NEW YORK — At the Whitney Biennial, many young artists have made videos and installations about their perceptions of time, but in the end what stands out are the paintings by older artists.
Erika Vogt’s “Secret Traveler Navigator” (2009) is a video of different moving silhouettes, which range from a marching man to an object that looks like a scale and is held by a human finger. No two silhouettes occupy the frame simultaneously and their constant, repetitive movement creates a kind of circularity. The images seem to be progressing, but without a direction, progress is too strong a word. The video is moving; time is passing, but the viewer still feels like the sequence is somehow standing still.
Kerry Tribe’s film installation, “H.M.” (2009) is a documentary-style video about a man who underwent surgery for epilepsy in the 1950’s and ended up with severe amnesia that limited his short-term memory to 20 seconds. The piece is presented by two projectors with a 20 second lag between them, which creates a stutter effect that simulates the man’s amnesia. Tribe invites us to ask if time exists without memory. The video progresses toward a conclusion, but the lag between the two identical projections shows us that the movie would not be continuous in time if the viewer remembered only the last 20 seconds.
Though interesting as ideas, the pieces that explore time are not the visual highlights of the exhibit; they are more successful as a philosophical inquiry. In the end, the highlights of the exhibit have nothing to do with time. Suzan Frecon’s more traditional abstract paintings are still the most mysterious and beautiful pieces in the Biennial. Her painting “Embodiment of red (soforouge)” (2009) stands firmly in line with the works of other great 20th century abstract painters, like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The painting is made of two touching panels, one on top of the other. The panels are both dark red, but the top panel is slightly lighter than the bottom one. In each, a semi-circle in a different shade of red extends upward from the bottom of the frame, like a setting sun over a horizon line. In the top panel the semicircle is a darker red than the background, while in the bottom one the background is slightly darker. The four very similar shades of dark red, ranging from vermilion to maroon, make the painting heavy — each shade pushing down on one of the others. The painting is captivating both from a distance and up close, though it benefits from closer inspection.
Charles Ray’s series of flowers offer another example of beautiful painting. There is diverse, vernal vegetation in some images and individual flowers in others, all created by many overlapping and interweaving tentacles of painted color. The paintings of enormous individual flowers on impossibly thin stems are less cramped and especially good.
In the midst of interpretations of time and more scientific art projects on display at the Biennial, well thought out and well executed paintings are very refreshing. The seemingly simple elegance of both Frecon and Ray’s work casts a daunting shadow on many of the other pieces. Even if the purported end of a piece is an exploration of time, maybe the artistic means ought to be something other than a documentary-format video or a copy of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” on a pedestal. Though these pieces are interesting, they are visually unambitious. In spite of the penchant for questioning inspired by the time pieces, it is Frecon’s precise gestures more than anything else that leaves a lasting impression.