Rico Gatson How Radical Can a Portrait Be?

The New Yorker May 05, 2017

"In March, I went to see the first Biennial to be held at the Whitney’s new building downtown, near the Hudson and the High Line, with an artist friend whom I knew to be the best kind of museum companion—entirely comfortable with splitting up until the end of the visit. We took the elevator together between floors but were otherwise invisible to one another until, after an hour or so, we left the exhibition and started to walk. As we went, my friend expressed his disappointment with the show. It wasn’t that the work was uniquely bad or ill chosen. “It’s just—I sort of couldn’t believe how many paintings there were,” he said. “And, like, photographs.” He wasn’t wrong. As Peter Schjeldahl mentions in his recent review, some of the most striking pieces in the show were pictures, more or less straightforward, representational ones: Henry Taylor’s vivid, emotional painting of Philando Castile and the firearm, crudely drawn, that ended his life; Deana Lawson’s gauzy photograph of three shirtless young black men, distinctly reminiscent of album art; a series of goofy, darkly funny paintings by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer. The show had been hailed as political, but how radical could it be, he asked, if it leaned so heavily on these old, conservative forms, however bold the messages they’d been used to convey?"

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