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Whitney Biennial 2014: First Impressions, Text & Literature, Interview with Elijah Burgher
by ArtSlant Team


Ryan Wong reads into the prevalence of texts at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, looking at the relationship between art-making and text-making, curating and publishing.

Among the 103 participants in this year’s Whitney Biennial, the handful that have elicited the most speculation and skepticism are those known for producing not art objects but texts. In addition to publishing-oriented collectives, words take on a visual function in the poetry of Susan Howe, they form the structure of many of David Diao’s paintings and Gary Indiana’s sculptures. Artspace warned us to “Get ready to do some reading.” Carol Vogel, in her New York Times preview, told us to expect “Words and More Words.”

The curators of the Biennial seem to be arguing for a serious look at the practice of text-making, that the production, circulation, and look of texts have undergone as much expansion in the past few years as the visual object. Indeed, they are treating some texts as visual objects, and commissioning participants to produce texts or publishing platforms as part of the Biennial.

The Art Institute’s Michelle Grabner, one of the three Biennial curators, selected Critical Practices Inc., Alex Jovanovich (known as both a painter and writer), and the late David Foster Wallace. She insists, though, that she wasn’t interested in them in order to redefine what materials are included in exhibitions, but for those artists’ “rather traditional relationships of form and ideas.”  

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IN CONVERSATION: First Impressions of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

ArtSlant editors Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen, and Charlie Schultz met up for Indian food and to discuss the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, its surprises, best in show, and disappointments. They touch on trends and themes of scale, archives, lists, dongs, and objectness—parsing the line between artwork and artifact.

Charlie Schultz: I guess I’ll start by saying I found this year’s iteration of the [Whitney] Biennial to be far less crowded than in past Biennials, which struck me as a surprise because I thought I read that there were more artists in this Biennial than in previous years.

[Indian music plays in the background...]

Natalie Hegert: I felt like the last edition was very spacious as well…This year I was very struck by this tendency for the curators to go from very large objects to these tiny details you had to study – little notebooks and small archival photographs and things like that – so my attention was constantly being drawn from these sort of monumental sculptures and large, abstract paintings to tiny little details.

Joel Kuennen: Yeah, on [Michelle] Grabner’s floor there are large abject works like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Sterling Ruby, and then going into these archive pieces which are presented in tables and behind glass draw an interesting parallel between fulfilling a cult of personality while working against a cult of personality by humanizing figures like David Foster Wallace, breaking away from the idea that these are sacred objects.

[Someone clanks a glass, drops a fork, papadums arrive, the waitstaff says something...] 

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Elijah Burgher’s artistic universe is populated by rugged naked men in their twenties or thirties and canvases arranged in color-blocks and strange symbols. Pitched against strong colors and clearly drawn with a passionate hand, these occult signs cast spells that are at least a bit mischievous. Burgher’s work will appear in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in Anthony Elms’ second floor presentation. Ana Finel Honigman spoke with her former college mate about his subjects, symbols, and a little bit of magic...

Ana Finel Honigman: The symbols in your work allude to the occult. Can you walk me through the symbology?

Elijah Burgher: The symbols are sigils, graphic emblems to which magical power is imputed. I generally use a system for creating the forms that was developed by Austin Osman Spare, an early 20th century British artist and occultist. Basically, one takes the letters spelling out a wish or desire and recombines them into a new, easily remembered form, which is then charged by visualizing it during a "no-mind" experience, i.e. peak fear, orgasm, etc. I became aware of Spare's system through the Temple of Psychic Youth, and was interested especially in the explicit connection drawn between abstraction, wishfulness and sexuality...

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Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013, Oil on flatscreen, VHS transferred to .mp4 (color, sound), 35 1/3 x 21 x 3 7/10 in.; Collection of the artist, ©Ken Okiishi, Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York.

Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013, Acrylic, ink, wax, charcoal, and collage on paper, each: 24 x 19 in.; Photo: Jason Mandella; Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York. 

HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014, Video, color, sound, 54 minutes; Collection of the artists, ©HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, Courtesy of the artists.

Jimmie Durham, Choose Any Three, 1989, Carved and painted wood, metal, and glass, 99 3/16 x 49 3/16 x 48 in.; Photo: Jean Christophe Lett; ©Jimmie Durham, Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City.



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Posted by ArtSlant Team on 3/7/14

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