• Issue Author Title

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    • XVI

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    • XIV

      • Colleen Asper & Justin Lieberman In Conversation
      • COLLEEN ASPER: Platypus held up well in the face of Marianne Vitale’s horrid shouting. I can’t say the same for the other things in the room. Wait, what were the other things in the room?


        JUSTIN LIEBERMAN: Worst. Room. Ever. Platypus could barely conceal his terror. But wait. Aren’t we jumping ahead a bit? Can we start with something great that was near the beginning? R.H. Quaytman’s installation of paintings relating to the window in the room was subtle and hilarious in its insistence on an expansive context from within the frame of the image. The dedication to place seems almost impossible and simultaneously a matter of course. The use of glitter too, I can’t help but read as something just out-of-fashion enough to produce a feeling of disgust. Maybe that one was the best room? Who was the naked woman in the painting?

        Colleen Asper holds Platypus up to see Marianne Vitale’s Patron.


        CA: K8 Hardy. She was posed after the figure in Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun, owned by the museum. Only the composition is reversed, as if seen in a mirror. I appreciate that the context is expansive toward other works situated within the museum rather than the Biennial (I am thinking here of how Cheyney Thompson’s piece did this last time around, among others). Pointing to the conditions of the Biennial doesn’t do much for me, but Hopper — with all his pictures within pictures and rectangles within rectangles — is a nice reference for the framing and reframing in this work. It is a good room. But I am not disgusted by the glitter.


        JL: Oooh. That makes it even better. I definitely agree with you about the registration of context. Quaytman’s is historical rather than bluntly political. It opens up a sea of possibilities rather than presenting an endgame, as does an insistence on the “reality” of current conditions. It seemed like in the last Biennial a lot of artists were really trying to find ways to recoup some kind of political agency for themselves, and that led to some gestures with about as much subtlety as a sledgehammer. It continues in this one. The Hearse by the Bruce High Quality Foundation this time around was pretty blunt. It seems that certain types of gestures stake themselves on causing a rupture through desublimation. And this inevitably leads us back to ego. The desire of the artist to be the one who pulls back the curtain. It can start to seem like a pissing contest. Everyone is trying to be the smartest one in the room.

        Colleen Asper, Justin Lieberman, and Platypus in front of a Sarah Crowner
        painting.


        CA: Absolutely. Have you noticed how many reviews of the Biennial end in ejaculatory praise of BHQF? I don’t get it. Or I do get it and it bothers me. Everything about that piece that purports to be critical seems to me disingenuous. The appeal of BHQF is premised on a romantic notion of Americanism. Their outlaw’s song is already a mediated image. It’s a bunch of vain strutting. Peacock feathers are not the arrow you shoot into the heart of the monster of excess. They only make that monster bigger. It’s like movies about drugs — no matter how compromised the characters become or cautionary the tale, they just make you want to do drugs again. Quaytman’s historicism is certainly available to the political. Jo Nivison, an artist married to Hopper, was the model for many of his paintings, including, I believe, A Woman in the Sun. When she died she left Hopper’s works and her own to the Whitney under the condition that the museum maintain them both; they promptly discarded her work. They have even sold off some of Hopper’s work in moments of financial crisis. Institutional manipulation of history, that is in Quaytman’s work too. Without any pissing.


        JL: They’ll do the same to my work, if I am lucky. More likely, collectors will just alter it to suit their purposes. All my sculptures will eventually be converted into lamps. All my paintings will become carpets. That is (unbelievably) a much more common scenario to my mind than the one you’re describing. It happens to me all the time. Meredith James told me a story about Michael Heizer’s battle with MOCA LA to have Double Negative restored, and I thought it sounded as though he had set himself up for problems in the first place by making big, complicated work whose meaning was contingent on its own preservation. I like George Brecht’s axiom: “If something breaks or is lost, replace it with something similar, or something different, or nothing at all. No catastrophes are possible.” I like this very much.

