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This Is Tiffany

THE NEW GUARD

Profiles in artistic courage: four contemporary artists who are redefining our ideas of art in the Tiffany-sponsored 2017 Whitney Biennial.

By Amelia Stein
Photographs by Marcelo Gomes

Above: Leigh Ledare, Double Bind (Diptych #6/25), 2010; courtesy of Mitchell-Innes and Nash, New York.


Depending on your vantage point and the time of day, you may glance up at the elegant glass frontage of the Whitney Museum of American Art and see a perfect reflection of the sky. It’s a poignant, if easy-to-miss, perspective—the moment shifts as quickly and dramatically as the weather, yet the distinction between past and present often depends on where you stand.

The 78th Whitney Biennial is an artistic reflection of our ever-shifting present. The exhibition features work by 63 artists utilizing all manner of media from painting to performance to video game design.

While the Biennial is often heralded as a survey of new American talent, curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew say their concern was less with newness than with the sense that each artist’s work needs to be seen now. “There’s an urgency to what these artists are putting out into the world, how they are seeing the world and reacting to things,” says Locks. “They are coming to it with many different perspectives, but it all lands in this time—now.”

Raúl de Nieves, Somos Monstros, 2016. Cloth patches, fabric and mannequin, 79 x 26 1/2 x 18 1/2 in. (200.7 x 67.3 x 47 cm); courtesy of the artist and Company Gallery, New York.

As the Biennial’s lead sponsor, Tiffany & Co. has partnered with the Whitney in a celebration of the two institutions’ shared histories: supporting the arts in New York City and beyond, and nurturing creative innovation and talent wherever it is found. As part of this partnership, a handful of artists have collaborated with Tiffany master craftsmen to create a limited series of artist editions, available exclusively at the Tiffany & Co. Fifth Avenue flagship store and the Whitney.

Here, we showcase four artists—Susan Cianciolo, Raúl de Nieves, Shara Hughes and Leigh Ledare—who represent not only the extraordinary breadth and talent of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, but also a commitment to reflecting upon, engaging with and responding to the present, however we choose to define it.

MEET SUSAN CIANCIOLO

It is apt that when discussing her artistic practice, Susan Cianciolo frequently mentions “pattern-making.” From her early work designing clothing that epitomized experimental fashion in 1990s New York to her lauded “kits”—handmade boxes with diverse contents constituting a personal and professional archive—one imagines that to lay out Cianciolo’s entire body of work in grid formation would reveal an intricate system of loops, links and pathways, akin to a map.

“I pick up parts of my work and shows I did and patterns I made and specifically, consciously repeat everything so it’s teaching myself over and over,” says Cianciolo. “Perhaps something I didn’t see then or a message I left for myself—it’s that idea that time doesn’t exist. It’s sheer instinct.”

Susan Cianciolo, if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know (the great tetrahedral kite)?, installation view at Bridget Donahue, New York, 17 May–12 July, 2015, photo by Marc Brems Tatti, copyright Susan Cianciolo, courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York.

For the Whitney Biennial, Cianciolo will revisit Run Restaurant, a Japanese-inspired teahouse she first created inside Alleged Gallery in 2000. This time around, Cianciolo will transform the Whitney’s Untitled restaurant for two days and nights with a new interior, custom menu, staff uniforms and handmade ceramics.

To realize the project anew, Cianciolo will work with a roster of creative partners, including Untitled’s chef Michael Anthony. And, as often happens for Cianciolo, layers of personal history have already begun to coalesce in synchronistic ways with the collaborative energy that underpins her inimitable practice.

“When we had the first meeting, we could look across the street and see where that original restaurant was on Gansevoort and Washington,” she says. “The curators had asked me, what are your dream projects? And I had listed the restaurant as one of them. The spirit has never died.”

MEET RAÚL DE NIEVES

Like the ancient poets, whose epics were not only fantastical tales but complex analogies for daily life, Raúl de Nieves understands the way in which echoes of the everyday can make fantasy live more vividly. His joyfully noisy performances with his band, Haribo, seem to animate his immersive, intricately crafted installations. Each new character, object and scene enriches the plot of an ongoing story that draws as much from nature and de Nieves’ own history as it does from his imagination.

