The Whitney Biennial Called. How Will They Answer?

When Tiona Nekkia McClodden, a Philadelphia-based filmmaker and installation artist, was invited to take part in this year’s Whitney Biennial, she felt satisfaction, but also crippling panic.

On one hand Ms. McClodden, 37, was coming off well-received film and performance projects in New York that had explored black queer culture in the 1980s. But the work had run its course. “I was having this chaotic meltdown,” she said.

What new work would she make?

Selection in the Whitney Biennial instantly marks an artist as a figure at the forefront of American contemporary art. For young selectees like Ms. McClodden — three quarters of this year’s roster of 75 artists are under 40 — it is a surefire résumé and market builder. By the same token, it exposes them to inevitable political stakes and heightened scrutiny.

The Biennial is sometimes provocative by design: the 1993 edition famously landed in the midst of the culture wars with a barrage of in-your-face art asserting race, gender, and sexual identities. Other years have sparked more specific confrontations, as the last one did, in 2017, over a rendering by the painter Dana Schutz of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

This year, not only is the national political climate tense, but so too are institutional debates around the Whitney itself. The group Decolonize This Place has convened performance-like protests in the museum’s lobby. They demand that the institution remove its vice chairman of the board, Warren B. Kanders, who is the chief executive of Safariland, a company that makes law-enforcement products like tear gas.

Although just one invited artist, Michael Rakowitz, withdrew from the Biennial in response to the activists’ initial request, nearly 50 participants in the show have added their names to an open letter calling for Mr. Kanders’ removal.

And some participants may charge the issues head-on. The art and research group Forensic Architecture, for instance, has signaled that its work will address the Kanders controversy directly.

Still, recent visits with eight of the first-time participants in the Biennial — six studio visits, in three cities, and two by video — found them completing work that made its social points subtly, without polemics. They were well aware of the debates swirling around the show, which opens May 17; four of them signed the open letter. But their work channeled other energies: research, technique, play, ritual. If anything, the artists we met seemed to seek areas of calm — for the viewer, for themselves.

Ms. McClodden, who is black, queer, and grew up in South Carolina, has had little patience for the recent protests, which she sees as parochial. Her new work, which draws deeply on African-rooted spiritual practices, lays down a different gauntlet. “This is a chance to comment on what the range of American art can be,” she said. “This is art that challenges the limitations of the building that it’s in.”

It is far from a scientific sample but auguries point to a 2019 Whitney Biennial that has the potential to show creative ways forward, for the culture — and maybe even the country.

The curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, acknowledged that organizing the show in the current social climate and following the last edition’s blowup was a challenging task. “We took our responsibility very seriously in light of previous Biennials,” Ms. Panetta said. “It felt a little daunting at first.”

In visiting artists over 14 weeks, traveling around the country, they found more optimism than they expected. “Over time you have to start thinking about creative possibilities, and we saw that in a lot of artists we met,” Ms. Panetta said.

The exhibition’s impact will be clear only once it is up, of course. But here is a preview of what we saw as eight artists’ sketches, models and images — their dreams — came to life.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden

“At the foot of it, I’m a knowledge seeker.”

Six rough-hewed wood objects shaped like axes and arrows rested on the table in Ms. McClodden’s studio in North Philadelphia. Each was about a foot long. They exuded a warm cedar glow, and an ancient aspect.

“I’m making Shango’s tools,” she said.

Ms. McClodden is initiated in Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion with roots in the Yoruba culture of present-day Nigeria. Soon after her Biennial invitation, her instructor in Santería advised her to orient her work toward Shango, the orisha, or deity, of power and bravery.

Her anxiety dissolved, she said, as she saw an opportunity to reconnect her art with her spiritual practice.

Last August, on an artist’s residency at the Skowhegan School in Maine, she cut down a tree. She bathed the wood there, sculpted the objects in Philadelphia, sanded them in Cuba, in a spiritually correct way. In March, she made a trip to Nigeria to present the tools to the divinity in a particular shrine.

Beside the wood pieces, a cassette recorder and a motorcycle helmet sat on the table — the helmet is her witness, she said, and she keeps it near her wherever she goes. On her computer, she pulled up footage that documents the entire process in what she calls “auto-ethnography.” Her installation in the Biennial combines Shango’s tools with three channels of video and a separate audio narration.

This is more interior work than Ms. McClodden’s last projects, which engaged history and public culture. But there is a shared concern with research and rigor.

“At the foot of it, I’m a knowledge seeker forever,” she said.

