In the space of a few days we visited two sprawling shows opening in town. Although both were call-the-fire-marshal crowded, the exuberant aesthetics and street-level ambitions of the Every Woman Biennial, formerly known as the Whitney Houston Biennial, beat out the grim conceptual gyrations colonizing the Whitney Museum.
The Every Woman Biennial (created in 2014 by artist C. Finley in reaction to poor representation of women at the Whitney’s exhibition) promised an “all woman and women-identified art biennial,” and has followed through with a cornucopia of media, styles, content, and concepts on walls, floors, and video screens. Hundreds of artists are on view in two venues — the augustly transgressive La MaMa at 47 Great Jones Street and 222 Bowery, home at various times to Mark Rothko’s and Fernand Léger’s studios, William S. Burroughs’s apartment, and other bohemian iterations.
In lieu of a comprehensive survey, we offer this baker’s dozen of one-sentence hot takes to convey the many flavors of this engaging salon exhibit, which features names already known — including Annie Sprinkle, Jayne County, Betty Tompkins, and Mickalene Thomas — and others you’ll be hearing about sooner rather than later.
The square album-cover format can barely contain Alex Nuñez’s Swarovski crystal interventions on Whitney Houston’s portraits (I wish you love; With Love Whitney), adding elegiac dazzle to beauty that was already luminous.
Annie Sprinkle, always sex positive, and wife/collaborator Beth Stephens offer 25 Ways to Make Love to the Earth, a text poster that runs the gamut from “Massage the Earth with your feet” to “Love her unconditionally even when she’s angry or cruel.”
In The Agony of It All (Ambulatory Unit No. 5), the artist duo Inner Course (Rya Kleinpeter and Tora López) have stocked a rolling bookshelf like one of those cut-rate racks outside the Strand, using the titles to create a novel-esque narrative that conjures chapters and characters, such as when they wedge Men in Feminism between So You Want to Be a Lesbian? and Feminism Without Women.
Charlotte Woolf’s silver-print triptych Untitled (IUD Choices) captures the bright, hard-edged birth control devices floating in a gray realm of inner space, aliens in that cosmos of desire, pleasure, and pain that is the body.
In collaboration with dozens of members of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, artist-in-residence Maria de Los Angeles led a hands-on project, adorning a towering female figure in a Technicolor dream-dress of cascading colors, textures, words, and images.
Regal as an Egyptian wall painting, Jayne County’s Shine in Moe Beat portrays figures in gowns pulsating with vibrant dots and bright platform shoes, their intent eyes and full lips by turns ravenous or rapturous.
Bare feet smush loamy soil, one horse’s hoof kicks another’s chin, a helicopter careers around a funnel cloud, hands caress coarse fur, wind turbines turn stately as parade formations: Antonia Stoyanovich’s video Forward Horses maps both desert vistas and carnal collisions.
In Miriam Parker and Christina Smiros’s installation Healing, a projector atop a stack of cinderblocks casts videos of what look to be refugees trapped in legal and physical limbo, the images framed in biomorphic blobs and projected through a diaphanous cloth into a corner, conjuring a sense of human vulnerability abutting harsh boundaries.
In the painting We the People/J20, doves of peace spit streams of flame at a stretch limo while protestors flash the bird at cops, spray-paint Deutsche Bank windows, and unfurl “People Over Profit” banners amid a riot of color and dynamic forms — because artist Haley Hughes, like much of the rest of the 99 percent, is just friggin’ over it.
Cross-stitched and seemingly discolored with age (the fabric has been tea-dyed), Julie K. Gray’s The General Foods Kitchens Cookbook juts from the wall as thick as the real thing, its tiny representations of a lobster, a watermelon slice, a pineapple, and other teasing tidbits collapsing however many years it takes to transport you back to your grandmother’s kitchen.
A human-high panel of slashing chromatic effulgence topped by a sky-blue half-tondo, Jane Lafarge Hamill’s lushly painted Coming in Hot mixes abstract gravitas with conceptual bliss.
We’ve all been the wallflower at a party at one time or another, and in Klaus Hastenreiter and Hilda Pontes’s short film Felicia’s Smile, we encounter a young woman who can’t connect with revelers so self-absorbed that some wear diapers and suck on pacifiers, others cast dagger eyes at romantic rivals, and the popular ones have teeth painted on their lips — a surreal vision of carnivorous glee that will leave you thankful this dream is onscreen and not awakening you at the witching hour.
We don’t often LOL in a gallery, but Tara L. Cavanaugh had us doing just that, before we reflected on how perfectly her giveaway “bad design is homophobic.com” stickers nail the irrational ugliness of prejudice in general and the hatred pervading our own benighted moment in particular.
The exhibition is open through May 29 (1–7 pm, including Memorial Day) and info about screening times and various live events can be found on the Every Woman Biennial website.