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Politics and Painting

The 2017 Whitney Biennial

Tala Madani, Shitty Disco (2016), Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

BY Christian Viveros-Fauné
art and culture critic

In Must See

This year’s Whitney Biennial—the 78th installment of the longest-running survey of American art—boasts 63 artists, multiple media and two principal themes: social issues, which the organizers explicitly describe as a response to “a time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities and polarizing politics”; and, surprisingly, painting, which wall texts invoke indirectly by describing “the pleasures of slow contemplation or formal abstraction”. Sometimes both plotlines overlap in this compelling grab-bag of an exhibition—on occasion to terrific effect.

Tala Madani, Shitty Disco, 2016

A great deal of general offense is meant by this colorful but darkly comic painting. A picture of a shadowy vertical space lit up by rays of purple, red, green and yellow light that emerge from the backsides of bald, middle-aged cherubim, the canvas pinpoints a feeling that is all too common for anyone who has ever patronized a crappy nightclub. Part New Yorker cartoon-caption-contest and part a send-up of religious painting, Shitty Disco makes for a bittersweet painting cocktail, mixing the sublime and the sarcastic in equal measures.
Painted by Tehran-born, L.A.-based artist Tala Madani, this oil on canvas work continues the artist’s project of reverse objectification, wherein she paints paunchy, hook-nosed men of a certain age in the way the female body has long been an art history trope. Rather than invoke an appreciative female version of the “male gaze,” Madani renders her figures in slippery, Francis Bacon-like squiggles that swap out the Irishman’s sexualized pathos for cartoony bathos. Forget George Dyer and Leigh Bowery; think Zero Mostel and George Constanza.
Madani’s painting style is loose, incorporating gestural brushstrokes into narrative scenes whose hilarious atmospherics are also partly indebted, in this canvas at least, to Color Field painting. At the Whitney Biennial, Shitty Disco is accompanied by four other modest-sized paintings—the better to reinforce Madani’s mordant storytelling.


Shara Hughes, In The Clear, 2016

Shara Hughes, In The Clear (2016), 2017 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy Rachel Uffner, New York

There are echoes of Marsden Hartley, among other Modernists, in Shara Hughes’ vibrant, patterned landscape paintings. Like Hartley—whose exhibition “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” opens at the Met Breuer this week—the 36 year old, Atlanta-born Hughes mixes figuration and abstraction, while suggesting a spiritual dimension to her painting that is both transporting and hallucinatory.

Uncanny, fragmented and dreamy, In The Clear (2016) presents a framed world-within-a-world that suggests both a theatrical proscenium and a window onto an alternate reality. Touching on the Romantic belief of the restorative power of nature, this oil, acrylic and dye on canvas picture features a split-level forest encased in wavy green and orange trim as well as a snaking tree-trunk that divides the overall composition in two vertically. The associations are myriad: Dante Aligheri’s terraced view of the world comes to mind—after munching recreational edibles, perhaps.

Hughes often begins compositions like In the Clear by altering the canvas in ways she has to improvise against. In this painting she appears to have spray painted both the front and back of the canvas, making marks that serve as painterly challenges for her to move against. The artist responds to these concrete realities in order to create scenes that are psychologically loaded, while splitting the difference between landscape and abstraction.

Lush and resolutely analog in a way that eschews both easy reception and the kind of quick scanning encouraged by digital media, Hughes’ picture is at once a throwback and yet also an advance. Few paintings in recent memory appear as resolutely gorgeous: fewer still suggest florid, vegetal depths of ambiguous private and collective meaning that escape easy categorization.


John Divola, Abandoned Painting B, 2007

John Divola, Abandoned Painting B (2007), 2017 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Maccarone Gallery, New York and Los Angeles, and Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica, CA

Here’s an unusual thing about the 2017 Whitney Biennial: even the photography on view has painting in it. In the case of John Divola this makes particular sense, as the 68 year-old camera artist has long employed photography as a conceptual frame of reference to mobilize reality, rather than as documentary means of capturing it.

John Divola describes his artistic project as an ongoing exploration of the landscape that starts with his looking for “the edge between the abstract and the specific”. This search for “an edge” has led him to photograph vacant or derelict buildings with objects inside them on numerous occasions. In doing so, he seeks to activate both the objects and the physical spaces in ways that go beyond the strictures of straight photography. 

Among Divola’s guiding artistic ideas is the notion that that all painting, sculpture and performance are, from a practical point of view, made to be photographed. The role of photography in this case is one of  recontextualization—a literal reading of Susan Sontag’s dictum that, in modern times, “everything exists to end in a photograph”.

This image, Abandoned Painting B, is one of a suite of eight photographs Divola made after finding a trove of discarded student paintings in a dumpster near the University of California, Riverside, where the artist is a professor. He incorporated the paintings into his work, turning them into the subjects of an odd set of portraits. The salvaged paintings were hung inside derelict buildings where their truncated nature matched their surroundings in uncanny ways.

In this particular image, the subject of the painting appears to glance out of one window, while a second window on the painting’s right extends the picture through a hole in the wall—and into the idea of abandonment itself.


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