Highlights of the 2019 Whitney Biennial

Christina Parrella

The Whitney Biennial has long been one of America’s foremost showcases of emerging artists. Every two years, the exhibition serves as a bellwether for the culture, both reflecting on and mirroring the country’s political and social moods. No surprise, then, to see that this year’s work—on view now at the Whitney Museum of American Art—offers plenty of tension, with pieces that focus on gender identity and race, among other issues. Curators chose the works because they represent “a snapshot of contemporary art making”; read on for more about a few of our favorites.

Artwork: Elle Perez, Photo: Jen Davis

Elle Pérez: t, 2019; Untitled(palm frond), 2019; Mae After Surgery, 2019; New work 004, 2019; Davey Dyke, 2019; Jose in Water, 2019
The trans Bronx artist’s work explores issues of gender and cultural identity in photographs, usually of her close friends, that are at once beautiful and confrontational. One image here, for instance, features a subject with bruised eyes and a neck scar from an Adam’s apple surgery; another simply displays a hand holding a bottle of testosterone.

Artwork: Kyle Thurman, Photo: Jen Davis

Kyle Thurman, Suggested Occupation drawings, 2016–19
These large-scale charcoal and pastel pieces are based on images found online, and depict the relationship between photography and drawing. By removing the image from its original context (mainly news sources), the artist demonstrates the possibility of creating multiple narratives.

Barbara Hammer, History Lessons, 2000. Image courtesy of the artist

Barbara Hammer, History Lessons, 2000
The recently deceased artist’s powerful film uses archival footage, news reels and still imagery to portray lesbian history and gender roles. Hammer created experimental films for over five decades and was at the forefront of exploring lesbian sexuality throughout her career; History Lessons reenvisions events by manipulating clips to redefine roles for the viewer.

Artwork: Diane Simpson, Photo: Jen Davis

Diane Simpson, Jabot (triplet), 2018
Displayed free to the public in the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, each of Simpson’s sculptures was influenced by the design of both garments and architecture. The artist, who has been showing her art since the 1970s, works in metal, wood, linoleum and fabrics.

Artwork: John Edmonds, Photo: Jen Davis

John Edmonds, Holding a sculpture (from the Ashanti people), 2019
Edmonds’ photographs of African Americans holding African objects reference portraiture done during the Harlem Renaissance. His work places the focus on his subjects, as opposed to the objectification of people of color seen in photography from the 1920s and ’30s.

Artwork: Todd Gray, Photo: Jen Davis

Todd Gray, Euclidean Gris Gris 2, 2018
Gray’s collages present a mélange of his photographs over the past four decades. The artist, who was one of Michael Jackson’s personal photographers, aims here to illustrate the African body by using, as he puts it, “the most identifiable black body on the planet.” Other works touch on the African diaspora and post-colonialism.

Artwork: Ragen Moss, Photo: Jen Davis

Ragen Moss, various works, 2018–19
These intriguing abstract sculptures are meant to evoke bodies or cocoons. Composed of plastic and paint, the pieces are transparent and layered, playing with patterns and form. Encased within are splices of text from various sources.


Artwork: Jeanette Mudnt, Photo: Jen Davis

Jeanette Mundt, Born Athlete American: Simone Biles I, 2017
Mundt used The New York Times’ photo composites from the 2016 Rio Olympics as the basis for these paintings, highlighting members of the US Women’s Gymnastics Team. The artist intended the images, including this one of Simone Biles, to show how the body fades in and out of a specific moment.

Artwork: Curran Hatelberg, Photo: Jen Davis

Curran Hatleberg, Untitled, 2015–­18
The Yale alum presents a cinematic narrative of American life. Hatleberg, whose photographs center on the country’s landscapes and citizens, builds relationships with his subjects, resulting in intimate and discomfiting portraits. His work—including this one, 2016’s Untitled (Dominoes)—takes up the exhibition’s third-floor space, aiming to break down prejudice and build empathy.

Artwork: Tomashi Jackson, Photo: Jen Davis

Tomashi Jackson, Hometown Buffet – Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise), 2019
This colorful mixed-media piece uses paper bags, pins, food wrappers and other materials to create a fragmented image. It’s one of three works by Jackson that addresses NYC’s 1857 dismantling of Seneca Village, a primarily African American community, to make way for Central Park.

Artwork: Martine Syms, Photo: Jen Davis

Martine Syms, People Who Aren’t Friends or Lovers or Exes, 2019
The wall text in this section reads, “People who aren’t friends or lovers or exes,” and is covered by 35mm poster-size photographs that speak to the black experience in America. An accompanying video ratchets up the anxiety; Syms’ Intro to Threat Modeling (2017) features an avatar shouting: “Who’s trying to f*** me over right now? Why are they trying to f*** with me?”

See these pieces, and many more contemporary works, on display at the Whitney Biennial through September 22, 2019.