Ruiz used to make $150 an hour as a corporate attorney. "I make a lot less now," he says, "but my life is much richer."
The 2000 Biennial has less controversy this time around, but it's the richer for it. The show offers fresh voices posing sincere questions about issues that matter. A refreshing change after the sour cynicism of the 1990s.
*Internet art can be viewed at the museum Web site: www.whitney.org
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society