Meriem Bennani

“I need to work from a place of having fun.”

In her apartment in Brooklyn, Meriem Bennani was working through footage from a two-week shoot in Rabat, Morocco, where she grew up.

She had embedded in the lives of six young women, seniors at her former high school, a French establishment that draws students from Morocco’s elite. Now she was cutting the film in the manner of a reality TV show, and adding animation, representing herself in the form of a cartoon donkey making occasional comments.

“I need to work from a place of having fun,” Ms. Bennani, 31, said. Her projects are documentary, but absurdist. In her installation at MoMA P. S. 1 in 2016, viewers flitted around Morocco guided by an animated fruit fly.

For the Biennial, Ms. Bennani has the use of the Whitney’s fifth-floor terrace — a challenge for film, but an opportunity to design cabana-like viewing stations in pastel colors, with actual palm trees, creating a beach-like vibe.

Ms. Bennani first studied art in Paris, but moved to New York in 2010, to attend the Cooper Union. She said she had found more space in the United States to work critically. Behind the fun in her new work lurks a study of the country’s upper middle class, with its lingering colonial mentality.

It is the same milieu that she comes from, and she expects ruffled feathers. “It’s the first time that I do a project that I know for a fact will make some people angry,” she said.

Maia Ruth Lee

“As humans, we’re always yearning for a sign.”

Eighty pieces of scrap metal lay on the floor of Maia Ruth Lee’s studio in Brooklyn. She had obtained them from the Gowanus scrap yards, remnants from windows and gates, and welded them into rune-like shapes.

They were symbols, Ms. Lee, 36, explained, with meanings of her invention, to be installed on a large wall in the Biennial. A handout chart would help viewers “read” them.

“As humans, we’re always yearning for a sign,” she said.

Born in South Korea, Ms. Lee grew up in Nepal, where her missionary parents translated the New Testament into the Sherpa language — a decades-long project that involved first creating a written alphabet for the previously spoken-only tongue.

“I was surrounded by language and lexicography, and quite enamored by it,” Ms. Lee, who is not religious herself, said.

Returning to Korea, Ms. Lee studied painting at an art school with a conservative curriculum. She moved to New York in 2010. Her practice has grown eclectic — drawing, publishing zines, sculpture — since she put down roots.

But she keeps coming back to ideas of displacement and being in two different worlds. Her second installation in the Biennial involves luggage made of burlap bags — the kind that Nepali and other migrant workers commonly use. She brought the materials back from Kathmandu, where her parents still live.

“The tarp, the rope, the rice bags,” she said. “These objects all contain a story.”

Nicholas Galanin

“All these institutions come with politics.”

Nicholas Galanin stepped outside his house on the hill and aimed his phone camera toward the bay. An artist of Tlingit descent, he lives in Sitka, Alaska, making a video visit more convenient.

“There’s a herring fishery here, managed by the state,” Mr. Galanin, 39, said. He explained how overfishing had depleted the stock despite years of warnings by elders. Native knowledge was overlooked in arts as well, he said. Ethnography presented it as static, when in fact it adapts.

Mr. Galanin is a craftsman who recently led the carving of a 40-foot totem pole near Juneau. He is also adept at contemporary techniques like video and installation.

His work will greet Biennial visitors in the form of a large ink and gold-leaf monoprint of a female shaman in the museum lobby. A textile piece, combining imagery of a prayer rug and a television screen flickering white fuzz, is also in the show.

By refusing to stay bounded, Mr. Galanin said he could connect with other artists and communities, and help Native culture evolve on its own terms. “People who want to fetishize us are going to have to wait and see what we do next,” he said.

Mr. Galanin is a veteran of museum shows, including a midcareer retrospective at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He welcomed the Biennial curators’ decision to feature several Native artists. “It’s empowering to have voice in these spaces,” he said.

Still, he tempered his expectations of dramatic change. “All these institutions come with politics,” he said.

Sofía Gallisá Muriente

“There are amazing examples of self-sufficiency.”

For three years in the 1950s, Felisa Rincón de Gautier, a popular mayor of San Juan, imported a planeload of fresh snow from the mainland at the Christmas season. People wore their festive best for the batalla de nieve — the snow fight.

Mud and mayhem ensued. The tradition was discontinued.

“Throughout our history, we’ve constantly looked to assimilate,” Sofía Gallisá Muriente, the Puerto Rican filmmaker and activist, who is 32, said on a video call from San Juan. “But something about the context rebels.”