Raúl de Nieves’ engraved silver box for Tiffany & Co.

This all-encompassing practice is made even richer by de Nieves’ attention to detail. Which bulbs to use for an ornate chandelier? Which beads for the Technicolor sculptures that more closely resemble coral than what they really are—shoes?

“Craft had always been a really beautiful part of my upbringing in Mexico,” says de Nieves, “because if you couldn’t buy that sweater, you could make yourself a sweater, you just have to learn these techniques. I really want to connect with all my senses and feel my surroundings, my body and where an idea can translate into a whole journey.”

“Craft was a really beautiful part of my upbringing in Mexico.”

Raúl de Nieves

Inside Raúl de Nieves’ studio.

As part of his participation in the Biennial, de Nieves worked closely with a Tiffany & Co. master engraver to produce an exquisitely tooled silver box, which bears an image of a figure drawn by de Nieves. This exclusive artist’s edition will complement the experimental workmanship of de Nieves’ larger work for the Biennial: stained glass (of a kind) mapped onto six of the Whitney’s massive windows.

“I turned back to paper, scissors, tape and now I’m making what would be a very large-scale stained glass window in my studio, the place that I go to every day, where I have tools that you can take anywhere,” says de Nieves. “I want things to be recognizable to the body and the self, but I want it also to cause a second thought: is that really a window? Is that a shoe or a coral reef?”

MEET SHARA HUGHES

Some time ago, Shara Hughes opened a window in her painting. It first appeared in the background of her expressionistic interior scenes, then she moved through it, into the semi-abstract landscapes that comprise her current work. For Hughes, this trajectory made sense not only as a shift in focus in her painting but as a reflection of the very act of looking.

Shara Hughes, In the Clear, 2016. Oil and dye on canvas, 68 x 60 in. (172.7 x 152.4 cm). Private collection; courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner, New York.

“I’ve always been aware that I’m asking a viewer to go somewhere through my eyes or through the way that I make paintings,” Hughes says. “So there’s always been this attachment to place—being aware of where you are and being aware of going somewhere else, or wanting to be somewhere else, or just the experience of looking at something that takes you somewhere else.”

“I’ve always been aware that I’m asking a viewer to go somewhere through my eyes.”

Shara Hughes

Shara Hughes’ pitcher for Tiffany & Co.

Visitors to the Biennial will experience Hughes’ dreamlike geographies in six large paintings. Although Hughes describes the works with reference to the natural world—a waterfall, a tree farm, a garden—she notes that the works reflect inner visions rather than real places. Building on these layers of seeing, Hughes will create a limited edition series of hand-painted, bone china pitchers for the Whitney Biennial in collaboration with Tiffany & Co. In addition, Hughes will journey back through the window she first opened in painting with a topographically sculptural installation to display the pitcher in Tiffany’s iconic Fifth Avenue storefront.

“I didn’t grow up in a family that knows much about art,” says Hughes, “so there’s always been that feeling of wanting pretty much anyone to look at my work and enjoy it without having to feel pressure. You can enjoy the colours or techniques or patterns, rather than having to feel like you need to know about it to understand it.”

MEET LEIGH LEDARE

“One thing that I’m always trying to do in the artwork is to reflect back things that we may collectively know not to know,” says Leigh Ledare. “In some sense, the work becomes almost like an X-ray of culture, like lifting the hood of a car to understand how the machine operates underneath.”

Across photography, archival collage and film, Ledare’s work is by turns confronting, playful, transgressive and sweet. An inescapable intimacy voids the barrier between public and private, acceptable and forbidden, in order to bring us closer to the subject, and ourselves.

Inside Leigh Ledare’s studio.

Ledare’s work frequently foregrounds sexuality and a voyeuristic representation of individual subjects to explore the nuances of human relationships. In his work for the Whitney Biennial, he zooms out to consider the collective subject with a 16 mm film depicting a public plaza and passenger train port in Moscow. The various choreographies that emerge between the many figures in the film consciously mirror the potential dynamics of audiences in the public space of the museum.

“It’s part of a series of other works I’ve been making that deal with group phenomena and group interactions,” he says. “I don’t think about it as a film relating to Moscow in particular; it’s really a mapping of these people in space. It’s a space where people are sizing each other up.”