Her Story: Natalie White

Jun 5, 2016 6:52PM

The United States is only one of seven countries in the world that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW). Known as the International Bill of Rights for Women, CEDAW has been signed and ratified by 187 countries, virtually every other country on Earth. This fact is what inspired Natalie White to dedicate her life and art to getting the E.R.A passed.

Natalie White (b. 1988) is an artist, feminist, and humanist based in New York City, whose life and art aim to inspire and serve as a model for an enlarged definition of art, an expanded role for the artist, and women’s right to equality and freedom of expression. Using her body and life experiences as inspiration, she creates works which range from video and installation to photography, needlework, and monumental sculpture. 

White’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her within the tradition of feminist discourse. By using herself as muse and most recently, re-appropriating conventional handicraft techniques—or ‘women’s work’—for radical intentions, White  resonates with the feminist tenets of the ‘personal as political.’ In much of her performance work, White uses the power of spectacle to make a statement about consumption, power, and exploitation, which can be seen in her piece Instant Gratification where she performed in a Plexiglas box into which by looking, the viewer became both voyeur and confidante. 

Her interest in the work of Francis Bacon’s obscure photographs as well as the symbols and monuments from American social history particularly inform White’s photography and multi-media propaganda art, which explore complex personal states and ideas of self-representation. White’s work extends beyond mere personal exploration, however, as they typically attempt to communicate messages which reflect her steadfast commitment to the power of art as a vehicle for intellectual transformation and social change—and to women’s right to engage in the highest level of art production. 

Born to a conservative and religious family in 1988 in a small town of West Virginia, White received no formal art training and a childhood education that she describes as being “less than adequate.” Understanding the limitations and constraints of her surrounding geography, she moved to New York City at the age of seventeen, curious and determined to educate herself. Her intense desire for new experiences and perspectives gave her persistence, even through the short stint of homelessness when she was unable to find work, living on Subway cars and finding food to eat at churches in Brooklyn. However, it wasn’t long before she was discovered outside of a nightclub by photographer Peter Beard that White quickly became a muse and collaborator to Beard and a number of other significant artists working in New York including George Condo, Chuck Close, Olivier Zahm, Will Cotton, and Spencer Tunick

Through her collaborations with Peter Beard, in 2007, White was introduced to the giant polaroid camera which she would go on to use to produce her double exposed self-portraits. Attracted to the scale and immediacy of large-format polaroid photography, White took off on her own and developed her first complete body of work using herself as the subject of a series of giant Polaroids. Each image was carefully composed using two exposures. Having utmost control over her subject, she methodically poses herself in both exposures to create the tense, yet graceful relationships which exist in each of the beautifully staged portraits. The bright array of colors that result from her experimentation with various lighting techniques sets the stage for each unique, auto-erotic encounter.

The polaroids were first presented at Rox Gallery in 2013 alongside Who Shot Natalie White. The exhibition was curated by Gregory de la Haba and included work by twenty-five different artists, acting as a survey of her collaborations as a muse. Since 2013, White has exhibited her work internationally in various group exhibitions and has performed at several venues including the Art Basel Miami Women in Art benefit (2014) in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth Sackler Center and most recently, a piece entitled “Instant Gratification” (2015) in the storefront window of Wallplay’s project space at The Hole in New York City. 

Though she is mostly known for her work in photography and performance, White is not bound to any singular medium, or style, often combining aspects from various movements and media, including Conceptual art, Body art, and political propaganda into works to present a message about the need for gender equality. 

Sisters of Liberty, 2016

This is clearly reflected in the four flags that are currently on view in her exhibition at WhiteBox. White collaborated with Military Tapes Incorporated, the company responsible for the embroidered name tapes and insignia patches on U.S. ARMY uniforms. Stretched over wood frames like painted canvases, they proudly reflect skillful needlework through delicate pique holes that result from the traditional method of hand-stitched embroidery. In this series of exquisitely crafted flags, White looked to historical examples like the Gadsden flag and The Sons of Liberty Defend the Republic to present a variety of inspiring images which—with an eye to the future—playfully reinterpret traditional symbols of liberty and social change. 

Sister of Liberty, 2016

Using WhiteBox as a kind of radical political meeting space, the gallery is divided into a reading room where viewers can go to read the many books dealing with the ERA or discuss the elaborate historical timeline illustrated on the wall, which seems to leave room for the forthcoming march to be included in its chronology. 

The remainder of the gallery space is dedicated to displaying her artworks, which act like ephemeral propaganda, accompanied by a life-size bronze monument memorializing the effort to come, where Natalie White creates the space for people to get involved in the fight for equal rights. The current body of work seeks more than to just make an effort to bring awareness to gender inequality and pass the E.R.A., but to inspire people to act on the idea of the American Dream—that White believes herself to be an example of—and know that anyone has the power to make a change.