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Six Columbia Alumni Selected for Whitney Biennial
"Martyr" 2003, by Barnaby Furnas
Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery

The Whitney Biennial, the nation's most important survey of contemporary art, is by its very nature a jumble of styles, themes, subjects and media. And while a number of critics have called this year's exhibition upbeat and even cheery, most of the Columbia alumni represented in the show have a much darker vision.

Of the six alumni participating in the biennial, five explore the dark side in their works: School of the Arts graduates David Altmejd, SOA'01, Sue deBeer, SOA'98, Banks Violette, SOA'00, and Barnaby Furnas, SOA'00, and Columbia College graduate Chloe Piene, CC'93. The other alumnus, Ernesto Caivano, SOA'01, takes a lighter, more whimsical approach in his work, however.

Altmejd's Delicate Men in Positions of Power (2003) is a mixed-media installation of dramatic stage areas and tomblike interiors lined with mirrors. Occupying the lowest level of the catacombs, among shards of crystals and flowers, are severed werewolf heads. The biennial also displays larger works in Central Park, and two sculptures by Altmejd -- giant werewolf heads in vitrines -- are on exhibit outdoors. "I wanted to bring it in a more natural, romantic setting," Altmejd said. "I am hoping that the defeated monster's head and the park itself will trigger the romantic, melancholic potential in each other." These works are sited at the Andrew Haswell Green Memorial Site in Central Park.

DeBeer's two-channel video installation Hans und Grete (2002) focuses on four teen-agers, with references ranging from tragic school shootings in the late 1990s, such as Columbine, to Ulrike Meinhof, an icon of the 1960s Baader-Meinhof gang of German revolutionary terrorists.

Violette's contribution to the exhibition is an installation comprising five drawings, a sculpture and a wall painting. "The work revolves loosely around Kurt Cobain's suicide letter, in which he references a quote from Neil Young, to the effect that it's better to burn out than to fade away," Violette said. "I was interested in the line Cobain straddled. On the one hand, he was a rock star; on the other, he was a fan who measured himself against the supposed 'purity' of Neil Young's example."

Violence and death are also themes that run through the three intense works by Barnaby Furnas, which are often influenced by action movies, video games, 19th-century history and modernism. Hamburger Hill (2002), for instance, depicts a bloody Civil War battle scene. Furnas said the painting, which was inspired by World War II action movies, "depicts soldiers coming up over a hill and being blown into chunks, like hamburger."

Piene addresses the subjects of aggression, violence and sexuality in her biennial video installation Blackmouth (2003) as well as in the drawings Masturbator (2003), No Face (2003) and Untitled (CP#2) (2003). In his review of the biennial in The New Yorker, art critic Peter Schjeldahl put Piene on his "short list of highlights," comparing her drawings to the work of Egon Schiele.

Worlds away from the work of his fellow Columbia graduates are Caivano's intricately detailed, whimsical ink drawings, which explore a fantastic realm where science, fairy tales, nature and modern technology are interconnected.

"The drawings in the biennial are a look into the actions of fictional birds I call Philapores, literally the love of the pore," said Caivano. "They are incapable of conventional flight, but they can move through matter, like wood, water, dust and rock."

Caivano's 11 pieces selected for the biennial, part of an ongoing project called "After the Woods," include The Birds and Water Fall (I-IV) (2003), Capture and Release (2003) and A Philapore, an Opening, a Web of Code (2003). Caivano said he is inspired by a variety of sources, including Asian landscape painting, Flemish and Spanish Renaissance painters, modernism and minimalism. His ideas are often rooted in modern technology, particularly nanoscience.

The exhibition is on display through May 30, at the Whitney Museum of Art, 945 Madison Avenue , at East 75th Street.

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Published: Apr 02, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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