Faced, without explanation, with such idiosyncratic elements, our organizational instinct, our default to logic, kicks in. We start to construct a narrative. So: flimsy walls, a report of damages from a storm, piled-up trash bags, a stash of canned food. Suddenly there’s tension, drama, a hint of darkness. But one look at the work’s wackier features pulls us in another direction and we’re back with bemusement.
Again, this push-pull is a driving dynamic of this artist’s work. It withholds fixed meanings while suggesting that meanings exist. It works hard to elicit reactions, potentially strong ones, without determining what the reactions should be. You feel things will come clear if you hang out and keep looking. And people do.
Career surveys are usually arranged chronologically so as to suggest an artist’s development. The organizers of this show — Elisabeth Sussman, curator of photography at the Whitney; David Joselit, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and Kelly Long, a curatorial assistant at the Whitney — honor that convention, but only so far: They put early work, from the 1990s, in the opening gallery, but beyond that, mix things up.
In general the work tends to grow more “sculptural” — in the sense of more concentrated, unitary, handmade — as time goes on. One example is “Alexander the Great” (2007), in which a nude, prepubescent department store mannequin, wearing an Abraham Lincoln mask on the back of its head, stands atop an Abstract Expressionist-patterned meteorite. Another is the scary “Brownie” (2005), a kind of Giacomettian column embedded with life-size skulls, drizzled with paint, and topped with a silver wig.