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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Uptown at the Whitney Museum, political art is a favorite at the Biennial. The exhibition features many artists who pride themselves on making provocative statements with their work. Writer Alex Mar visited the exhibition and tells us what's worth seeing.

ALEX MAR reporting:

Among the shows freshest talents is conceptual artist Robert Pruitt, whose works address the explosive issue of race in this country without oversimplification. Pruitt's piece Throwback is a tailors dummy in a fine white shirt with a patch that reads Dirty South, a reference to the region's raucous hardcore rap scene. The dummy is capped with a pointed white hood that can only recall the Ku Klux Klan. Here Pruitt, himself from Houston, draws an elegant line from the South's violent historical tensions to the birth of a rebellious music movement. From the Dirty South scene the show moves on to some real life radicals. The so called Wrong Gallery, a trio of curators who have become renegade tastemakers, have collected artworks they claim address the American fascination with outlaws.

Images range from a tapestry portrait of the masked Mexican Zapatista leader Marcos to video interviews with Waco survivors, and photos of the September 11th hijackers. But by grouping such varied subjects under one superficial category, the curators blow a chance to make a timely, incisive statement about American politics, instead offering up a display that could be titled Lots of People on the Outs with the U.S. Government. Speaking of grand pronouncements gone wrong, what portrait of American culture would be complete without a comparison to the fall of Rome? That absolutely ancient analogy rears its head in a sensationalistic film by Italian artist Francesco Vitsoli. He presents what he calls a trailer for the infamous B movie Caligula, this version also featuring plenty of simulated sex acts, along with cameos by celebrities including Benicio del Toro and down and out rock star Courtney Love. But ultimately, with little fresh to say, what Vitsoli gives us is pure spectacle.

Just steps away from the decadence of ancient Rome is a meditation on a troubling side of American Christianity. Chariot, the Day after the End of Days, an ambitious installation by Matthew Day Jackson, references many Christians' belief in an imminent apocalypse. Jackson offers up an intricately carved Wild West wagon suspended above a row of neon lights and covered in a patchwork of state flags. But the vibrant colors give way to something more foreboding. Inside the wagon the only passenger is a mystical looking wooden owl with shiny black eyes. Jackson succeeds precisely because his agenda is unclear. Unlike Vitsoli and the Wrong Gallery, waving their cultural flash cards, Jackson is merely giving us a window into some of the darker convictions that underlie our country. As with Jackson's work, the Whitney Biennial is most persuasive when it leaves room for mystery in its potent mix of art and politics.

BRAND: And the Whitney Biennial is up through the end of the month. Alex Mar is an editor at Rolling Stone Magazine.

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