In the past, the Whitney Biennial – a contemporary survey of American art – has been critiqued for being too male, too white, and disconnected in terms of race and class. This year’s exhibition opened to the public this weekend, with almost 10 of the 63 artists featured representing the Latinx community. While this number doesn’t quite add up to 17 percent – the number of Latinos who live in the United States – it’s an improvement from 2010, which featured zero Latinx artists. By then, a full 15 years had passed since the Guerilla Girls, a group of feminists fighting discrimination in the art world – presented their Whitey Museum piece showing the gender and race breakdown of the artists in the 1991, 1993, and 1995 biennials.
The Whitney Biennial intends to show art that’s representative of the socio-political milieu of the times, which means it’s no stranger to controversy. The show – now in its 78th installment – continues being a place where art world trends are formed and young and lesser-known artists get their start.
There are some fantastic works in the show made by Latinx creators. Check out a sampling of the brilliant minds making waves in the art world below:
The biennial runs until May 21 at its new building at 99 Gansevoort St. You can pay what you want on Fridays from 7 to 10 p.m.
Rafa Esparza: Beyond the White Field
This Chicano artist from Los Angeles used his invitation to the Whitney to not only bring an ancestral knowledge of adobe brick-making techniques and 3100 adobe bricks from LA to New York City but also collaborated with five other artists to share his space.
As you enter the circular room a cool, ancient energy radiates from the walls of adobe bricks made over months with the labor of three brown queer-identifying artists Zena Zendejas, Rooster Cabrera, and Maria Garcia. Large portraits of youth in Mexico taken by Dorian Ulises López Macías hang on a section of the brick and poetry by San Antonio-based poet Joe Jimenez breathes through a hole in the wall where you can rest your ear. Gala Porras-Kim has a set up of found pottery shards, a “Reconstructed Southwest Artifact” she calls it, and documents for the sculpture’s legitimacy. A gold and turquoise mural by Eamon Ore-Giron called ‘Infinite Regression’ is painted directly on part of the brick wall while a pyramid-like pile of volcanic rock constructed by Beatriz Cortez sits in the center.
If you choose to see one thing at the Whitney, this should be it.
Postcommodity: A Very Long Line
In Postcommodity’s white cube enclosure, a disorienting video shot from a moving car spins you around the walls, gates, and fences that aim to close off the US Mexico border. You can see calm houses just beyond the horizontal and vertical barriers as a frantic crackling sound of wind dizzies you further. The sounds intend to create a “genesis amnesia” inspiring you to feel lost and disconnected from your roots. Indigenous artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martinez, and Kade L. Twist make up the collective Postcommodity and created this video installation in 2016.
Raul de Nieves
A procession of sculptures adorned with beads, pearls, rhinestones, and flora stand in front of six stained glass panels. Each is marked with a word: peace, love, truth, justice, harmony, and hope in this elaborate installation. The sculptures that sparkle and glow on their mirrored bases are created with shoes the artist has worn. The high-heeled shoe is an integral part of de Nieves’ work, and the artist has even created shoe sculptures for stars like Lady Gaga. But de Nieves’ playful work also gives reference to religion, saints, sex, fashion, and death (one of the sculpture’s glittery red palms holds a taxidermied blue bird) using hedonistic sparkle and decoration to inspire a euphoric joy.
Occupy Museums: Debtfair
This installation project carried out and curated by Occupy Museums members Arthur Polendo, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono, Noah Fischer, and Tal Beery implicates the art world in the crippling debt with which many artists struggle. Occupy Museums surveyed American artists about their debt, focusing on artists from Puerto Rico, and chose 30 of the surveyed artists to be exhibited. They then bundled these artists according to the banks they owe money. Each bundle – the Puerto Rico bundle, the Navient bundle, and the JPMorganChase bundle – are for sale as a collective unit giving each artist an amount that relates to a per capita share of the $700 trillion 2008 bailout if people rather than banks were bailed out.
The wall structure also directly points a finger at art world trustees and their relationships with banks. “Debt markets produce lucrative profits for wealthy individuals who make up the majority of museum board members and the collector class,” the wall display reads. They also quote Larry Fink a trustee for the MOMA who recently became an advisor for the Trump administration, “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art […and] apartments in Manhattan.”
All 500 plus artists who contributed to the survey are also displayed in a slideshow component of the installation.
This artist from Mexico City is showing paintings that depict undocumented immigrants living in New York City. In one painting, a couple lays on a couch reading the New York Times. In another, comadres congregate around a table strewn with papers and water cups. This may be a depiction of an English class taught through feminist art history that she facilitated at Tania Bruguera’s community space Immigrant Movement International.
For his Whitney project, Puerto Rican artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo is bringing students from the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy on the Lower East Side to the Whitney and moving artworks from Biennial artists to the school to live there for the course of the show. It’s a conceptual scheme begging to ask how art can function as educational tools and how kids may learn differently in a museum environment.
Beatriz Santiago Munoz
This filmmaker from Puerto Rico making films about the contemporary and post-colonial experience in the Caribbean will have screenings of her work – Black Beach / Horse / Camp / The Dead / Forces, 2016, La cabeza mató a todos, 2014, Marché Salomon, 2015, and As yet untitled, 2017 – at the Whitney May 6 and 7. Muñoz captures narratives from across the Caribbean using improv and staged gestures to retell buried stories. The screening May 6 is at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and May 7 at 3 p.m. On the last day, she will have a conversation with Civil Rights Attorney Jan Susler.