Saturday, April 30, 2022

Searching for Poetry in the Whitney Museum Biennial


The Dresser and her companion, also a poet, attended the Whitney Museum Biennial Quiet as It’s Kept on April 25, 2022. The title Quiet as It’s Kept, which indicates something that is kept secret, evokes for its curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards ideas from novelist Toni Morrison, jazz drummer Max Roach, and artist David Hammons. The individual works by 63 artists (most of whom are from the United States) are set up mainly on floors five and six with a few spilling over to floors three and one. If you seek intimacy that provides enclosed spaces, this exhibition probably won’t meet your needs. Your ability to concentrate will be tested except for certain video installations like What about China? by Trinh T. Minh-ha where you can sit in the dark for 135 minutes watching all the  rural people who lost their homes and the old world architecture of communal living to make way for China's great development of modernization. The Dresser and her friend found the video fascinating, becuase they have both traveled in China and have a wider embrace of that landscape.


Another point of attraction for the two poets was “A Gathering of Tribes” which is labeled as a “selection of archival material” that came from the New York apartment of poet Steve Cannon. This included bookshelves stocked with well used literary books, and flyers and broadsides hanging on the walls over the bookshelves. One prominent contemporary poet—Kimiko Hahn, known personally to the Dresser and her companion, appears on a poster announcing a book party featuring her 1999 collection Mosquito and Ant from W.W. Norton. The point of this exhibit is to show how marginalized LGBTQ artists, artists of color, immigrant artists, Native American and indigenous artists, as well as artists from poor and working-class backgrounds came together. Did that message come through the assembly of books and wall hangings? The Dresser isn’t sure about that.




The most haunting work and poetic work is Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture “ishkode (fire)” which is made from clay and bullet casings. In a glinting circle of bullet casings, which at first doesn’t register in the brain, a fabric covered human (presumably a woman) stands. The only access to this person is a dark vertical space where the face should be. Belmore is from the Lac Seul First Nation of Canada and is known for her politically and socially aware performance and installation works. This work requires no explanation either in placard form or from the Whitney’s Mobile Guide.




The most dramatically beautiful works are the teepee covers under the collective title “Wintercount” made by Duane Linklater, another indigenous Canadian artist originally from Moose Creek First Nations. While these linen covers are not functional, they effectively represent the size and colors of actual teepee covers. Linklater uses sumac, charcoal, and cochineal to create the pigments for his designs.


Eric Wesley’s kinetic sculpture “North American Buff Tit” wins as the most whimsical work. Wesley tells visitors (through the Whitney’s Mobile Tour that one can access through a QR code) that his sculpture was first seen as a much smaller-sized toy known as the “dippy bird.” Through heat transfer, this sculpture mimics a bird drinking water. So yes, it moves when the temperature and humidity reach certain levels. However, the Dresser never saw the bird dip.


Hands down, the most curious work is a set of Buck Ellison’s photographs on Erik Prince (brother of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) co-founder of the security and mercenary firm Blackwater responsible for killing seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Ellison’s idea was to capture Prince, known to the public as an ultra-wealthy monster, as an ordinary person. Most memorable is the shirtless photo of Prince—or is this an actor—standing in front of a wall with pictures of handsome horses. Prince smiles broadly. He seems vulnerable and carefree. Both the Dresser and her companion walked away shaking their heads and feeling irritated.


One more work that aroused the Dresser’s interest, if not pique, was Sable Elyse Smith’s “A Clockwork,” a large moving sculpture that looks like a Ferris wheel and reminded the Dresser of William Kentridge’s breathing machine that was at the center of Kentridge’s installation The Refusal of Time. Smith states in her presentation in the Whitney’s Mobile Guide that “A Clockwork” shows “[a] really extreme and intense relationship between entertainment and violence.” She suggests that her sculpture points to the ways carnivals put ordinary people in contact with people who are not like them, people are not “normal.” The Dresser thinks that Smith’s discussion is compelling but that her sculpture itself lacks this information. The Dresser grants that the curators of the 2022 Whitney Biennial with its title Quiet as It’s Kept allows for this kind of reach/secret meaning not only with Smith’s sculpture but also other works in the show. If the visitor to Quiet as It’s Kept does not access the Mobile Guide, he or she will miss what is often the possible poetry of the artwork. The written text presented with each work is not the same explanation presented by the Mobile Guide and often comes across as unedited verbiage.


Is the Whitney 2022 Biennial worth seeing? Yes, but one needs to know that while this is art from American artists, not all are United States citizens. The expectation in the past was the Whitney Biennial was a snapshot of contemporary art in the United States. Additionally,  Quiet as It’s Kept requires access to its Mobile Guide, otherwise the visitor will not get the secrets behind the work. Finally, visit with a Zen attitude—there is a crowded feeling to this display, so it is up to the visitor to stop and focus on one work at a time.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Held and Firmly Bound IOU







Nathalie Anderson’s long poem Held and Firmly Bound puts a unique spin on race relationships in America. The work is based on an IOU that was written before the United States Civil War in which a member of Anderson’s white family pledges to pay a sum of $2400 to a free person of color.


