From the border, the Whitney Biennial asks what American art can be

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From the border, the Whitney Biennial asks what American art can be
Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin, curators of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2022 Biennial, at a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 6, 2022. “We think of the border as a divide, but actually it marks a point of negotiation,” Edwards said. Alejandro Cossio/The New York Times.

by Siddhartha Mitter

TIJUANA.- The frontier shapes this metropolis, most obviously in the form of the omnipresent border wall that runs along the edge of downtown and alongside major roadways as it slices westward to the ocean.

Yet if the border is a binary divider — Mexico on one side, the United States on the other — the lived reality to which it gives rise is far more complex. It takes in the maquiladora factories that manufacture goods for the U.S. market; the flow of new arrivals seeking work who have made Tijuana Mexico’s second-largest city; migrants from other countries who, barred from entering the United States, have settled here; cross-border commuters and tourists; families that live on both sides; politicians, tycoons, cartels, cops.

Because sociology can go only so far in accounting for a place, it has fallen to artists to explore and convey Tijuana’s particular spirit, the borderness of it all — which they have done, one creative generation after another, never lacking material.

To deliver the signature survey of American art for the Whitney Museum, in a time of epochal change, David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, the curators of this year’s Whitney Biennial, were drawn to this border terrain. On a bright Saturday in February, they ascended the outdoor stairs to 206 Arte Contemporáneo, a gallery in a simple bungalow a little away from the city center.

They had come to Tijuana to meet two local artists who are taking part in the Biennial: Mónica Arreola, an architect and photographer, who co-founded and directs 206 with her twin sister, Melisa, also an architect; and Andrew Roberts, who grew up in Tijuana with Mexican and American roots and works in video, animation and performance. They would continue on to Los Angeles, visiting a total of nine of their artists.

But they were also here, entering the homestretch — the Biennial opens April 6, with member previews starting March 31 — to test a hypothesis that inspired the show’s making. To look at American art — and thus America — they sensed there was value in stepping just outside. The generative alchemy of a border town might offer clues for fresh thinking about other divisions: between racial or gender categories, the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead.

“We think of the border as a divide, but actually it marks a point of negotiation,” Edwards said. To make art about the border, Breslin added, “opens up questions about other possibilities.”

The days are past when the Whitney Biennial formed the canonical roundup of American art of the day. The field has grown so vast — and its diversity better acknowledged — that the show’s vocation is better understood as identifying promising directions with aesthetic and civic relevance.

But the exhibition remains enormously influential. It informs the museum’s choices for its collection and boosts visibility and prices for selected artists. It is also watched for controversy, which may or may not relate directly to the art. The flash point in the 2017 edition was painter Dana Schutz’s depiction of the dead body of Emmett Till. In 2019, it was the ownership by then-board member Warren Kanders of a major manufacturer of military and police equipment; although Kanders resigned, the sobriquet “Teargas Biennial” has stuck to that year’s show.

Amid all this, the Biennial must find a curatorial voice, and when Breslin and Edwards, both senior curators at the museum, were asked in late 2019 to organize the next edition, they began to take stock of art that excited them, and the civic and social context. “We live in specific conditions in time,” Edwards said. “The Biennial needs to reflect those times.”

They got more than they asked for. The climate was charged already, three years into the Trump presidency. But the arrival of COVID-19, followed by the most intense protest wave in a generation after the murder of George Floyd, vastly expanded the challenge for art and exhibitions — to absorb the crisis conditions, to light a way.

Breslin and Edwards had begun an ambitious travel program to visit artists when the pandemic forced them to scuttle their itinerary. The Whitney, like other museums, stayed closed through the summer. From their homes, the pair curated on Zoom, holding virtual studio visits. Slated for 2021, the Biennial was postponed to this year. “Artists needed time to attend to their lives,” Edwards said.

Along the way, the two forged a collegial complicity. Both in their 40s, laden with museum and scholarly credentials, they were low-key and interested in each other’s back stories — she is a Black woman from South Carolina, via Spelman College; he is from an East Coast Irish-Catholic family.

In January, the Whitney revealed the list of 63 artists and collectives in the Biennial. As is typical, the largest group lives in the New York area, followed at a distance by Los Angeles. The roster is older, with just 23 artists under age 40. Five artists — Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Steve Cannon, N.H. Pritchard, Jason Rhoades and Denyse Thomasos — are deceased.

“Quiet as It’s Kept,” the title that Breslin and Edwards selected for the show, signaled its orientations. A layered reference, it invoked a history of art and ideas — an abstract painting exhibition curated by David Hammons, a key phrase in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a jazz album by Max Roach — but also vernacular knowledge, the sense that social fact is never solely what it seems.

