The elevator doors opened to reveal a series of photographs of naked women towering over me. Beat-heavy dance music blared from down the hall, mingled with strains of “I’m Every Woman.” I followed the sounds and the photos, past a corridor where dozens of people sat and stood mesmerized by videos, arriving at last at the suite marked #207. On the door a small black-and-white flyer had been taped up; it had a picture of Whitney Houston looking beautiful and sassy in her leather jacket, and above it the words, “2014 Whitney Houston Biennial: I’m Every Woman.”
The 2014 Whitney Houston Biennial was the first, and maybe only, event of its kind. Featuring 85 women artists in a show held for just four hours (4–8pm, although people lingered until 9), it was part salon, part happening, part exhibition. Inside a 3,000-square-foot room, and spilling out into the surrounding hallways, artist Christine Finley curated paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, performances, videos, installations, and music. There was not, as far as I could tell, a kind of art that wasn’t represented.
The spark for the exhibition came two months ago, when artist Christine Finley was talking to her friend, artist Eddy Segal, about the Whitney Biennial. Finley mused that, were she to curate the big-name art event, she would fill it with women artists, to which Segal responded, “the Whitney Houston biennial!” And so it was born.
Notably, the Brucennial this year is also an all-women show. But the Brucennial, if you’ll pardon my language, is something of a clusterfuck, with an unfathomable 660 artworks on view. The Whitney Houston Biennial was big and a bit overwhelming, with artworks hung salon-style, hard-to-find labels, and serious crowds — Finley estimates that in the four-plus hours of the show and the press preview the day before, roughly 2,000 people passed through. Yet there was something intimate and magical about it, too. The visitors I saw made up one of the most diverse and friendly art crowds I’ve seen in a long time (maybe ever). There was an energy and an excitement that seemed to draw strangers together. “This is my dream come true,” Finley told me after the fact, “having this ecstatic feeling at an art event.”
Notably, too, much of the art in the Whitney Houston Biennial was not just by women but about womanhood, and gender more broadly — from a Guerrilla Girls “gender reassignment” poster to those nudes I saw upon entry, by Tamara Weber; from a mixed-media riff by Micol Hebron on Carolee Schneeman’s famous “Interior Scroll” to Christa Bell, who spent three hours chanting her list/poem/scripture of more than 1,000 names and euphemisms for “vagina”; from Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle’s “Ecosex Manifesto” to a scent that Finley commissioned from the Institute for Art and Olfaction called “I’m Edible Woman,” which was available for testing at the show.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of the night came in a video by Narcissister, “Every Woman” (2010), which features the artist doing a kind of reverse strip tease to Chaka Khan’s original version of “I’m Every Woman.” Narcissister slowly accumulates and dons the clothes and objects that make up a stereotypically sexy woman — tube top, scarf, purse, etc. — with the delightful caveat that she pulls nearly all of these pieces out of her own body (mouth, vagina, afro wig, butt).
Not all of the work was as explicit, which was just as well, as it made for a strong mix overall, the abstraction offsetting the vaginas and representing women in a different way. Asked whether she purposefully included so much gender-themed art, Finley said, “It was partly planned and partly magic.” Magic, indeed, to have such a conglomeration of frank, funny, and fierce explorations of womanhood in one place — even if only for a few hours.
The 2014 Whitney Houston Biennial took place on March 9, from 4 to 8 pm, at 20 Jay Street, #207 (Dumbo, Brooklyn).