By Brad Fiore
Though the 2017 list is nothing close to the record number of Midwestern artists in Michelle Grabner’s 2014 Whitney Biennial, nonetheless America’s longest-running survey of contemporary art is still stretching its neck outside of the five boroughs. Co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks have selected seven Midwest-based artists to join their roster of sixty-three in next year’s exhibition. The country’s recent inward turn has focused increasingly on Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee as bellwethers of the “silent masses” as well as the objects of much-needed reflection, as these cities continue to vie for the top spots in national segregation rankings. And while this year’s Midwestern representation still fails to measure up to the roughly twenty percent share that we make of the country’s total population, it seems that it is becoming harder for coastal curators to ignore our relevance.
One has to wonder why Cauleen Smith did not get top billing at Corbett vs. Dempsey’s recent exhibition rather than having her hand-stitched “Conduct Your Blooming” banner crammed behind furniture in their tiny side gallery. Her experimental film work continues to offer insight into the identities of black women living in one of the country’s most racially segregated cities. Her most well-known film, “Drylongso” (1998), chronicles the efforts of a young art student hoping to document the endangered lives of black men as they continue to disappear around her at the hand of incarceration and violence.
Sky Hopinka is a recent graduate of the respected University of Wisconsin Milwaukee film department, joining a list of notable alumni, including Frankie Latina, as well as Chris Smith and Sarah Price of “American Movie” fame. From the Ho-Chunk Nation, Hopinka creates video-based work that “centers around personal positions of homeland and landscape.” In “Wawa” (2014) he draws directly from Chinuk Wawa, an indigenous language from the Pacific Northwest, to overlay a dense fabric of aural and lexographic meanings. The result here, as with much of Hopinka’s work, is a calm reflection on the roots of our continental identity that are too often overlooked.
Pope.L is the self-proclaimed “friendliest black man in America” who has been dragging himself through the past forty years of tumultuous politics and remaining more-or-less unscathed. Best known for his series of performances that involve crawling long distances of pavement, his vast catalogue of comically laden works remain as poignant today as they ever were. Whether that means tethering himself to the door of Chase Bank with a chain of sausage links, grinding up hair curlers and James Brown albums to turn into gift-shop items, or unraveling an American flag with the gust of four industrial-size fans, he continues to unspool our collective understanding of Blackness as well as the endless contradictions embedded therein. He has been living in Chicago since 2010, when he started teaching at the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Art.
While other artists are content to label their work “mixed media installation” and call it a day, Harold Mendez wants us to know that crushed cochineal insects and staples each play an integral role in his latest sculpture. In fact, the wall text for most of his works read like minimalist poems, like that of his 2011 installation “Burial Party & Panic dwindled” which includes “Mixed-media, found objects, children’s mattress, foam, hand-printed Ghanaian funeral cloth, marking chalk, popcorn.” In this politically driven Whitney show, we are eager to see how his work’s Arte Povera roots connect to the show’s focus on social politics.
John Riepenhoff is a Milwaukee-based artist who engages in a broad range of activities that include plein-air painting, microbrewing, cheese-making and constantly blurring the divide between art production and curating. He is perhaps best known for attracting names like Gavin Brown, Kerstin Brätsch and Forrest Myers to town via his curatorial endeavor Green Gallery. However, Riepenhoff has also earned a reputation for upholding another longstanding Milwaukee tradition, institutional racism. Looking through the past five years of Green Gallery’s exhibition history, we find that the last time he featured a black artist in a solo or two-person show was in 2011.
Detroit’s inclusions in the most recent Whitney Biennials have mostly focused on the scads of poverty porn that started flowing out of the city around 2012. Stovall’s work takes a sharp turn with her “Liquor Store Theater” performances in which she documents the reactions of patrons to her radical ballerina interventions. The resulting video reveals a city still mired in economic crisis, though it is more intently focused on those still carving out a life there, rather than those who have vacated.
Dani Leventhal’s relative obscurity is perhaps because she lives and works in Ohio. In addition to drawings and sculpture, Leventhal is a moving-image editor who compiles vast quantities of real life myopia into succinct montages. Her quiet video works incorporate diaristic samplings of breezy wildflowers, emergency room stitches, horse grooming and ultrasounds of unborn infants to great effect through unpolished jump cuts. We should wonder how these soft-spoken montages will stand out in an exhibition of over sixty artists, a challenge that makes her an ideal representative of our region.