As they composed their roster, the curators had acted on what they called their “hunches” — they hoped to move the discourse on representation and identity beyond the latest waves of figurative art, the shoals of check-the-box diversity, and what Edwards called the current cultural “demands for a certain legibility.” With their belief in the power of abstraction and conceptual art, “shouldn’t that be part of this mix that’s made available to audiences these days?” Edwards mused.

Their hunch about frontiers extended to how we might understand America itself. “Artworks can complicate what ‘American’ means by addressing the country’s physical and psychological boundaries,” they wrote. Two decisions followed. One was to include several Indigenous artists, two of them — Rebecca Belmore and Duane Linklater — from present-day Canada.

The second was to look to the southern border. Artistic perspectives from Mexican border cities — Arreola and Roberts from Tijuana, and Alejandro “Luperca” Morales, whose conceptual projects draw on photo archives, from Ciudad Juárez — would prime the experiment and hopefully spark productive connections with the rest of the show.

Tijuana: At Last, Getting Local

From the 206 gallery in Tijuana, the view extended across roofs and wires to dry hills where a section of the border wall ran. Inside, an exhibition by students and recent graduates of the Autonomous University of Baja California offered Gen Z takes on “cotidianidades fronterizas” — the “border quotidian” or texture of daily life.

In her studio adjoining the gallery, Arreola had pinned test prints of her Biennial images. She photographs the contemporary ruins of housing developments outside Tijuana that were never completed: concrete hulks in desert scrub. In Valle San Pedro, planned as a new city for 1 million residents, just 1% was built after the Great Recession of 2008-09 caused developers to go bankrupt and buyers to lose U.S.-dependent jobs and credit.

The boom-and-bust border economy birthed a lugubrious landscape where homes suffer water shortages and bodies of missing persons turn up. “It’s a very melancholic space,” Arreola said. When she photographs, a friend escorts her while another stays in the car at the ready.

The last (until now, only) time that an artist from a Mexican border city appeared in the Biennial was in 2000, when Marcos Ramírez ERRE, from Tijuana, showed works including a sculpture of the American flag, made of sheet metal and iron bars to evoke the border wall.

But today, the focus has expanded beyond the border as a physical barrier, said Roberts, who was born in 1995, the youngest artist in the Biennial. His own animations, in a vivid style reminiscent of video games, draw on growing up in Tijuana amid its violence, but also on pop culture, his personal memories and queer identity.

“My generation thinks of the border as something that crosses gender, sex, identity — a kind of sensibility,” Roberts said. His installation in the Biennial explores yet another border, that of human-ness itself under capitalism: four screens run animations that depict gig-economy and service workers as zombies who awaken to their condition and acquire class consciousness.

Jovanna Venegas, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who grew up in Tijuana and is active in its art scene, said Roberts had captured a quintessential local trait. “He represents in a way the monstrosities of living at the border, the darkness of it, but also the resilience, through these characters that he manifests,” Venegas said.

In their research, Breslin and Edwards solicited insight from Venegas, who directed them toward artists and scholars and contributed an essay for the Biennial catalog. Creative resilience in Tijuana, she said, extended to the ethos of the art community, driven by a collective DIY imagination. “It’s very self-sustaining,” she said. At 206, for example, the Arreola sisters had given shows and advice to countless artists for a decade, while simultaneously holding down jobs and their art practices.

Roberts had an early show there; he and his partner, painter Mauricio Muñoz, then founded Deslave, a project space in downtown Tijuana — online, since the couple moved to Mexico City. In Juárez, Morales — who is producing for the Biennial key chain viewfinders that show images of the city from 2013 that he found on Google Street View — ran an itinerant gallery and library in low-income areas out of a tractor-trailer.

Alternative models of art-making were already important to Breslin and Edwards: The Biennial includes three collectives — A Gathering of the Tribes, Moved by the Motion and Cassandra Press. But on the border, artistic solidarity felt especially vital, they said. “These artists have created their own system, their own institutions to foster work in a place like Tijuana,” Edwards said. “That’s beautiful and generous.”

Demonstrating that spirit, Venegas had organized gatherings with artists, scholars, and advocates for migrants and deportees. ERRE, a beloved figure around town, posed with Arreola and Roberts before the border wall at the beach where, resplendent with graffiti, it enters the sea. On the boardwalk, families enjoyed seafood and drinks right up to the barrier, while on the U.S. side an agent on a four-wheeler patrolled a barren beach.

Los Angeles: Scanning For New Directions

In Los Angeles the curators switched gears, visiting seven Biennial artists in their studios. They had met before the pandemic, and so the agenda loosened; the aim now was to reconnect and take stock. Still, echoes of their Tijuana encounters followed them with the power of suggestion.

Visiting Daniel Joseph Martinez, one of several Biennial veterans whom the curators invited back with the aim of creating conversations with past editions, they talked politics, science and the artist’s sense of impending doom from climate catastrophe.

