Installation view of work by Daniel Lind-Ramos at 2019 Whitney Biennial


NEW YORK, N.Y.—Throughout the run of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, an inordinate amount of attention has been paid to the challenges and controversies surrounding the exhibition at the expense of consideration of the art on view in the galleries. Amid protests, mixed reviews, and wavering artist participation, visually inspiring and thought-provoking art is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This year’s biennial features 75 artists and is the most diverse in the history of the exhibition. Approximately 40 percent of the participating artists are black, half identify as women, and about 75 percent are under 40 years old. The works displayed span painting, sculpture, installation, performance, film and video, photography, and sound.

There is a lot to take in on the fifth and sixth floors of the museum and elsewhere in the building. The central gallery on the fifth floor features figurative paintings by Jennifer Packer and sculptural fabric collages by Erick N. Mack. The artists are friends and share a studio, so it was interesting to see their work installed together in the same way the work of two other artist friends—painter Henry Taylor and photographer Deana Lawson—was presented in conversation in the same gallery space during the 2017 biennial.

A brief look at seven artists and the works they contributed to this year’s biennial:


In her studio, Tomashi Jackson talks about exploring “dispossession and displacement” narratives and the works she prepared for the 2019 Whitney Biennial. | Video by Whitney Museum

1. Tomashi Jackson

Presented three mixed-media works: “Hometown Buffet-Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise)” 2019; “The Woman is King (Mary and Marlene) (Simultaneous Contrast),” 2019; and “Third Party Transfer and the Making of Central Park (Seneca Village-Brooklyn 1853-2019), 2019

Splitting her time between New York and Cambridge, Mass., Tomashi Jackson often uses storefront awnings as the base for her mixed-media abstractions. Featuring paint, strips of vinyl, reflective paper, gauze, embroidery, pin back buttons, and archival and contemporary photography, the works tell stories. A painter and printmaker, she’s interested in public narratives, centering humanism and ethics, and balancing research with her studio work. For the body of work featured in the biennial, Jackson sought to “visualize stories of dispossession and displacement” in New York City. Toward that end she explored the history of Seneca Village, a black settlement founded in 1825 that was razed in 1858 to make way for Central Park. She has also learned about a current scourge, the city government-run Third-Party Transfer Program. “That’s being used to justify sudden foreclosures and seizures of fully paid-for properties in black and brown communities all around New York City,” she says in the video above. “City representatives say that their motivation is to restore the neighborhoods and improve them, but these aren’t necessarily homes that are burned out and sitting vacant. They are fully occupied with tenants and residents.”


JOHN EDMONDS (1989-), “Tête d’Homme,” 2018 (archival pigment photograph, 24 x 30 inches). | Image courtesy the artist and Company, New York

2. John Edmonds

Presented a series of 13 inkjet print photographs dated 2018-19, including “The Villain” (2018), “Tête d’Homme” (2018), and Tête de Femme” (2018)

The practice of John Edmonds centers black queer identity and explores desire, self-fashioning, and community. For the biennial, he is presenting a series of images that reference Harlem Renaissance portraiture. “I want to think about this interplay of portraiture and still life, while also introducing these photographs that reimagine these different kinds of Surrealist photographs that were made in the 1930s where artists such as Man Ray, Carl Van Vechten, were using African art and incorporating and appropriating African sculptures into their work,” Edmonds says in audio that accompanies the exhibition. “I’m interested in is the spiritual potential that these objects could have in the contemporary world.” Born in Washington, D.C., Edmonds lives in Brooklyn. In July, he won the Brooklyn Museum’s inaugural UOVO Prize and, earlier this month, he made a series of photographs that accompanied “‘Giovanni’s Room’ Revisited,” an essay by Hilton Als in the New York Times “T” Magazine.


ALEXANDRA BELL, Detail of “No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter” (2018-19) Series, Shown, “Friday, April 21, 1989 – Front Page,” 2019 (photolithograph and screenprint on paper, 22.5 x 17 inches). | Collection of the artist, Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

3. Alexandra Bell

Presented “No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter” (2019), a series of 20 photolithograph and screenprints on paper, images from the New York Daily News newspaper dating from Friday, April 21-Monday, May 1, 1989

Alexandra Bell analyzes the presentation of news and highlights bias in headlines and image selection and placement. For the biennial, the Brooklyn-based artist contributed a series of front and interior pages from the New York Daily News about the Central Park Five, the teens—four African Americans and one Latino—wrongly accused (1989) and convicted (1990) of assaulting and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. The young men were later exonerated. Bell’s work features 20 images of newspaper pages published in the days immediately following the April 19, 1989 incident. She uses redaction and yellow highlights to focus the attention of viewers on the stories, headlines, and particular phrases. Presumed innocent, the headlines describe the youth as a “Wolf Pack,” “Teen Gang,” and “‘Wilding’ Teens.” The incident is labeled a “Savage Attack” and “Portrait of a Rampage.” The last page of the series is a full-page advertisement taken out by Donald Trump in response to the case that carries the headlines “Bring Back the Death Penalty” and “Bring Back Our Police.”


