at Whitney Museum of American Art, Curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards (6 April – 5 September 2022)
Reviewed by Jill Conner
Throughout Quiet As It’s Kept, the Whitney Museum of American Art has finally reached beyond the limitations of the white cube in order to bring 63 artists and collectives together in what has resulted in a cathartically gripping exhibition that is pieced together mostly by artists of Native American, African American, Latino, and Asian descent. By presenting the voices of those who have thrived creatively beyond the filters of Western entertainment and popular culture, Quiet As It’s Kept carries the flair of a cinematic documentary, while calling attention to the ongoing, multi-faceted contexts of American life.
While walking through this exhibition, the installation utilized the format of Renaissance perspective so that observers could easily circulate throughout the museum’s airy space. On the fifth floor, for instance, each artwork was mounted onto a black or white support structure that was then placed at juxtaposing angles. With an unobstructed view of Manhattan to one side and a perfect view of the Hudson River on the other, the works seen throughout Quiet As It’s Kept, successfully stand alone and clearly resonate their deeply-layered attributes.
Ellen Gallagher’s two-panel canvas titled “Ecstatic Draught of Fishes” (2022) appears on the fifth floor, directly across from the museum’s elevator bay and presents an arid, paper landscape made of earth tones that are collaged together while an ever-winding line of green shrubbery extends across the composition and connects a collection of gray, African tribal motifs that all face toward the East. Gallagher’s recent investigations of cultural forms are extensions of her earlier collage-like critiques that embellished fashion portraits where features such as hair and eyes were over emphasized while the artist pursued the juxtapositions that exist between ethnic and popular identities.
An installation of videos and works-on-paper by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha appears nearby and revisits a selection made between the mid- to late-1970s. Cha presents a far more pointed examination of herself as both an Asian woman and an outsider. Born in 1951 in Busan, South Korea, Cha immigrated with her family to the United States in 1962 and settled in San Francisco in 1964. As a woman and non-citizen, Cha utilized herself and highlighted issues of Asian American identity. “Permutations” (1976) is a 10-minute, black-and-white video that portrays the artist’s face in real time. Over the course of the film, her face responds to elements in the atmosphere, while she moves in response to the challenge of remaining still. Cha’s video and still-photographs are complemented by text-based works such as “Pomegranate Offering” (1975), “Black and Blue” (1976), “Tongue Tied” (1976), and “Audience Distant Relative” (1977). When seen together, these pieces feature a sporadic typeface that alternates between bold linearity and chaotic disorder, all while keeping in mind the artist’s questions surrounding cultural and personal identity.
The colorful abstract paintings by Lisa Alvarado, Matt Connors and Ralph Lemon are each riveting while the monumental canvases of Duane Linklater bring painting back to its beginning. “wintercount_215_kisepîsim” (2022), and “mistranslate_wolftreeriver_ininîmowinîhk” (2022), reveal stains, fabric and marks that are left with the challenge of weaving together across an unglamorous, roughly-textured picture plane.
James Little is the artist who connects the aesthetics of both the fifth and sixth floors, where a predominantly white space turns into that of an enshrouded black space. “Borrowed Time” (2021), and “Private Storms” (2021), for instance, present small circles of vivid abstract marks that appear across a white background. Upon the sixth floor, a series of gray and black chevrons appear across three paintings titled “Exceptional Blacks” (2021), “Stars and Stripes” (2021), and “Big Shot” (2021). James Little makes a flawless presentation of interconnecting angles and narrative that is characteristic of his unique genre and style.
The sixth floor initially opens with two colossal canvases by the late Denyse Thomasos titled “Displaced Burial / Burial at Gorée” (1993), and “Jail” (1993). These two larger-than-life compositions portray binding, linear structures that are made of black and white brush strokes. The placement of Thomasos’ work echoes the initial framework that is experienced across the fifth floor. But standing still in the black space is itself an intriguing moment. Jonathan Berger’s “An Introduction to Nameless Love” (2019) is an intricately complex installation, framed with metal letters that bury each observer in words. The image happens when the light reflects from tiny metal surfaces, attempting to reduce one’s movement into frozen stills. On the other side, Alia Farid presents an outdoor installation titled “Palm Orchard” (2022) that presents a dynamic engagement with the city.
Quiet As It’s Kept, marks a new starting point. One could say that The Whitney Biennial has finally come into its own. Curators Breslin and Edwards received their task in 2019, well before the spread of Covid-19 and the subsequent global lockdown. While previous Biennials at the Whitney Museum have been known to place a heavy emphasis on shock value and celebrity culture, Quiet As It’s Kept feels far less market-driven. The conversations have been reset and restarted while the artwork overall is much less dull. Other outstanding artists who deserve mention are Dyani White Hawk, Rick Lowe, Dave McKenzie, Adam Pendleton, Coco Fusco, Pao Houa Her, Trin T. Minh-ha, Charles Ray and A Gathering of the Tribes.
Featured Image: Detail of Na Mira’s Night Vision (Red as never been). 2022. Courtesy the artist and Park View / Paul Soto, Los Angeles.
Jill Conner is an art critic based in New York City with a focus on Modern and Contemporary Art. Since 1997 Conner has contributed to publications such as Afterimage, Art in America, Art Papers, Interview Magazine, New Art Examiner, Performance Art Journal, Sculpture and Whitehot Magazine.