Fresh Eyes at the Whitney Biennial

THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL is part Mount Everest, the ultimate challenge, and part Mount Olympus, the ultimate glory. And two art-savvy young Brooklynites, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, are ready to take that climb. This month the global art world will turn its collective gaze toward Gansevoort Street to find out how the co-curators of this year’s Biennial characterize contemporary American art in these unusually charged times.

Related: Corinne Erni’s Global Perspective

Over the course of its previous 77 iterations, the Whitney Biennial has earned a reputation for being controversial and at times confrontational. This year, Locks and Lew put together an exhibition highlighting homegrown and immigrant artists ranging in age from mid-20s to late-80s who represent a wide variety of demographic diversity. “Chris and I tried to scan the landscape of American art with very open minds, without preexisting ideas about what kind of show we would make,” Locks said. “I think it turned out a bit darker than either of us would have thought.”

The indefatigable duo traveled to some 40 cities to get a read on what’s inspiring artists nationwide. “We covered as much ground as we could,” Lew added. “We did more than ninety percent of all the studio visits and travel together, working side-by-side.” They scoured galleries and museums, but also scrappy artist-run spaces and unassuming studios, finding particularly fertile artistic ground locally: of the 63 participants, about a quarter work in Queens or Brooklyn.

Although the thematic umbrella, “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” seems introspective, Locks and Lew were intrigued by works that used personal responses to build consensuses and communities. “It’s been such a divisive year,” Lew said, “but a lot of artists were thinking, ‘How do you build a community of peers? What can you do to foster something that goes beyond just the divisions?’” Locks saw hope in that: “Maybe the turmoil of our current moment will drive more ways of coming together.”

The urgency and passion of the artists’ responses to the moment certainly comes through, and in surprisingly optimistic ways as well. “It would be impossible to say that backdrop didn’t inform the conversations we were having with artists, but I think it goes broader than the political climate,” Locks noted. “It is the social climate, racial tensions, the emotional landscape of anxiety and fear, and a shared desire to find better ways of being human. These all factor into artists working right now and, by extension, into the Biennial.”

Addressing these themes will be works spanning a wide spectrum of mediums. They’ll fill two floors of the new building, making it not only one of the most highly anticipated Biennials—since the move delayed it by a year—but the largest, as well.

Lew, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, joined the Whitney as associate curator in 2014 and admitted to being “slightly stunned” at being named co-curator. “To grow up in New York and have memories of visiting the Whitney and all the New York museums, it’s kind of amazing to be participating in the Biennial.” Locks, an independent curator who made connections to West Coast artists when she was at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art from 2010 to 2013, was tapped to bring those connections eastward. Both are known for their support of emerging artists. “Having conversations with peers in the art world, they said, ‘There are so many artists that we don’t recognize their names,’ and I thought, ‘Good, that means we did our homework,’” Lew noted.

Both curators hope the Biennial will surprise people with diversity and range, but also with bridges they’ve tried to build. “In this age of social media and the focus on the individual, there’s an increasing need to come together,” Lew said. “People still want that kind of common experience…One of the important things that art does—and there are certain moments we hope will produce this within the Biennial—is that it slows you down. It asks more questions than it answers. It asks viewers to be comfortable with unknowns, as opposed to having a simplistic answer.”