Whitney Houston: Feminist Art Icon

Challenging what they see as the sexism of the Whitney Biennale, a group of female artists come together under the banner of a pop diva.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty

After her death, Whitney Houston was described, rightly for such an over-used word, as an icon. And now she becomes one for female visual artists.

The Whitney Houston Biennial: I’m Every Woman opens for one night only on Sunday in what curator Christine Finley describes as “a feast for the eyes.” “The idea started two months ago,” Finley told The Daily Beast, “and has quickly turned into a fantastic show of both established and emerging artists.”

Set in a 3,000 square foot space in Dumbo, Brooklyn, the exhibition will be presented salon-style with works ranging from videos and performances to paintings and sculptures.

The show takes its striking name from the Whitney Museum’s historic, and much criticized comparative exclusion of female artists versus men, Biennial. In 1995, artist collective Guerilla Girls, famously critiqued the institution in a chart breaking down the percentages of male versus female artists in previous biennials—something that is still a major focus today, especially regarding female racial minorities.

But, that’s not the purpose for Finley’s freshly curated show. “I’m doing this because there is so much energy for art in New York because of the Armory [Show] and the Whitney [Biennial],” she stated. “I want to highlight both established and fresh talent with works mostly made this year.”

Finley began her quest of putting together an all women’s show by contacting well-known artists that she already had a relationship with. She then went to local MFA programs, such as Hunter College and Columbia, and a slew of studio visits in order to try and recruit the best, new talent. Soon enough, through word of mouth, the initial 16 people she had spoke with exploded into 75 artists exhibiting range in age and ethnicity and include some big named acts such as Guerilla Girls, Swoon, and Narcissister.

The oldest artist in the exhibition is 90-year-old Bea Kreloff, who is exhibiting a silkscreened print from the 70s, is a first generation American from Russian descent, she has been a long time activist in art, culture and politics. A native New Yorker with two children and same-sex partner, the painter lives in a community of artists and continues to teach a summer art and writing workshop in Assisi, Italy like she has for over 30 years.

The exhibition was designed around four elements, each work having to reflect on earth, air, fire and water. Kathleen Vance represents both earth and water in her piece Travel Gardens. Vance recreates luggage and guitar cases—anything that would travel—and builds miniature utopian gardens inside of them, complete with light and running water. Fire is represented by bronze sculptures, but the most unique representation is found in “air.”

Finley used her connections at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles to have them create a unique fragrance to be showcased and tested. The scent, named I’m Edible Woman and contains hints of tobacco and rhubarb, is described as a stubbed out cigarette on a rhubarb pie with a wilted rose. Contrary to this rather off-putting description, Finley guaranteed that it is a universally pleasant smell, which she thinks it will be very popular among gallery-goers.

The wildest pieces are videos and performances. For instance, the performance artist Narcissister, whose best-known prop is her “merkin”, or pubic wig, tackles the issue of female objectification in her video I'm Every Woman. The five-minute video opens with a fully nude Narcissister on stage dancing to Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman. Gradually, as the performer, who received professional training at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, sashays and sways, she pulls articles of clothing and accessories from inside and around her dressing herself in the style of reverse stripping.

Finley, also an artist herself, is the creator of the vivid works, Wallpapered Dumpsters. Since 2005, whenever Finley travels to a new metropolis, she plasters at least one of the city’s trash receptacles with brightly printed wallpaper. For Finley, “It’s all about turning one of the ugliest things on the planet into something beautiful. It’s an ecological rally call that is also a work of art.”

The 38-year-old painter is also in an artist collective group, Howdoyousayyaminafrican?, that is being exhibited in this year’s Whitney Biennial. Focusing on racial strife, Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, the 35-part, 53-minute film re-imagines the traditional opera questioning how black identity is haunted by race through spoken, chanted sung and screamed libretto.

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If anything, Finley wants the Whitney Houston Biennial to inspire both the artists and the viewers. “I want the show to talk about all women, young and old. I want to see them next to each other, talking and inspiring each other, and cross pollinating as much as possible.” And, of course, it wouldn’t be so bad if it stung the real Whitney into exhibiting more female artists.

‘The Whitney Houston Biennial: I’m Every Woman’ will be exhibited at 20 Jay Street, Suite 207 in Dumbo, Brooklyn on Sunday, March 9. It is a one-night-only event.