        That said, it was stupid and evil for the Whitney to throw out those paintings. As far as selling off the Hoppers, that seems like the stupidity and evil of a much larger institution than the Whitney. It seems strange to throw away paintings. They don’t take up that much space. I think that the political irony in Quaytman’s work is predicated on the portability of these small, beautiful paintings that can be easily subsumed into a field of exchange. It helps to ensure their preservation. But they nevertheless insist on an attachment to place. They are funny in this impossible insistence. They are subversive. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that the place to which they are attached is the Whitney. So there is a certain opportunism there as well. There is a little bit of pissing.

        Colleen Asper, Justin Lieberman, and Platypus observe The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s We Like America and America Likes Us.


        CA: I make things that, sometimes small and sometimes beautiful, always have a relationship to craft that certainly inspires preservation. But it seems to me the goal is not to make works that survive with their physicality intact, but works that remain useful. Though your paintings strike me as rather coarse material for carpets. Quaytman. Opportunism? Hmmmm. Do you know that her dad is Harvey Quaytman? His work is owned by the Whitney and he was in several Biennials. One could say she was born with an attachment to that place. Now we are talking about legacy instead of pissing. But the work seems to me generous, so I am inclined to be generous with it. The artist and her work, like us all, begin from a place of compromise. The daughter of a well-known painter, a grouping of works that have to be considered within the context of the show everyone loves to hate: the Biennial. With this as a start, they recoup political agency for themselves precisely because they do not set themselves up as falsely oppositional to their origins. Instead they use those origins in a way that is expansive. And funny and subversive. Shouldn’t we talk about other works in the show though? You had, uhhhh, a strong reaction to Nina Berman’s photographs.

        Colleen Asper, Justin Lieberman, and Platypus in front of a Charles Ray painting.


        JL: You are right. Expansive, generous, totally great. That’s how I felt in the beginning anyway. The Berman photos. I am not taking that bait. What I will say is that every time I am with a pretty girl, I feel like that guy. The wedding photo is incredible. What about the Charles Ray flowers? I can’t remember how many people told me I was going to shocked by those, but I wasn’t at all. It does not seem to me to be out of sync with his other work. How can it be shocking for an artist to paint flowers? Reminds me of Thomas Schütte.

        One thing I thought was interesting was the amount of dance. I remember a time not that long ago when it might have seemed unthinkable for choreographers like Martha Graham or Yvonne Rainer to be referred to directly. If an artist was going to engage with work like that, it was a matter of course that this reference would be third hand at least. Through Hollywood’s depiction of performance art or something. A lot of the dance videos in the biennial seemed to be returning to the source. I think I felt this way when I first saw Catherine Sullivan’s videos.


        CA: I’ll take my own bait then. The gruesomeness of Berman’s and Stephanie Sinclair’s photos was abrupt amidst so much pretty painting. I don’t see this as an innate problem with the individual works — I don’t look towards art to provide one type of experience — but I do see it as a problem with the curation. It sets up a division between mediums. To take up one of your favorite subjects of late, it seems to say painting can only access “the real” through a quiet contemplation of materiality and photography by exposé — by a documentation of horrific circumstances. Even the inclusion of George Condo is undercut by the choice of a subdued work. I don’t like this. Painting can be gruesome. As for Charles Ray’s watercolors, I agree they are not shocking. If they looked more like Schütte’s work I think that would be interesting. More like an old man splashing around in his studio on a Sunday afternoon. Instead they seem to me as careful and premeditated as any of Ray’s sculptures, to follow neatly his formula of populist imagery made strange by dysmorphic construction. Regarding all the dance — yeah. The third floor was downright aerobic. Why was that all on the third floor? One of many strange pairings of like with like in the show. The references in Catherine Sullivan’s work go towards film at least as much as dance or performance though. When she uses dance it is only to point to the construction involved in any presentation of the self, while the dancers in Rashaad Newsome’s or Kelly Nipper’s videos seem to have a much more straightforward relationship to expression.

        Platypus dances to Kelly Nipper’s
        Weather Center.


