Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet (2019), Janiva Ellis’s contribution to the latest biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a painting of a border: fence, river, palm trees, storm on the horizon, and figures making their treacherous way across. The landscape—something of a departure for Ellis, who often paints surrealist portraits—captures a woman, partially dressed, carrying a child as she wades through the stream at a break in the fence. With a third hand, the woman is peeling back the skin from her face, revealing an expression that falls somewhere between fatigue and resolve. The child she bears is an animal, a bizarro canine creature. Another woman lies stretched out on the riverbank, possibly dead. Her lower half is a messy red pattern that could be a tie-dyed skirt—or maybe her intestines, strewn over the shore.
Where Ellis’s mother figure is running, or what she’s fleeing, remains unseen. But the tension is apparent in her face and posture, and in the fact that she is in this moment crossing, or trespassing, the boundary marked by the fence. Such precariousness is also a theme of this year’s show, which explores an America that is, like the woman on the border, suspended between exhaustion and determination. The 2019 Whitney Biennial—which comprises the work of 75 artists and collectives, the majority of whom are nonwhite, half of whom identify as women, and three-quarters of whom are under 40 years old—is a steadfast survey of anxiety and identity. It is a quiet show, compared with recent editions. And it arrives at a difficult time for the Whitney program, especially after the 2017 biennial was marked by protests over a portrait of the body of Emmett Till by a white artist, Dana Schutz. But the latest biennial finds balance in a cogent and underutilized curatorial strategy: First, assemble a group of American artists that comes close to actually resembling what America looks like today.