Aleksandra Mir

Arts Star Search

Newsweek Entertainment, Week 22, New York, 2004
By Peter Plagens

Whitney Biennial 2004
11 March - 30 May 2004
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY - 10021

This year's Whitney Biennial is unusually cheery — but it can still be a do-or-die deal.

March 22 issue — "I'm so nervous, I gave myself a rash," says Cory Arcangel, 26. Arcangel is a video and performance artist; in a week he's got to do the performance part of his gig in the Whitney Museum's just-opened Biennial exhibit of contemporary art. Meanwhile, he's also fretting as a technician tweaks the background blue in his video-projection piece, 'Super Mario Clouds v2k3,' a riff on the old videogame. With electronic art you never know when the machinery might conk out.

But the real reason young artists like Arcangel are getting butterflies is that the Whitney Biennial, which runs through May 30, is their biggest stage yet: the buzz-heavy Manhattan museum's biannual survey of the alleged best of the latest stuff. There are 100-plus artists in the 2004 Biennial, almost half of them 35 or younger, all of them aware that gallery owners and collectors are on the prowl. For some artists, the Whitney pixie dust has worked. Painter Annette Lawrence, class of '97, who teaches at North Texas State, has had 14 shows since that Biennial, "and it probably helped me get tenure." Yet Indianapolis painter Kevin Wolff, '93, remembers the Biennial as "disorienting and disquieting. I felt as though I was absorbed, digested and disgorged by the publicity maw." An even worse outcome? No publicity. "If you don't see a lot of activity with an artist," says gallery owner Elizabeth Dee, "it seems like his or her career is over."

If we were playing "Star Search" this year, we'd go with Erick Swenson, whose eerily realistic hybrid animal — an antlered white deer that looks like a whippet — demonstrates the staying power of figurative sculpture. Robyn O'Neil's huge, faux-naif pencil drawing of a Bruegel-like winter ritual is terrific, as are Catherine Opie's decidedly un-"Blue Crush" photographs of distant surfers waiting for waves in a cold gray fog. In the film-and-video category — whose total running time must amount to years — Catherine Sullivan's enigmatic, multiscreen epic, "Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land," cleverly suggests some avant-garde theater troupe from the 1920s. The big disappointment is the painting. It was supposed to be resurgent this time around, but Cecily Brown's hyperexpressionist nudes have become fluffy and polite, while Elizabeth Peyton's switch from watercolor to oil-on-board makes her slackeresque portraits less convincing than ever.

But dealers and collectors make careers — not us. If they consider cheerfulness and techno-professionalism marketable, then some artists have liftoff. This Biennial is the buoyant opposite of the notoriously angry '93 exhibition with its I CAN'T IMAGINE WANTING TO BE WHITE admission buttons. The snarkiest political artworks here are red plastic NO SMOKING signs by Aleksandra Mir. The show is one comic "Biennials 'R' Us" installation-art piece after another, from Glenn Kaino's sand castle to Christian Holstad's array with a sleeping bag and Patty Hearst's face on a pillow.

Holstad says he's probably as nervous as anybody else here. "But I haven't really thought about it because right now I'm working on a lot of shows at once. I didn't even know when the Whitney opening was." Good attitude. And perhaps someday — looking back from big museum solo shows and sky-high prices — Holstad and a few of his classmates from the audience-friendly '04 Biennial will remember it well.