Anderson’s introduction begins with the language of the debt declaration:


KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS, THAT I Alfred H. Dunkin, Trustee of M.D. Huger,  am held and firmly bound unto Betsey Garrett, a free person of color, in the full and just sum of Two Thousand Four Hundred Dollars…. 

                                                            Charleston, 1853


In an interview with Anderson conducted by the Dresser on April 22, 2022, the author said that Dunkin and Huger are family names she recognized but she knew nothing about the three people mentioned in the IOU and that the debt was extraordinarily high for its time. Anderson’s brother conjectured that Alfred Dunkin and M.D. Huger might have been brother and sister, given Huger’s initials including a “D” (possibly standing for her maiden name Dunkin) and given that women were often barred from owning property (a reason for him being named Trustee).


Anderson said this work was hard for her to start because she wanted to avoid putting words in Betsey Garrett’s mouth and that she wanted to stay focused on her family. When she got beyond her writer’s block, she wrote poems that the Dresser will say are suppositions. Most of them begin say, let’s say, or suppose. Section I is titled Say. Anderson said her goal was to create characters/”personalities who could carry that level of indebtedness.” Characters include a Mama’s boy of varying behaviors, a daughter who compulsively washes and then is faced with the stench of her father’s dying, a mean man of egotistical parents, a country bumpkin of whom Charleston sophisticates make fun. There are nine such characters and some of them are pictured interacting with Betsey Garrett.



Say you’re what folks call up-country, down

from the red-clay hills, in Charleston

for the Season, settled at your Aunt Em’s,

and about the serious business—or so

your mama tells—of finding you

a proper man. …


Thus far, truth be told, your best ain’t

up to snuff. First off, you’ve grown out

raw-boned, rangy, stark as a mule

in a paddock of ponies, nothing like

your flirty cousins. … Even the gal who

sets your clothes out knows what’s what.

She smirks…


… “Gal,” you say,

“you got a discerning eye, so you

can see I ain’t. But I got hold of a thing

you might appreciate. What say we trade?”




As for that gal, after all these works,

you know her name and you call her by it.

“Betsey Garrett,” you say, while she’s

packing up your clothes, “I am my mama’s

only living child, and when I come

into my own, I’m going to buy you out,

set you on your road.” …

I hate them cousins and I owe you, gal,

and when I go to my reward

I’ll leave you everything I’ve come to own.” …


Section II is titled “Held.” The thirteen poems in this section all end with the refrain “held and firmly bound.” Anderson said she sees these poems in the tradition of a ghazal and like the ghazal, she hears her audience calling out the repeating refrain. The poems start out short. The first poem has six lines:



Her heart kept startling, a nervy bird, clutch

of blue at the breast, her fingers’ twining and

intertwining fretting up the shakiest of nests.


His arm snaking round and his hand hovering—

she knew he’d swallow her down. Knew he’d keep her

own hands flustering til held and firmly bound.


The last several poems are two pages each and deal with such complex subjects as: a celebrated English actress who unwisely marries a wealthy southerner who owns and mistreats slaves, an American Revolutionary War story featuring Anderson’s relative Francis Kinloch Huger and Marquis de Lafayette, and the contemporary American film Glory—about the Black Civil War regimen led by a young white officer with such stars as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. With these three stories, Anderson brings Section II Held to a cinematic fever pitch that exceeds Southern storytelling in the tradition of William Faulkner (and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson is called up in the last stanza of Held).



Oh Quentin Compson, look away

all you please. There’s one woman stopped cold as

the credits roll in Philly. That grit’s in her teeth. That salt’s

in her bones. No distance at all. By her own soil and substance

held and firmly bound.


The final section (III) contains one elegant, compressed poem that addresses Betsey Garrett signing the IOU not with an X as most illiterate people signed but with a plus sign. The last line of the final poem reads: “Saddled with. Hitched. Held. Bound.” What Nathalie Anderson hopes her readership takes away is the idea that there was an interconnectedness between the whites and the Blacks that is both viscerally animal and human in the sense of marriage. Voices inhabit this 15-line poem—“Pay up, fool. You’ll always owe me more.” “Skin-deep? You don’t know the half.” “More than you bargained for, or you deserve.”


Careful that it doesn’t appropriate a Black woman’s unusual story, Held and Firmly Bound by Nathalie Anderson is remarkable for its sassiness and risk-taking. Find this book from Muddy Ford Press.