Natalie White Takes Control of Her Image in “A MUSE ME”
Earlier this month, Natalie White’s exhibition “A MUSE ME” opened at Bill Brady Miami. The exhibition follows her first solo show in 2013, “Who Shot Natalie White,” this time taking the idea of herself as a muse one step further, interacting with the image of herself through multiple exposures via large-format Polaroids.White began modeling for artists like Will Cotton, George Condo, and Peter Beard, travelling internationally at a young age. She got tired of being dismissed for her role in the process of what really were mutual collaborations, and decided to pursue her own career as an artist. As she told us, “Being my own muse put me in control.”
And that self-reliance as a woman felt comfortable for her; it put her at ease. White has since garnered a reputation as a provocative feminist artist, leading a 16-day march from New York to Washington D.C. in the summer of 2016 in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
For The Ascent, we caught up with White to learn more about her practice and her exhibition, on view through May 13.
WHITEWALL: What role did art play in your life early on? Were you exposed to it as a kid?
NATALIE WHITE: I took ballet and dance classes three or four times a week form the age of two to 12. As soon as I could walk I was in ballet. As far as visual art, I was pretty much left up to my own imagination. There was one trip to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh which was an hour and a half away from where I grew up in West Virginia.
WW: You modeled at a young age internationally. How did that experience lead you to interacting with artists like Peter Beard, George Condo, and Will Cotton?
NW: Most of the time when I met the famous artists of the world I had no idea who they were. Then when I found out they were it wasn’t weird because we knew each other on a human level.
When you start modeling at a young age you tend to spend a lot of time in places where if you don’t go out and make friends, you will be extremely lonely. So you go out, you speak to people from different cultures with different backgrounds, you learn about new things, and it’s not just the bubble of people that with you have everything in common.
WW: Did you see yourself then as a muse for artists? What did that mean to you then?
NW: I didn’t know what the word “muse” meant at the time, but I knew the interactions were mutually inspirational.
WW: In 2013, in “Who Shot Natalie White,” you debuted as an artist for the first time, claiming yourself as your muse. What prompted that switch? What made you feel ready to call yourself an artist?
NW: I got tired of hearing from art collectors and viewers (not the artists, they respected the collaboration) that of course this a great piece of artwork, fill in the blank did it. They were completely dismissing my role in the process. So I thought, “I’m going to make something by myself.” I thought about what it would be and I thought that if I’m good enough for all of these other people I’m good enough for myself. Then I thought, “Well, maybe that’s a little narcissistic,” My next thought was, “Let’s take it to the next level and double expose Giant Polaroids of me making love to myself.”
WW: How did being your own muse change your relationship with yourself, as a woman and as an artist?
NW: As an artist it made me radically self-reliant which I love. I have full control over the outcome of the image. As a woman that self-reliance put me at ease. Being my own muse put me in control.
WW: What attracted you to the medium of photography and of large-format Polaroids?
NW: It’s instant gratification. You don’t have to wait to send anything off to a printer. It comes out of the camera. You don’t color correct anything. You just set up the lighting the way you want and what you see is what you get. And what you get is a Giant Polaroid, and its the most amazing rush you’ve ever had.
WW: When did you start seeing your art as a space for politics and feminism? Or was that inherent in your practice from the start?
NW: Sarabeth Stroller told me while I was doing “American Girl in a Box” at the Wallplay Shop at the Hole, which is a performance art piece where I laid in a Plexiglas box on top of an American Flag seven hours a day for three weeks in the summer of 2015, that women didn’t have equal rights in the U.S. Constitution. So I changed everything about that show to be about the Equal Rights Amendment and that’s when I came up with the march and “Natalie White for Equal Rights.”
WW: Has art always been a way to fuel your activism?
NW: Sometimes art is just art, sometimes activism is just activism, sometimes they overlap sometimes they don’t.
WW: In 2016 you led a 16 day march on Washington to demand the passage of the E.R.A. Can we expect another march this year? What’s next for the movement?
NW: I’ve thought about doing the march from New York City to D.C. again, but this time maybe in the fall. I have some protests I’m trying to organize in D.C. Let’s see what I can pull off.
WW: How are you engaging with the Trump presidency through your work now?
NW: I believe that Donald Trump could become an advocate of this issue and become a hero to women by passing the Equal Rights Amendment. I have hope. I’ve been meeting with Congress Members and Senators, I won’t lose hope.
WW: “A Muse Me” opened recently at Billy Brady gallery in Miami. Can you tell us about the body of work?
NW: This is my first solo show devoted entirely to the large-format Polaroid medium, which felt timely given that the film is all at the brink of expiration if not developed. I am again addressing the idea of myself as a muse, and taking that one step further by depicting me interacting with, well, myself by way of the multiple exposures. The layout of the show is very crisp; lots of white space punctuated by the powerful, retro colors and aesthetic I was able to capture on the original 1978 camera.
WW: Can you talk a bit about how the work addresses this idea that we are trained to think that sexual beings don’t have rights?
NW: I have ownership of my own sexuality and I’m doing this work for me. Not for anyone else.
WW: Earlier this year, Patricia Arquette supported you in a DC court, after you were charged with vandalism for spray painting “ERA Now” on a sidewalk. Who are the women you’re looking to lately—friends, activists, or artists?
NW: Patricia is a women’s rights warrior, she is such an inspiration to me and I am honored and thankful she rushed to my side to defend me in my trial. Everyone who cares about women’s rights should see Kamala Lopez’s movie “Equal Means Equal.” She is an amazing social Justice Warrior. Lizzy Jagger and Sarabeth Stroller have been working a lot on women’s rights. Kamala, Lizzy, Sarabeth, and I have been planning a protest that should happen in the fall.