Inside the Whitney Houston Biennial: Brooklyn’s Witty, All-Female Alternative to the Whitney Biennial


There were many alternatives to the Whitney Biennial this week, but the most lauded would have to be the one with the most enigmatic name: The Whitney Houston Biennial: I’m Every Woman. Curated by artist Christine Finley, this show was exactly what it sounds like: an all-female-artist alternative to the established Whitney Biennial. Since so much of the art world is a boy’s club, it seems especially necessary — and exciting — to have a separate space where female artists are celebrated.

The atmosphere of the show, held in DUMBO, promoted intimacy and interaction with both the work and the artists. Paintings, sculptures, videos, photos, and every medium in between decorated the walls, floor to ceiling, in a salon-style layout. Among the works featured were some of Finley’s own, including a reimagined drawing of the classic Pieta, reflecting her time spent in Rome. Explaining her reasons for creating this show, Finley said, “I saw a lot of press about the Biennial happening and I thought, if I were the curator what would I do? Well, I would have an all-women’s Biennial. [Eddy Segal] thought of the name, and we laughed our heads off and I just knew I had to do that.”

Still from Narcissister’s “I’m Every Woman”

There was so much to take in that I couldn’t pick a favorite, but there were a few especially striking pieces. Ever the center of attention, performance/video artist Narcissister contributed the video I’m Every Woman, which might just encapsulate all this show was about. Wearing an Afro wig and her signature mannequin mask, the artist dances around on a revolving table lit by cheesy disco lights while Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” plays. During this performance, Narcissister pulls clothing out from various bodily orifices and models it. Narcissister’s work frequently uses uncomfortable humor to examine what it is to be a woman constantly on display.

Still from Seung-Min Lee’s “Sing Le No More”

A video piece in a similar vein was Seung-Min Lee’s Sing Le No More. Min Lee appears in a leotard, her wrists and ankles bound by elastic strings. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” plays while the artist attempts to dance, the elastic restraints impeding her movements and eventually getting so tangled that they entrap her in an impossible position. Finley says Min Lee is “everything she is in the video: elastic, funny, smart, and brilliant.” As in the Narcissister piece, humor and discomfort combine to create a layered message about the spectacle of femininity.

Dominika Ksel, “Nature vs. Nurture”

Another exercise in futility — or examining futility — was Dominika Ksel’s sculpture Nature Vs. Nurture, a seesaw structure with one seat weighed down by a large tree branch covered in blonde hair, the other suspended with large nails jutting out of it. Ksel says she was inspired by American mythology, especially the theme of fragile womanhood. The piece demonstrates the impossibility of fitting into a perfect ideal mold and carries with it underlying implications of sexual violence and kink.

Another iteration of Natalee Cayton’s piece which featured sound and projections

Violence was also implied in Natalee Cayton’s nine-foot tall, close-up photograph of a leg bruise. The image implies a violence that goes unnoticed, the brutality that happens just out of sight and beneath the surface, all while remaining hauntingly lovely. Currently an MFA student at Hunter, Cayton is an artist to watch, according to Finley.

“Canyon Trunk” from Kathleen Vance’s “Travelling Landscapes” series

Kathleen Vance uses beauty to discuss invading outside forces in her Travelling Landscapes installation. Antique trunks and suitcases are propped open, revealing intricate, delicate landscapes bisected by running streams. Finley says this piece was inspired by “the urban sprawl encroaching into [Vance’s] home of rural Maryland.” There is a sadness implied; soon, these landscapes may not exist. The placement of the landscapes in suitcases expresses a desire to keep them alive, to protect them and bring them with us into the future.

Institute for Art and Olefaction’s “I’m Edible Woman”

The Institute for Art and Olfaction celebrate nature’s gifts with their contribution to the show: a perfume with scents of tobacco, rhubarb, and rose called I’m Edible Woman. Based in Los Angeles and founded by Saskia Wilson-Brown, the IAO’s mission is to utilize scent in an artistic and experimental context. Presented in perfume bottles marked with a red rose, the piece reminds us that art can be just pleasing, and that is sometimes enough.

Jasmine Murrell, “Black Hole”

Jasmine Murrell’s Black Hole sculpture was another standout. It is a shimmering circular structure made of old VHS tape. Many artists have been re-appropriating this material recently: for example, Scott Flanagan has used it to create epic landscapes that are almost apocalyptic. Similarly, Murrell’s sculpture explores the beauty in this obsolete technology, creating an object that is inviting yet ominous. The piece questions human change and progress.

Image credit: Eddy Segal

The majority of works at The WHB were paintings or works on paper. Eddy Segal’s bright, expressive paintings feature girls wearing towering crowns made up of hundreds of stickers, such as rainbows, cats, prices, and labels. Segal’s work combines the sensibility of a teen girl’s Tumblr with all the charm of a Rookie spread, while avoiding the over-the-top cuteness that they often employ.

Kelsey Shwetz, “Morning Devotion”

Kelsey Shwetz is a different kind of painter. Using traditional figure painting, Shwetz’s pieces are a conversation with the history of sexuality in Western art. One of her paintings at this show was a self-portrait depicting Shwetz naked from the waist down, crouching and boldly revealing her vagina. Another portrays a male nude with a full erection, lounging in bed while clutching and smelling a piece of clothing. Both these paintings interrupt the typical narrative of sexuality in art history; Shwetz’s women are active and confrontational, while her men are sexualized and languid.

Annie Sprinkle’s “Ecosex Manifesto”

Besides Narcissister, there were some other “big name” artists featured at The WHB, like Annie Sprinkle, a star of the feminist art scene. Her installation included a tower of TVs playing strange wedding ceremonies, tinted to correspond to the seven chakras, along with a statement about the movement of “Ecosexuality,” which visitors were invited to sign.

Finley says this show is just the beginning: “I want this at Mass MOCA, I want to have an Every Woman show in every city.” It did feel like everyone there was part of something new and promising, that we were all in this together, and that exhibits like this one should be a priority.