A self-described “European transplant,” Kota Ezawa says the NFL protests made him feel connected to the United States and to the nonverbal actions of the players. | Video by Whitney Museum

4. Kota Ezawa

Presented “National Anthem” (2018), a high-definition video with color and sound (1 minute, 48 seconds) with three watercolor on paper works – “National Anthem (Buffalo Bills),” 2018; “National Anthem (Denver Broncos),” 2018; and “National Anthem (Roar of the Tigers),” 2018

For the biennial, Kota Ezawa produced a two-minute animation made with watercolors based on found footage of NFL players kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner.” The son of a Japanese immigrant to Germany, Ezawa lived in Dusseldorf before moving to San Francisco where he was based for nearly 20 years. Four years ago, he relocated to nearby Oakland. “These national anthem protests somehow touched something in me where I suddenly felt very connected to the U.S. and to what these players were doing,” says Ezawa in the video above. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he says Colin Kaepernick was “omnipresent” in the city during the short period he was the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and started taking a knee in silent protest against racism and police brutality. “I found the genius of his gesture is that it was nonverbal. It was just taking a knee. It said so much without saying anything,” says Ezawa. “I perceived it as some unusual act of patriotism. If you stage a protest on such a large platform in front of millions of people it can only be because you somehow care about the place or country you are supposed to represent in this moment.”

“If you stage a protest on such a large platform in front of millions of people it can only be because you somehow care about the place or country you are supposed to represent in this moment.” — Kota Ezawa

TIONA NEKKIA MCLODDEN (1981-), “I prayed to the wrong god for you.,” 2019 (multichannel video installation, color, sound; and six hand-carved tools in vitrine). | Image courtesy the artist and Company Gallery, New York

5. Tiona Nekkia McClodden

Presented “I prayed to the wrong god for you” (2019), a multichannel video installation with color and sound (infinite duration), displayed along with six hand- and machine-carved tools, helmet, metal objects, and wooden box in vitrines

Tiona Nekkia McClodden received the biennial’s 2019 Bucksbaum Award, which includes a $100,000 prize. She was recognized for “I prayed to the wrong god for you,” a multichannel video installation accompanied by a display of objects featured in the footage. Born in Blytheville, Ark., McClodden lives and works in Philadelphia. Grounded in Santería, her project is a highly personal and spiritual journey across the diaspora—from the United States to Cuba and Nigeria. To prepare for her ritual travels, McClodden carved six tools from the wood of a cedar fir tree. The video documents her labor, journey and experience, providing “an account of diasporic devotion and the significance of objects as storytellers.”


Installation view of CHRISTINE SUN KIM, “Degrees of My Deaf Rage in The Art World, 2018 (charcoal and oil pastel on paper), 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, N.Y., May 17-Sept. 22, 2019 | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

6. Christine Sun Kim

Presented a series of five charcoal and oil on pastel drawings, all dated 2018: “Degrees of Deaf Rage in Everyday Situations,” “Degrees of Deaf Rage While Traveling,” “Degrees of Deaf Rage Within Educational Settings,” “Degrees of Institutional Deaf Rage,” and “Degrees of My Deaf Rage in the Art World”

Christine Sun Kim is one of eight artists who withdrew from the biennial in July and then reinstated her participation within one week when Warren B. Kanders stepped down as vice chair of the Whitney Museum board of trustees July 25. A good outcome for those who may have missed seeing her eye-opening charcoal drawings for the duration of the biennial. Her five works are graphic visualizations that represent what she describes as various degrees of “Deaf rage” (acute rage, reflex rage, straight up rage, full on rage) experienced in everyday scenarios while traveling, in educational settings, related to interpreters, and in the art world. The examples are at once humorous and incredibly infuriating and disheartening. Born in Orange County, Calif., and based Berlin, Kim charts six annoyances in each context. The range of examples includes getting hit on the head with a bag of peanuts by a flight attendant attempting to gain her attention, museums with no deaf programming whatsoever, curators who try to split her fee with interpreters, and “people who are secretly scared of us.”


Daniel Lind-Ramos discusses his practice and the history and culture of his community in Loiza, Puerto Rico. The two are inextricably connected. | Video by Whitney Museum

7. Daniel Lind-Ramos

Presented three mixed-media sculptures: “Maria-Maria,” 2019; “1797: Vencedor (1797: Victorious),” 2017-18; and “Centinelas (Sentinels),” 2013

Rich with narrative, the mixed-media sculptures of Daniel Lind-Ramos draw on the history and culture of Puerto Rico. He lives where he was born, Loíza, a town hit very hard by Hurricane Maria, similar to the rest of the island. Lind-Ramos incorporates found objects, natural objects, and objects his neighbors find and save for him in his work. The whole community is his studio, he says, so he doesn’t have to bring everything home. Blue FEMA tarps, palm leaves, coconuts, for the artist, objects equate with memories. One of his works in the biennial is called “1797: Vencedor” (2017-18). The sculpture is inspired by a powerful moment in black history. “It has something to do with the organization of the community in order to defend against interests that are against its values,” Lind-Ramos says in the video above. “1797 was the date when the English army tried to seize Puerto Rico and they found a very strong resistance here in the black militia and they didn’t prevail. Our ancestors, even though they were no warriors, they defended this place against a very powerful army. We must remember.” CT


2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, N.Y., May 17-Sept. 22, 2019. (Some Biennial works will remain on view in the Stairwell: Marcus Fischer, through Sept. 23; Lobby: Jeffrey Gibson, through Sept. 30; and on Floor Six: Various artists, through Oct. 27


Updated (09/23/19): Revised to include more information about the works presented by each artist


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