Black Lives Matter Inspires the Whitney

Issue 264

Mike Newton Jun 10, 2021

What a way to go. For his 2003 video “Self-Portrait Piñata,” artist Dave McKenzie cast his image as a deliriously silly-looking piñata, filled this facsimile McKenzie with candy and glitter, then hoisted it above a group of kids (kids who were not about to ignore some potential free candy).

McKenzie’s video is naturally funny but also induces queasiness. It’s strange seeing a white child go up to McKenzie’s haplessly-smiling avatar — clearly meant to resemble a Black man — and bash at him with a baseball bat. The little boy here probably didn’t know that he was participating in a fraught, politicized spectacle, and that’s the tricky thing about any place, like the U.S., where large swaths of people are routinely marginalized: everything becomes political, whether you know it or not.

For better or worse, the Whitney, like other major museums, tends to respond to pressing social issues in a lightly-distanced, elliptical way. For example, their big pre-pandemic exhibit “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945” demonstrated how Mexican artists had a heavy and direct influence on major American art movements of the 20th century: seemingly, a rejoinder to the Trump administration and its demonization of Mexican immigrants.

Last year, the Whitney tried to mount “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In A Time of Change,” an exhibit that was intended to engage directly with the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, but which ended up getting canceled when it came out that the museum had not properly paid many of the participating artists (this is also after a string of controversies around several of the museum’s popular Biennial exhibitions). The Whitney’s current slate of shows is maybe a sort of apology, or a lesson learned. It’s not necessarily clear exactly what the Whitney is trying to say right now, but by hosting four concurrent solo exhibits by Black artists — all of them working in America and concerned with issues of social justice and cultural change — the museum is certainly saying something. Whether this focus on Black American artists represents the start of a broader curatorial commitment or ends up being a momentary burst of tokenism is not yet known. What about the art itself? It’s good.

Queens-born Dawoud Bey started out in 1970s Harlem shooting 35mm social-realist street photography in the tradition of Roy Decarava and Gordon Parks. Bey came into his own as a photographer when he embraced a sort of direct, conflicted engagement with his subjects (mainly Black Americans). For example, “A Young Man Resting on an Exercise Bike, Amityville, NY” (1988) gives us an abundance from its somewhat stoic-seeming subject: his gentle but pointed gaze, his long fingers, the gleam of his bike’s steel handlebars. In what may be his best-known series, Bey worked with the rare, cumbersome 20” x 24” Polaroid camera: the resultant portraits appear in segmented squares, suggesting a conflict with the limits and parameters of the photographic medium itself. Like the best street photography, this is all deeply humanistic work with the added tensions of complex relationships informed by difficult systems.

Julie Mehretu, ‘Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson,’ 2016. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 × 96 in. (213.4 × 243.8 cm). The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles. Photograph by Cathy Carver.

A few floors down from the Bey show, we have a mid-career retrospective of Julie Mehretu. Mehretu’s paintings are spectacularly ambitious, and deserve to be seen up-close. But there’s also an unfortunate vagueness that permeates here, especially given the implied social-justice contexts that these works emerged from. “Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson” (2016), for example, is reportedly based on images of riot cops in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was murdered there by police in 2014. You wouldn’t know that from looking at it, though. What does come through — with its uneasy juxtapositions of clashing color, its thick but wispy lines like errant construction-site spray paint — is a sense of unease, a sort of seasick reckoning with a world in perpetual chaos. Mehretu seems to approach her work almost as seismograph, recording massive, global changes in endless, highly-deliberate strokes of ink and paint. The results are a wonder to see, but still, there’s a sense that some connective layer was stripped in the process.

The Dave McKenzie show is on the third floor, which people sometimes skip. Don’t be one of those people. McKenzie’s performance videos have an endearingly vivacious, youthful quality (most of the work here was made when he was in his 20s), with a whole world of politicized complexity sitting just beneath the often quite funny surface.

Finally, out by the water is a new, long-term installation by David Hammons. Called “Day’s End”, the piece uses metal poles to make a ghostly approximation of the demolished Pier 52 shed. Given its semi-anonymous reputation, this vanished building is almost impossibly loaded with meaning and history: legendary avant-garde sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark cut holes into its walls as part of a 1975 artwork (also called “Day’s End”); it served as a meeting spot for the vital sub rosa queer community that formed on Manhattan’s West Side; it was once a sanitation facility. Hammons’s work (in sculp- ture, printmaking, or even video) tends to start with recognizable forms, then intervenes in the representation to create a phantasmic presence — something from memory. As the high-rise apartments and luxury shops (and, uh, art museums) continue to sprout by the Hudson, I do hope that Hammons’s piece can at least serve as a reminder that there’s a big history here: memories to be cultivated and not just paved-over.

Memory is key here, and it may be on us, the viewers, to remember the promises of the summer of 2020, when scores of cultural institutions pledged to inspect and address their potentially racist practices. Whichever way the Whitney chooses to go forward, it will certainly involve politics — it’s impossible for it not to.

Dave McKenzie: The Story I Tell Myself
Thru Oct. 4

Dawoud Bey: An American Project
Thru Oct. 3

Julie Mehrutu
Thru Aug, 3

David Hammons: Day’s End

Whitney Museum of American Art

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