On his studio wall were five images that Martinez will show at large scale in the Biennial: Each is a photograph of him inhabiting a post-human role from cinema or television — among them Frankenstein’s monster and the Klaus Kinski version of the vampire from Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu.” On the floor were sections of the bodysuits for his costumes. The images recalled Roberts’ zombie gig workers straining to buck the system.

In the 1993 Biennial, known (and panned at the time) for its multicultural, in-your-face identity politics, Martinez made museum admission pins that read, “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White.” In 2008, he installed 125 gold-colored panels, each inscribed with the name of an organization that had advocated violence to fulfill its ideology. The point was to show up the hypocrisy of selective condemnation.

“We talk about ‘Whitney artists’ at the Whitney a lot,” Edwards said. “Daniel is the king of them, really. It’s like Edward Hopper and Daniel Joseph Martinez, these artists who have changed the place.”

“In 1993, we thought we were winning,” Martinez observed. But his optimism was dashed, and now his concern had moved from identity and ideology to greed, and the human condition itself. “If the species is going to survive, we have to think about the future collectively,” he said. “Otherwise we will self-destruct.

Meeting up with photographer and installation artist Guadalupe Rosales, the focus was a different sense of alienation. Raised in East Los Angeles, Rosales cut ties at 19 and moved to New York City, only returning to Los Angeles 15 years later after coming out as lesbian and embracing her artistry. Now she celebrates California Latina women through the popular community archive of vintage snapshots she hosts on Instagram, called Veteranas and Rucas.

Her own photography, nocturnal and pensive, has her returning year after year to sites with private significance, such as where her cousin was killed, in 1996, or where she was when she heard the news. Like Arreola in Tijuana, she doesn’t go out shooting alone. Yet Rosales said nighttime is when she is most comfortable working.

Though her images appear to be documentary, Rosales thinks of them as abstractions. “I may keep coming back to these locations and photographing, but the abstraction is that I may not get the answer that I’m looking for,” she said. “Am I even looking for an answer?”

On their last day of visits in Los Angeles, Breslin and Edwards met Na Mira, a conceptual artist of Korean American descent, in her garage studio, with orange trees in full fruit in the garden. Mira played a rough cut of her Biennial installation, which consisted of video projections plus a holographic element on a hanging screen.

Filmed in Korea and California, the work mixed footage of shamanistic ritual, industrial landscapes and meditative text. It drew on family stories, and references to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the Korean-born avant-garde writer and artist who was raped and murdered in New York in 1983, at age 31. Mira counts Cha as a lodestar, a breakthrough figure in addressing the Asian American experience through experimentation.

Mira’s piece was immersive but esoteric, made more so by her use of a glitchy infrared camera — it produced “a kind of fugitive image,” she said — and crackly sound from a Korean AM radio station in Los Angeles. One passage unfolded at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where a section is open to tourists. There, Mira said, she had had a mystical experience on a hilltop — not unlike that of her shaman female ancestors — as she crossed to the North in the form of a tiger.

Edwards said that the tiger thread in the video got a little lost, and they workshopped the question briefly. “Do you feel like you miss some of that tiger journey?” Mira asked, adding that she would consider edits.

At painter Rindon Johnson’s studio, a crucial decision awaited the curators: Which works would be in the show? They took pieces off the wall and moved them to find the right combination.

Rather than canvases, Johnson works with leather that he soaks in indigo or coffee — products of the same trans-Atlantic trade that dealt in enslaved people. He then marks the leather with Vaseline, crayon, pencil, bleach — sometimes he even drives across them, leaving tire traces. Stretched and mounted, they appear to be abstract paintings, but their origin and residual leather smell make them wrenchingly organic.

Johnson said his methods refer to how Blackness emerged historically in large part as an economic category, marking certain people as tradable. “My Blackness is a byproduct of capital accumulation,” he said. Working with leather, he said, became a kind of a collaboration with the cow — “these two byproducts having a conversation.”

When Breslin and Edwards returned to New York, they met for a drink in the Brooklyn bar where they had first brainstormed in 2019. Installation was about to start.

Would this Biennial prove memorable — or controversial? They had no prediction. “You make the show you want to make with the commitments you have,” Breslin said.

But they had returned from the trip with “relief and gratitude,” Breslin said — and bolstered in their hunches. In Tijuana, they experienced the border as “an aperture to consider the implications of the United States,” Edwards said. With the Los Angeles artists they discussed other frontiers — migrations, mystical metamorphoses, the limits of the human condition.

The ideas weren’t simple, but that was also the point. A border of any sort was busy, vital, messy. “It’s a point of convergence, a melee of things,” Edwards said, and they had organized the show in that spirit. Now they were ready for the public view, Breslin added: “We trust people who come to the show to make their connections.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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