She found newsreel of the snow fights by chance, while doing unrelated research at the National Archives in Maryland. The footage served as the base of a two-channel video installation that she is re-editing for the Biennial.

No one she knew had seen images of the event before. “I think about the impermanence of records,” she said. “What is accessible to us is just the remains.”

Ms. Gallisá Muriente is co-director of Beta-Local, an artist nonprofit. After Hurricane María devastated the island in 2017, the group organized an emergency fund for culture workers, disbursing $400,000 in small grants.

This year, five artists based on the island are showing in the Biennial. It attests to vitality under duress: “There are amazing examples of self-sufficiency,” she said. Networks of solidarity that have formed on the island are helping artists not just survive, she said, but also to “rehearse freedom.”

Calvin Marcus

“I … hope that art helps recalibrate.”

Eight-foot-tall canvases lined the walls in Calvin Marcus’s studio in Los Angeles, with another in progress on the floor.

Each composition hinted at some self-contained allegory. A young man lifted weights in the gym as a wrinkled older face hovered — clearly a musing on age. Other were more cryptic: a group of donkeys silhouetted in the night; a cartoonlike space alien, flipping a quarter.

“If there’s any story, it’s all happening within the picture,” Mr. Marcus, who is 30, said. Previously he painted in series, giving each work a number instead of a title. The new pieces, made in watercolor, stood alone. “In a way it feels more difficult,” he said.

Mr. Marcus earned his M.F.A. at U.C.L.A., and was in the process of closing down his studio before moving from gentrifying Montecito Heights into central Los Angeles. Some of the vignettes that inspired his new paintings came from observations around L.A., he said.

Others were pure flights of fancy. The common trait was a sense of the uncanny, of absurd possibilities lurking within ordinary moments.

“It’s not so much social as personal,” he said. “I’m usually just discovering as I make it.”

Still, he ventured: “So many things feel unchangeable because of history, or politics. I try to get people to question their daily surroundings, and hope that art helps recalibrate.”

Tomashi Jackson

“The comfort I find is in making the work.”

For a painter, Tomashi Jackson is something of a policy nerd.

“I have a compulsion to address issues of public concern,” she said. In her studio in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, there were history books and images of people who lost their homes in New York — some in the 19th century, when Seneca Village was razed to become part of Central Park; some recently, under a controversial policy known as third-party transfer.

Ms. Jackson’s paintings in progress integrated these images and built them into installations using Mylar, PVC strips, and a bodega-like awning. Two will be in the Biennial; others are now in a solo show at the Tilton Gallery in New York.

Raised in South Los Angeles, Ms. Jackson, 39, was a muralist in the Bay Area before attending the Cooper Union and the Yale School of Art. In between, she did a design-oriented master’s degree at M.I.T. that led her to Harvard policy classes. The methods helped her grasp, for instance, why generations of women in her family were domestic workers.

“This dry, distant research could help fill in narratives that implicate me,” she said.

Recently, Ms. Jackson has made paintings inspired by court rulings on school desegregation. She is partly in search of a visual language to convey law and policy, she said. But she is also processing legacies of oppression through technique.

“The comfort I find is in making the work,” she said, “and what it shows me through its material evolution.”

Todd Gray

“The act of resistance is to keep changing.”

When the Biennial curators asked to visit, Todd Gray said he fought back tears. “It’s so late in my life, and I’ve been making work for so long,” Mr. Gray, a photographer, said.

A youthful 64, Mr. Gray is a lifelong Angeleno, with a studio in Leimert Park. He attended CalArts in the late 1970s, and a decade later for his M.F.A. But he lived from commercial work.

Notably, he was Michael Jackson’s photographer in the early 1980s. He preferred not to comment on Jackson’s private behavior. “He’s part of the culture,” he said.

Each of his works in the Biennial — and in a solo show now at David Lewis Gallery in New York — juxtaposes photos on disparate themes, set in vintage frames, creating a puzzle of ovals, rectangles, and allusions.

His Jackson trove provides some of the material. There are also images of European formal gardens, signifying imperial power and wealth; photographs from rural Ghana, where he lives half the year. Pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope add an interstellar dimension. “It tells us we’re all stardust,” he said.

Mr. Gray began making these combination works five years ago at a time of growing disconnection between his career in the black American music industry and his new understandings from living in Africa. He invoked the British-Jamaican thinker Stuart Hall, who argued that cultural identity evolves in response to power.

“The act of resistance is to keep changing,” Mr. Gray said.

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