Politics Dominates Whitney Biennial

`Grievance art' is the order of the day, as artists vent their protests in the museum's galleries

THE Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial is said to be the art world's weather vane.

According to this 67th survey of contemporary American art, the prevailing currents are stormy and torrid, with howling winds of protest drowning out interest in formal invention or aesthetics.

A work that could serve as a signature piece for the entire Biennial is Byron Kim's "Synecdoche."

On 275 painted panels, Kim portrays the skin colors of his multiethnic acquaintances. The rectangles, ranging in hue from beige to pink to brown, give concrete form to Mayor David Dinkins's "gorgeous mosaic" metaphor for New York.

The rest of the exhibition - with three-fourths of its artists appearing at the Biennial for the first time - is as deliberately multicultural, including Asians, Hispanics, gay and lesbian activists, and a much larger number of women than ever before.

It's as if chief curator Elizabeth Sussman's aim, like that of President Clinton with his Cabinet, were to fashion a show that looks more like America, or at least like a waiting room at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

What do the 82 artists, whose more than 150 works are on view through June 13 (when two floors close) and June 20 (when the remaining two floors close), tell us about our society? They address the art of the state more than the state of the arts. This is "grievance art" that grabs the viewer by the lapels.

Racial issues come from the back of the bus to front-row seats. Gary Simmons's installation reproduces a police lineup inhabited only by gilded sneakers, reminders of young African-Americans who are rounded up as possible suspects. Like an adult version of bronzed baby shoes, the empty sneakers suggest how inner-city youth are often reduced to stereotypes.

Another installation (or conglomeration of objects creating an environment) that deals with racism is Lorna Simpson's "Hypothetical."

She affixes horn mouthpieces to one wall opposite a photographic image of an African-American woman's mouth. In between is a newspaper clipping alluding to the anger of blacks after the Rodney King beating. The mute lips and the soundless trumpeting of rage the mouthpieces imply combine in a message of silent dissent, awaiting a courageous voice.

Two artists eager to overturn ethnic cliches are Jimmie Durham and Pepon Osorio. Durham, a Cherokee, creates pseudo-guns out of twigs, pipes, and bones, mounting them in a mock-museum exhibit as spurious as the version of Native American history he believes institutions present.

Osorio's installation includes a floridly decorated living room, complete with fountain, statues of saints, and ornate upholstery, intended to evoke a Puerto Rican family's apartment. Police tape blocks access to the interior, which contains a plastic bag holding a murder weapon and klieg lights set up to record the "scene of the crime."

Outside the kitsch-stuffed stage set is a mat proclaiming: "WELCOME only if you can understand that ... the greater pain is to see how in the movies others make fun of the way we live."

Attacking the media's version of events is also the aim of Francesco Torres's cibachrome prints based on images taken from Newsweek magazine. Two side panels of a triptych present smeared photographs of American soldiers during the Persian Gulf war. In the center is an advertisement for a luxury car, looking simultaneously like a tomb and a cathedral. Juxtaposing images of war and consumerism delivers Torres's view that the war was fought to keep oil flowing.

Photography is the preferred medium for many Biennial artists. Miguel Gandert has an ax to grind with his documentary photographs: He is protesting the displacement by land developers of Hispanics in New Mexico.

Many of the photographers are women, who use the camera to raise sexual issues. Nan Goldin's photographs of transvestites, influenced by the surreal cinema of Warhol and Fellini, are a plea for tolerance and an elegy for victims of AIDS. Cindy Sherman's lush color prints of tableaux created with body parts continue her exploration of sexual identity.

Feminist art is also represented: Veteran artist Nancy Spero's wall painting eulogizes a 17-year-old Russian girl who was tortured and executed by the Nazis. Kiki Smith's work illustrates the current artistic obsession with the body. Her plaster sculpture of two female nudes connected by an umbilical cord is an artistic call for solidarity. Alison Saar's totem pole, "Hi, Yella," comments on linking prestige to skin color.

The most stridently aggressive feminist artist is Sue Williams, whose rubber sculpture ("Irresistible") of a battered woman, a footprint on her thigh, huddles on the floor. Williams' autobiographical art expresses her anger against the men who raped and beat her.

Janine Antoni's installation attacks the prevailing concept of female beauty, which she believes makes a fetish of slenderness and fosters eating disorders. "Gnaw" consists of two 600-pound cubes, one of chocolate, the other of lard, on which the artist gnawed (toothmarks are visible on the blocks) and then molded into candy boxes and lipstick.

Gay and lesbian artists are also vocal at this exhibit. Glenn Ligon, for example, appropriates Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial homoerotic portraits, interspersed with text.

Other major components of the Biennial are film, video, and performance art, mostly of the "j'accuse" tenor that permeates the whole show. In a blatant example of pandering to popular appeal, the video curator presents two examples of non-art: George Holliday's infamous video of the Rodney King beating and a music video by Spike Lee illustrating a song by Prince.

Amid so much earnest, politically correct art, California artist Chris Burden's installation is shockingly iconoclastic. "Fist of Light" is an enclosed room lit by a thousand megawatt bulbs. Although the intense light and heat preclude museumgoers from entering, they can observe the cubicle's aluminum shell and enough air- conditioning ducts to cool the Sahara. Burden's inferno is an electricity-guzzling behemoth that serves no useful purpose.

One emerges from the Biennial feeling battered, harangued, and badgered by voices usually considered out of the mainstream. In the art of the '90s, the Biennial catalogue claims, "the margins have become dominant."

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