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ART REVIEW : Crushed by Its Good Intentions : Under the banner of opening up the institutional art world to expansive diversity, the Whitney Biennial has in fact perversely narrowed its scope to an almost excruciating degree.

TIMES ART CRITIC

The good news about the newly opened “1993 Biennial Exhibition” at the Whitney Museum of American Art is that, for the first time ever, it’s not a show dominated by recent work made almost entirely by straight white guys. Instead, with an abundance of work by women, by artists of various ethnicities and by openly gay and lesbian artists, call it the Biennial That Looks More Like America.

The bad news is that the good news is misleading. Under the enthusiastic banner of opening up the institutional art world to expansive diversity, the Whitney has in fact perversely narrowed its scope to an almost excruciating degree. The result: Artistically, it’s awful.

In a sharp departure from past shows, the current exhibition has abandoned any effort to “survey the national art scene.” Instead, the museum has assembled a routine theme show and dubbed it the Biennial.

In another change, meant to sharpen the thematic focus, the show was organized by a single curator. Elisabeth Sussman was advised in her daunting task by Whitney colleagues Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt and Lisa Phillips, as well as by a seven-member national committee. Sussman’s, however, was the final curatorial word.

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What was the word? Golden writes in the catalogue that this will likely be dubbed the “multicultural” or “politically correct” Biennial, and she’s probably right. Sussman’s exhibition does dwell on art that, in her words, “confronts such dominant current issues as class, race, gender, sexuality and the family.”

But, ultimately, the show works at cross-purposes with itself. While the Biennial has finally been opened up to a diverse array of more than 80 artists, the range of art has been simultaneously narrowed by the imposition of diversity itself as the show’s theme.

The result is a new wrinkle on an old-fashioned, essentialist viewpoint: Artists who are not socially marginalized may do as they please, but artists who have been marginalized are only worthwhile if marginality is the subject of their art.

Byron Kim paints monochrome canvases, in the great tradition of Modernist abstraction, but with a difference: The colored pigment on the surface of his otherwise formalist paintings is--yes!--skin color (a nearby chart tells you the names of the people whose dermis he chose to mimic).

Shu Lea Chang lines up red telephones on which you can dial 1-900-DESIRES and have literary critiques of sexuality whispered in your ear.

Nan Golden makes routine color photographs of her diverse friends and gathers them together as--hang on--"The Family of Nan.”

Gary Simmons has placed a row of gilded Nikes and Reeboks on a white stage before the black bars denoting a police line-up, providing a flat-footed description of the familiar casting of young African-American men as either basketball stars or criminals.

Janine Antoni has gnawed at huge blocks of chocolate and lard, transforming the epic social trauma of Joseph Beuys’ sculpture into an artistic treatise on bulimia.

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Renee Green has made a study room, filled with shelves and books and cubicles, in which you can learn to decode the ever-shifting semiotics of street language.

On the first day of the show, performance artists Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco appeared in a gilded cage, dressed in Las Vegas-style American Indian garb. For 50 they’d do a “native dance” for you; for $5 they’d exhibit their genitals.

Narcissistic display is not exactly an alien ingredient for compelling works of art, but rarely does it suffice as the only content. The solipsistic result is a Biennial that puts its faith in a gruesome kind of art, which perceives the audience as morally, socially and intellectually deficient, and in desperate need of immediate artistic treatment.

Forget “multicultural” or “politically correct.” This is the Patronizing Biennial, brought to you by the Therapeutic Museum.

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Sometimes the efforts at incisive cultural commentary are just laughable. Elsewhere the aggressiveness of the condescension is rather more annoying. Repeatedly, the show stupefies in its apparently unwitting assertion that “I’m OK, you’re a mess.”

In fact, while some might regard such works as pointed critiques of art’s institutions--that is, of the standard, Eurocentric museums and histories through which diverse works of art are filtered--what’s more revealing is how tight the embrace really is.

After all, in the United States, the single most conventional idea about art is that it ought to be good for you. Art’s purpose, it’s widely assumed, is to make you a better person. And museums, as major public repositories for this supposed Vitamin C for the soul, vigorously promote this conservative ideal.

Now, lots of artists are promoting it too. What’s shocking about the 1993 Biennial is how conservative its relatively young generation of artists seems to be. Two-thirds of the participants are still in their 20s and 30s and--almost lock, stock and barrel--they’ve swallowed the loony institutional doctrine of beneficence.

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With rare exception at the Whitney, learning is the road to self-improvement. There’s even an entire gallery devoted not to art, but to books, catalogues and theoretical texts important to recent art.

Pathetically few works in the show shun this conservative doctrine. When you come upon Cindy Sherman’s luridly beautiful photographs, which assemble mutant figures from medical mannequins and prosthetic limbs, or Lari Pittman’s raucously sensual paintings--the only paintings worth serious consideration in the entire show--you cling to them with quiet gratitude.

Mike Kelley’s and Fred Wilson’s works seem directly attuned to the slipperiness of institutionalized repression. Kelley looks to school, Wilson to museums.

Kelley’s trenchant lobby installation is composed of assorted felt banners designed like flyers in college dorms. They implore adolescent passers-by to join this Christian Fellowship, or that Gay and Lesbian Social Club--to “discover” their identity by giving it up, and by following instead their dangerous instinct for pleasure.

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Wilson’s acutely observed, imitation-museum display of Egyptian artifacts deftly acknowledges an Afrocentric view of the world, while simultaneously interrogating it. The display begins with a Michael Jackson video and ends with ancient carvings piled high with T-shirts, each decorated with slogans about black pride. Tucked behind an unobtrusive door is a tidy curator’s office, the place where history can be deftly rearranged to support any interpretation of the present.

There are other isolated gems in the show, such as Karen Kilimnick’s edgy drawings of National Enquirer fare, and Gary Hill’s projected-video installation of ghostly figures in a darkened corridor. There are also the inevitable disappointments: Chris Burden, Robert Gober, Raymond Pettibon, Simmons, Kiki Smith and Nancy Spero are good artists not represented by their best work.

Perhaps equally inevitable, there’s a curatorial lollapalooza: George Holliday’s 10-minute videotape of the beating of Rodney King is included in the show, ostensibly as a new form of documentary occasioned by the ubiquity of personal video-cameras. Holliday manages a plumbing firm; if you thought there had to be an artist involved in the making of a work of art, the Therapeutic Museum is here to tell you you’re mistaken.

As King’s battered image flickers instructively on the gallery wall, in yet one more bit of grotesque exploitation, think about the emergency vehicle Charles Ray has pulled up to the museum’s front curb. In an extraordinarily provocative gesture, Ray has painstakingly enlarged a child’s toy fire engine to actual, functioning size, reproducing in ungainly adult proportions all the toy’s imperceptible distortions of scale and charming simplifications of form. It’s a dazzlingly loopy metaphor for the trauma of growing up.

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Ray has parked his grown-up plaything on Madison Avenue, at the Whitney’s front door. There’s a dire emergency inside the museum, this enchanting hook-and-ladder suggests. It just might be the loss of playfulness and pleasure, missing from so much of the 1993 Biennial.

Whtney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York , (212) 570-3633 ; closed Mondays. The show will close in stages , beginning June 13.


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