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Whitney Biennial: Quiet As It's Kept

Whitney Biennial: Quiet As It’s Kept
April 6 - September 5, 2022
Whitney Museum of American Art
By Katy Diamond Hamer
Top photograph: Jason Rhoades, Sutter's Mill (detail), 2000, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

The Whitney Biennial is back! After a COVID-induced hiatus, a new edition organized by Whitney curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, Quiet As It’s Kept, opens this week. The show is extensive with a focus on painting, free-standing sculpture, video, and a smattering of photography, occupying four floors of the museum. In its eightieth year, the Whitney Biennial can promise many things, but only one is certain: there will always be something to talk and think about. Emerging from two years of isolation, a shadow of this season hangs like an invisible dust over everything present. While this might sound dire, it isn’t—there are intermittent moments of joy and fortitude here. In the same way a butterfly emerges out of a chrysalis, the exhibition moves from insecurity to a rooted assuredness.

Breslin and Edwards, both veteran curators, have made a strong argument for shining a light into the shadows from where these artists were working, giving them a location in which to shimmer out of the weight of collective darkness. One of the first installations encountered on the sixth floor is a series of photographs by Guadalupe Rosales flanked by a sculptural work by Rebecca Belmore.

Rebecca Belmore & Guadalupe Rosales,  Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022Rebecca Belmore (foreground) & Guadalupe Rosales (background), Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

The juxtaposition of the two is effervescent. There is a sense of movement frozen in time, a devotion for space and a haunted quality that comes with survival. Rosales’ photographs, taken at night or dusk, are moody and capture mysterious landscapes void of human figures. While Belmore’s faceless figure ishkode (fire), 2021, stands solo, wrapped in what appears to be a sleeping bag surrounded by bullet casings. Upon further inspection, the figure is actually made from cast clay, and the casings are woven together with clear fishing wire, adding a sense of fragility and care to the object. This theme, that of fragility and care, continues throughout the exhibition. The curators state in their intro that a particular theme was not given to the artists for this iteration, but there is a sensitivity (along with sadness, exaltation, and humor) that can be found while navigating the works. A performative two-channel video by Brooklyn-based artist Dave McKenzie caught my eye. While in his studio during the COVID lockdown, McKenzie filmed himself balancing a sheet of glass from an Ikea picture frame on his body. He moves slowly, accurately and with unexpected grace, leaving the audience wondering if the glass with shatter as he holds, tosses it in the air, and presses it against his body. So many historical performance artists come to mind, specifically Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Pope L., but McKenzie is entering this historic performative realm all on his own. McKenzie’s piece captures it all in simple gestures. He is both safe and in harm’s way, assured as he is cautious, and brave —the last being something that emerges from a survival mechanism, when one needs to move through the world constantly aware of their body.

Dave McKenzie,  Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
Dave McKenzie, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

This floor also features artwork that stands-out by Adam Pendleton, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Karon Davis, WangShui, and Jonathan Berger, who is showing a sculpture of words from 2019 that was shown previously at Participant, Inc.
Daniel Joseph Martinez,  Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
WangShui (top), Jonathan Berger (middle), and Daniel Joseph Martinez (bottom), Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, installation view photos by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

Another video that resonates with a post-COVID time is Your Eyes Will Be An Empty Word, 2021, by Coco Fusco with audio by Pamela Sneed. The video essay was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona and the Museum of Modern Art Medellin. Fusco shot drone footage over New York’s Hart Island. The island has housed graves for the unclaimed who die in New York since the 1860s. More recently it became the final resting place to many who died of COVID and had no family, will or money to be buried in a cemetery. Sneed recites a poem over the aerial footage, as Fusco rows in a boat near the island, occasionally stopping to toss a single, white flower in remembrance. The work is poignant and incredibly melancholic but also beautiful. It is a time stamp for this period of our lives; a memorial but also a reminder of all those who have been lost and rest in high numbers in such close proximity to New York City. Fusco uses her body and the gesture of rowing, pushing against the current, to give visualization to the struggle of those who are forgotten amongst the masses. The aerial view also adds to a sense of being inside something but also away from it.
Coco Fusco, (video still), Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
Coco Fusco, (video still), Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

The third floor, an expansively bright space, is nearly the complete opposite of the sixth floor. Instead of having the space be divided by walls, dim lighting, and curtains, this installation is bright, open and colorful. Any curtains that divide the space are gauzy, thin, and ethereal. Going between the two floors is somewhat visually jarring. Once enveloped within the various artworks, it starts to communicate similar ideas as the sixth floor, but with a different language. One artist in particular is Aria Dean, whose Little Island/Gut Punch, 2022, sculpture—a matte green monolith, stands alone with a substantial amount of air around it—uses color as a means of conceptual departure.
Aria Dean (foreground), Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
Aria Dean (foreground), Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

This can also be said about a large triptych by Leidy Churchman titled, Mountains Walking, 2022. The pastel landscape paintings made in oil could be an environment with an impressionistic vagueness as found in Monet’s water lilies. The canvases are huge, and the best part of this work is that they are held in place low to the ground by what look like bear feet carved out of wood.
Leidy Churchman, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
Leidy Churchman, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

Nearby is a colorful video titled ROY G BIV, 2022, by artist Alex da Corte, a video series that pays homage to works from the past—Duchamp’s, Rrose Sélavy, Blue as an example—with figures in brightly colored, geometric, puppet-like costumes. These works all invite questions about scale, presence, and interpretations of personal and collective history. Other artists of note include Woody de Othello, whose The will to make things happen, 2021 is a large-scale conglomerate of ceramics on a tiled platform that include human forms with exaggerated features, and Andrew Roberts.
Woody de Othello, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
Woody de Othello, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

Roberts’, La horda (The horde), 2020 is an eight-channel video installation on thin rectangular monitors, of zombies each representing a different brand from popular culture including, Google, Walmart, and Amazon. The work is an apocalyptic take on these megacorporations, which encompass a culture supposedly offering convenience, but one that is often imbalanced and inaccessible.
Andrew Roberts, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, video installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022
Andrew Roberts, Quiet As It’s Kept, Whitney Biennial, video installation view photo by Katy Diamond Hamer, 2022

Quiet As It’s Kept almost feels like a reverse crystal ball. It offers the feedback, failed expectations, imaginary spaces, and healing modalities that one could only have wished were available prior to the two years of unpredictability and illness brought on by COVID-19. The Whitney Biennial always promises to be a reflection on our current times, and this year, it follows through with that promise.


Katy Diamond Hamer is the newly appointed Director of Artist Portfolio Management/Growth at Curina. She is an art writer, lecturer, and consultant, and has worked with numerous magazines, galleries and artists. She is an Adjunct Faculty member at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

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