26 November, 2021

8 Standouts at the 2021 New Museum Triennial: Poetic Resistance, Barely-There Beings, and More

The biennial circuit was dealt a blow by the pandemic, which made it nearly impossible to mount enormous editions of recurring showings of contemporary art amid restrictions of all kinds. But art lovers in the U.S. can take pleasure this month in the return of three such notable exhibitions: the Prospect New Orleans triennial in Louisiana, the Greater New York quinquennial at MoMA PS1, and, now, the New Museum Triennial, which opens in New York this Thursday.

Organized by New Museum curator Margot Norton and Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles senior curator Jamillah James, the show is focused on forms of resistance—an apt theme during these trying times. Don’t come expecting to see art meditating on lockdown, the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, or debates over recent conflicts, however. The sleek art on view here may obliquely allude to pressing issues associated with race, gender, and sexuality, and it may even broach painful histories of colonialism in the process, but these works are rarely upfront about their concerns. In this refreshing exhibition, the artists included largely opt for a sleek aesthetic in which politics are embedded rather than exposed.

Painting is (mostly) out, and a piquantly odd kind of sculpture is in. Surrealism is born anew in works making use of ready-made everyday objects, and industrial materials often share space with natural ones. Science-fictional futures exist in the present, and fine-art and craft techniques are made indivisible. There’s a lot going on in the minds of the 40 artists with work on view, some of whom are getting their first showcases in New York, but rarely ever can it be said that their art feels anything less than highly composed. Norton and James’s exhibition meets the chaos of the moment with stoicism and serenity.

Below, a look at eight standout artists in their show.

Photo : Alex Greenberger for ARTnews

In a show that goes heavy on large sculpture, a tiny work made of just an engine, a stone, and some aluminum proves strangely exciting. That sculpture by Gabriela Mureb, titled Machine #4: stone (ground), 2017, contains a seemingly simple premise—a stone being repeatedly prodded by a mechanical rod—that speaks well to the curators’ interest in perseverance. The work draws its inspiration from a Brazilian proverb—“Soft water on hard stone, hits until it bores a hole”—that also lends this triennial its title. Watch as the stone is poked over and over again by this machine, and notice how this slab tips over a little and then sets itself right back in place. Mureb has crafted a powerful metaphor for resistance in the face of forces beyond our control.

Photo : Alex Greenberger for ARTnews

Rather than installing their work entirely in one place, as is the norm for artists participating in biennial-style shows, Jeneen Frei Njootli (Vuntut Gwitchin) has spread their piles of beads throughout the New Museum, often in nooks and crannies that are more typically occupied by circuitry and wiring. These mounds are all part of a work named Fighting for the title to not be pending (2020). The ones situated in corners beg comparisons to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy sculptures, though unlike those works, whose sweets are open for the taking, Frei Njootli’s piece is meant to remain intact. Still, in the spirit of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, Fighting for the title to not be pending is fragile—one misstep could send small glass pieces in shades of gold, black, and crimson skittering across gallery floors. With pieces such as this one, Frei Njootli draws attention to the difficulty—and necessity—of holding down a space and calling it your own.

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