The Every Woman Biennial defies criticism, but not in the way art critics tend to mean when they use the term: saying an artist or exhibition “defies categorization” or “defies definition,” as if being confounding is in itself a compelling virtue. The biennial is deliberately defiant of conventional critical evaluation. Now open in Los Angeles after closing its New York iteration last month, it has other goals. Initially called the Whitney Houston Biennial and founded in 2014 by artist C. Finley, it began as a tongue-in-cheek answer to the Whitney Biennial’s gender disparity. (This year, the longstanding biennial has slightly more women than men, but in 2014 it was over 60% male.) For the 2019 edition, Finley changed the show’s title to the Every Woman Biennial and included over 600 women and non-binary artists between New York and Los Angeles. Though the installation at Los Angeles’s Bendix building includes fewer artists than the one at La Mama’s La Galleria in Manhattan, it is also in a smaller space, and so still overfull, hung salon-style, with no clear focus beyond the gender identities of its participants. The wall labels, which nearly all include the price (or “NFS” — not for sale), are visually distracting. Works by established, familiar artists hang alongside works by lesser-known artists and recent graduates. At moments, the visual cacophony delights, and at other moments it does not.
My art world training tells me that this show — overhung, under-composed — is not good; but experience has also taught me that such standards of quality often do not serve artists whose interests lie beyond their own professionalism well. This show responds directly to the notions of scarcity and pedigree that protect the status quo of the contemporary art world and keep diversity (both in terms of artists’ identities and aesthetics) in check. Or, more precisely, it volitionally ignores such notions, by favoring inclusivity over any other criteria. Perhaps, for this reason, the show has received plenty of coverage — features in the New York Times and artnet — but no reviews.
Reviews of populist exhibition efforts often take a patronizing approach, calling the show “organizationally flawed” or “visually uninteresting” (the latter evaluation appeared in Christopher Knight’s review of Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally, an exhibition of posters showing gender disparity at international galleries, made by many volunteer artists). We tend to see unevenness as a flaw. This is, after all, an industry in which an artist might find herself dropped from a gallery after changing her mode or method of working. Yet proposing a different, diverse, less hierarchical model might necessitate some perceived unevenness.
In Los Angeles, visitors enter the Every Woman installation through a roll-up metal door, making the space wide-open to anyone, a lot like the other fashion and home goods vendors along the dense street. Art hangs everywhere, with a few sculptures along the concrete floor. Yoshie Sakai’s lo-fi, charmingly self-effacing video “Strip” (2008) plays on a monitor near the entrance. Sakai pole dances, guilelessly, in sensible lingerie, while a bored-sounding male voiceover berates her: “Who taught you to do that? That’s not sexy at all.”
Another video, playing nearby, Jordan Rathus’s “Mother” (2017), has an entirely different mood and polish. Made as a music video, it features a soundtrack of virtuosic strings while dancers move across stone ruins, with green foliage behind them. Marzena Abrahamik’s delicate, small black and white photograph “Us” (2016) shows a woman lying on a bed, her infant in front of her face and wet spots coming through the tank top covering her nipples. Bailey Davenport’s painting “Two Blue Suits” (2018) — representational but loose, dense and textured — depicts Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill sitting next to each other, both clad in blue. Nao Bustamante’s “Given Over to Want” (2011), a performance still, shows the artist dressed in tape with boxed attached to and leaking down from the top of her head.
The breadth of the show’s reach means there is something for most anyone to grab onto, though no one thread a viewer is meant to follow through. But cohesion, when feminism’s and femininity’s boundaries are involved, may be overrated.
During WHACK!, an expansive survey of feminist art, which opened at MOCA in 2007, a group of feminists held a panel called “Is Feminism Still Relevant?” They pilloried their own title almost as soon as they began. “That’s a question that I think students at very privileged institutions ask because they want to dis-identify with their film theory professor,” said critic Jennifer Doyle early on. The panelists then proceeded to complicate feminism, its politics and community, its relation to queerness and race, and its tendencies toward exclusivity (as certain groups define women’s issues according to their own experience, leaving out those of other classes, other sexual orientations, or other colors).
These complications continue to manifest in crucial ways: with transphobia festering within feminist circles as trans women face rising political hostility; female presidential candidates deciding whether to downplay or celebrate their identities and histories as women; the #MeToo movement simultaneously appropriating and celebrating the language and positions of previously marginalized feminists. The Every Woman Biennial, open-ended and somewhat messy, offers one model for moving generatively into this fray in a way that is neither hierarchical nor overly precious. But some of the works in the biennial gesture toward other models. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, staged a collaborative performance in April, for her University of Southern California MFA thesis exhibition, called Respite, Reprieve and Healing: An Evening of Cleansing — she will perform it again at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica on June 22. Video documentation included in the biennial shows the artist in a claw-foot bathtub as music plays, and shows ten performers washing one another’s hair. The event appears ephemeral and poetic, but Cullors’s intent was clear: to acknowledge the ways the world, particularly the current United States administration, endanger and exhaust her as a queer Black woman, and others on the margins, and to care, in pragmatic ways, for tired bodies.
The Every Woman Biennial, curated by C. Finley, is open on the ground floor of the Bendix Building (1206 Maple Ave, Los Angeles, CA) through June 12.