        JL: This is a complex issue. I can see the reasoning, even though I don’t agree with it. Paintings have a relationship to what Yve-Alain Bois refers to as the “image of labor.” This is the way in which the rhetoric surrounding the political paintings of Anselm Kiefer or Jörg Immendorf continues today. It reacts against what is perceived as a fetishistic treatment of the political. There are a million other examples of the ways in which this results in kitsch. So the logic follows that images of destruction and violence can be “seen” only when the image of labor is not itself present. I guess that is why Luc Tuymans’s paintings are acceptable. They seem to have been done very quickly, and yet they are gruesome. Condo himself flirts with kitsch. I doubt he would discuss his work in terms of politics though. Unless it was a politics of taste. It is very difficult to reconcile having Quaytman and Condo together in a single exhibition. Condo’s painting was in a room with Robert Williams, who was also poorly served by the inclusion of a few subdued watercolors.

        I think the whole show had a feeling of doing penance for past excesses. And so work that flirts with excess is being curtailed a bit. I don’t think this is totally unwarranted though. Certain ideas about excess and desublimation (like those of Bataille) seem almost non-functional now. Like they have been proved wrong by the way in which they became the rule of the culture. So now, with a few exceptions (concessions?), we have a very serious and austere Biennial. Of course, these are the vicissitudes of fashion. As soon as austerity and a “Bartleby” attitude becomes the norm, there will again be a need for a desublimatory interrogation of unquestioned ideology. If I’ve learned anything by watching contemporary art, it is that ideologies can make sudden shifts beneath the surfaces of aesthetic forms. These things are never static. I don’t mean to say it is a cycle. Just that overcompensation is inevitably the rule when group shows try to establish a zeitgeist. But I would like to point out Josh Brand’s work, the abstract photographs, which certainly take a very different approach to photography.


        CA: I can see the reasoning too, but I still don’t like it. With Tuymans, I think his acceptability — or the permission he is granted to access the political without having his works decried as kitsch — has more to do with the separation his particular form of labor places between the viewer and subject than the speed of his execution. He is like Gerhard Richter in that regard — the emphasis on the photographic source, a manner of paint handling that in part veils the imagery. But no one would describe Richter’s paintings as having been done very quickly. So it is not just that the image of labor is not present in Berman’s and Sinclair’s photographs, but that their documentary form distances them from the acts they are recording. The artists did not generate these images of destruction and violence; they are just showing them to us. We understand Condo and Williams as generators of an imaginary world — they are responsible for its poor taste. Recently you asked me if I wasn’t claiming some of my writing as fiction as a way of offsetting responsibility for evil or embarrassing thoughts, but here is an argument for the reverse. It is the fictional world that the author is responsible for. You’re right that Josh Brand’s photographs don’t fit into the distinction between the way painting and photography are being presented that I just described — they are treated like painting. Which is to say they are an exploration of process that is medium specific. And, like the painting and much of the sculpture and video in the show as well, they are benevolent. If instead of a few subdued watercolors, Williams was represented by a slick oil painting of a hot babe on top of a burrito, it would not be benevolent. It is not that it is the off-season for desublimatory interrogations of unquestioned ideologies — that is exactly what BHQF is being set up as. If you are positioning yourself as an interrogator of unquestioned ideologies you can still be in the clear — your ideologies, presumably, above suspicion. It is the off-season for being wrong. It is not just a serious and austere Biennial; it is one that (with few exceptions) tries to be guiltless. Penance is the right word. I can reconcile Quaytman and Condo in single exhibition — they are both critical and they are both complicit. They are a little bit guilty. Like me.

        Colleen Asper, Justin Lieberman, and Platypus speak.


