Stuart Comer is in charge of media and performance art at MoMA, and was one of the three curators selected for this year’s Whitney Biennial. I took notice of him a few years ago by looking at the Facebook pictures of a friend in common who is one of those ‘Are-you-going-to-Art-Basel-this-year?’ kind. Stuart belongs to the generation that gained influence by bringing that hipster Bethnal Greene odour to the Tate Modern which, very quickly, mutated into an ‘institutional-artfair-muaw-muaw-oh-that’s-awesome-I-am-a-hipster-now-right?-let’s-move-to-Shoreditch’-type of curator. In a contemporary art world dominated by the freakish uber-styled German curators such as Hans Obrist or Klaus Biesenbach, a group of anglican-church sort of protestant type emerged. These were the kind who would use the social media to promote their credentials as good, international and ‘process-driven’ people. If Obrist is a bit of a weirdo, Comer is an absolutist courtier for whom the medium is the message. As a matter of fact, he only posts in Facebook either obituaries or pictures of himself with other artists pretending to be close or having a controlled amount of fun, depending on the occasion. He is the kind of person that would appear in one of those Art Forum ‘The Cobra Snake’-like pictures with a glass of wine in his hand as in a daze of eternal contentment.
His curating of the third floor of this year’s Whitney Biennial is a deconstruction of the mechanics of what he thinks his job should be. There, he reduces all discussion to its structural morphology in order to talk about everything without referring to anything in particular with only two exceptions. Let me be more clear. His job is another chapter of the way curators are stepping into the realm of the artist in order to impose a thematic agenda that sanitises everything through political correctness or radical thinking to make everybody confident that nothing will change. These are the horsemen of apocalyptic boredom. The irony of this is that the relationship between what seems to be ‘correct’ and what is ‘forward-thinking’ is presented through a problematisation of death in its many forms.
Upon arrival, the visitor finds the Lebanese-American writer and painter Etel Adnan, now 89, and his accordion-fold diary-like notebooks where language and image are combined to the point of abstraction or, I would rather say, ‘objectualism’. This piece functions as a disclaimer of sorts in which Comer seems to say that nothing said here is the opinion of the institution. Of course, the way to sanitisation is ‘mixing things’. This emphasis on ‘putting things together’ is obvious in the work of artist Channa Horwitz (1932-2013) and her geometric drawings that suggest stitch work as collapsing performance and writing. The same idea of liquifying different performative dimensions as in a diachronic montage of sorts can be seen in Jacolby Satterwhite’s work who combines vogueing, martial arts and contemporary dance in video animations in which he is the main performer.
However, Comer’s ‘politics of fear’ become ‘political’ when including painter Richard Hawkins and photographer Catherine Opie as ‘curators’ of a mini-retrospective of paintings-on-photographs by an art school classmate, Tony Greene, who died of AIDS in 1990 at 35. At this point I said: ‘Bingo!’ for this love for obituaries is what I found surprising of Stuart Comer’s presence in Facebook. He loves his obituaries and homages to the dead. Of course, this is the way institutions assert themselves by looking backwards. Obituaries are the way, apparatchiks position themselves inside the institutional ladder. It worked for Fidel Castro and it seems to work for Stuart Comer, too. The question is, however, whether he knows what he wants to have that place of responsibility for. What does Comer want from this? What he expects from it? It is for this reason that there are not one but several tributes to the dead in this Biennial, including, by default, one to Terry Adkins, who died just weeks ago. Most of Greene’s lavish, petite paintings are, in essence, valentines and prayers sent out to friends disappeared during the 80s epidemic. Of course, no one will dare criticise good Stuart’s intentions and we know that those who hold power in NY’s art world are the survivors of that time. It is as this point when institutions start celebrating themselves through what makes them safer and, in my opinion, that is the beginning of the end.
When asked about his intentions, Stuart Comer says: “Biennials don’t just display objects; they produce knowledge,”. I wonder how? Is the ‘production of knowledge’ equivalent to creating institutional inertia through political correctness to be able to…survive? Who is surviving here? Is the curator becoming a mirror of the ‘enslaved’ life of late capitalism white collar workers? As we can see, this is more Kafkian than Proustian, if you ask me… I am referring to the Proustian component because it is Comer who says: “(My proposal) is a testament to the way image and text combine,” And adds: “And the way technologies are complicating those relationships.” Ahhh…les temps perdu!
This ‘complicated relationship’ can be seen in Dash Manley’s trailer-scale walk-in wood and metal frame with large prints or something like that inside. At this point I must quote Jerry Saltz’s fantastic review on this show when saying: ‘Nearby is a large ridiculous video of the artist reenacting some scene from an early American film. The work is here because it checks all the boxes: It takes up a lot of space, is momentarily engaging, has video, references film, and comes with elaborate explanatory wall text. Whole Lower East Side galleries could fit in the space this washout takes up. Nearby is a very large gallery devoted to Semiotext(e), the publishers who introduced French poststructuralist theory to the U.S. I’ll just say that I saw ten artists in galleries last month who would’ve been better and more relevant. Grrrrrr. Sigh’. To summarise it, Stuart Comer’s fear of everything impregnates a rather courtier-like show which intends to be self congratulatory but comes across as desperate. You already got the job, dude…stop pinching yourself. Just a thought.
Artists Selected by Stuart Comer
On the Third Floor
Ei Arakawa and Carissa Rodriguez
Lisa Anne Auerbach
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Tony Greene curated by Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie
Yve Laris Cohen
A. L. Steiner
In Other Locations
Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, and Sensory Ethnography Lab
Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Radamés “Juni” Figueroa