        JL: OK, but at the core of this, there is still a matter of economy. Williams’s and Condo’s work is painstaking and spectacular. The fundamental critical mistake is the particular insistence on the inseparability of the image of labor in terms of visible quantity (something which, because of their strange finish maybe, seems impossible to pin down in Quaytman or Brand, but not in Condo and Williams where process is visible) and political content. Richter evacuates the image of labor from his paintings with the smear or the blur. It cannot really be said how much is there. Et cetera et cetera. What is the author’s responsibility concerning the relationship of his or her fictional world to the real one? It may be the case that when we are conducting an interrogation of any fictional world, we find that it is ultimately still a part of the real world with everything that that entails. I guess what I am saying is that it is impossible to contain or bracket the fiction. I am attracted to the films of Lars Von Trier and the books of Michel Houellebecq. Or the performances of Tamy Ben-Tor. They are funny, and their cruelty resonates with my own feelings of resentment and disenfranchisement. They play to these feelings. Liking them is Schadenfreude. But all these things deny themselves political agency through employing a Nietzschean/Freudian insistence on the division of society and the individual. An individualistic ressentiment. Of course, one could also formulate a societal ressentiment. Maybe bohemia would fill that requirement. Quaytman’s work involves a fantasy too, but the great thing there is the way it gets out of these super-reductive traps by making the fantasy one that so closely mirrors what we would assume to be the reality. The story is the story of the work’s production, its location, and finally our experience of it. But all this is no more real than than any other possible telling. If fantasy absorbs and restructures reality, then it seems like a good idea to put some thought into the types of fantasies we produce. They have real power.

        Platypus runs from Aki Sasamoto’s Strange Attractors. Photo by Peter Harkawik.


        CA: But when we’re talking, not about the labor that went into producing an object — which we also have to recognize takes more forms than that of craft — but about certain forms of representation that are recognized as labor and others that aren’t, the fundamental critical mistake seems to me not to explode such distinctions. Because it is not just that there is an insistence on the inseparability of the image of labor and political content, but a political content that dictates what we recognize as labor. And I agree that it is impossible to contain or bracket fiction, but I would say it is precisely for this reason that it is also impossible to say, to use one of your examples, that Houellebecq denies himself “political agency through employing a Nietzschean / Freudian insistence on the division of society and the individual.” His book The Elementary Particles begins with the story of two brothers, both disenfranchised individuals at odds with society for sure, and ends with a story about cloning a super race. The end is a disavowal of individualism and the core of the story, the sad tale of the brothers, could be read as an illustration of its failures. But the ending is such an abrupt break from the empathetic relationship the readers have been asked to develop with the characters that I, at any rate, certainly did not get to the end of the book and think, “Oh yes, here is the solution — case closed.” I don’t want to get too sidetracked, I just want to make the point that it is precisely because the implications of any fantasy this complex are resistant to a singular read that they are always open to political agency. It is not just that fantasy absorbs and restructures reality, but that we absorb and restructure fantasy — to suit our needs. We return to the idea of the work that remains useful here. And because what we need from a work changes, the story is always the story of the work’s production, its location, and our experience of it — and these things are not stable. But wait, isn’t this a review of the Whitney Biennial?


        JL: OK, you’re right, you’re right. The Whitney Biennial. This year’s Whitney Biennial was full of delightful surprises. It was a no-frills, tight-belts show. Everyone was doing their best. It is thoughtful, human in scale, and delightfully low on hype. All the art has room to breathe. Something about touchstones. It is a mixed bag. Art shows otherness. Everyone is sincere. Hooray for America. Your turn.


        CA: Now you’ve got it! The premier American art exhibition. A major, temperature-taking survey of what’s going on. A cross section of contemporary art. The 2010 snapshot. It’s been decades since there’s been a prevailing style or practice in art any more than there is in ice hockey. Spectacle is out. Smaller and more fun this year. Not to be missed. I left the museum with a giant burst of happiness for the infinite creativity of America.

        Colleen Asper and Justin Lieberman are currently working on a book of alternate endings to the Henry James story The Beast in The Jungle. Future projects also include an advice column called Ask Asperman. Interested parties should contact Peter Harkawik.

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      • Dushko Petrovich & Roger White Report To The Committee On Periodical Group Exhibitions
      • Ryan Mrozowski & Mike Womack Before-Biennial-After
      • Kay Rosen Waiting for Michael Asher
      • Kate Gilmore Drag
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