An exhibit for you

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MFA student Jamie Cooper discusses his graduating exhibit, Whitney’s Biennial

Paul Bogdan
A&C Editor

A lot of the exhibits that are shown in the Fifth Parallel gallery consist of paintings hung on the walls, but if you have walked past those glass doors in Riddell Centre within the past few weeks, you would have noticed that Jamie Cooper has done things a little bit differently–namely painting the entire gallery bright pink.

“When I was a little boy, my cousins got to have their rooms painted, and I asked to have mine done too, and I asked for pink. Of course, my parents said, ‘You can’t have that’. So, this is my pink room,” said Cooper.

There’s more to it than a mere makeover of the gallery and giving Cooper his pink room although the pink walls are definitely more exciting than the off-white that generally plagues most art galleries. Cooper, an MFA student here at the University of Regina, painted the gallery for his MFA graduating exhibit, Whitney’s Biennial.

“Apparently pink was one of Whitney’s favourite colours. The other idea behind it is to queer the space of the gallery and completely transform it in a different way. I wanted it to be a little bit theatrical, but I also wanted it to be a bit like bubble gum, and a bit Barbie, and a bit fun,” said Cooper.

The exhibit is an homage to pop sensation Whitney Houston, but it’s far more than a room that says “I love Whitney”. Whitney’s Biennial examines the appeal of divas in queer culture.

“Well, about two years ago, I started to write about Whitney Houston’s queer appeal and on the topic of gay male culture. And so, there’s a long history of gay men and divas and gay men loving divas, and it goes all the way back to opera culture, through to the mid-century film stars like Bette Davis, Judy Garland, all the way up through Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, and of course Madonna. Today, a lot of stars are openly marketed as such, like Lady Gaga,” said Cooper.

While numerous celebrity divas could have been chosen for this exhibit, Cooper focused on Whitney Houston because he “consider[s] her to be [his] diva”.

“She’s sort of the star of my generation. In the research that I was doing, I used a lot of film scholars, and they talk about performative identification, which really describes the reason why gay men or queer people are attracted to stars who are really eccentric,” said Cooper.

And Houston was no stranger to being eccentric.

“When I think “diva”, you know, her picture would be beside that term in the dictionary … It’s the voice … and it’s the persona. It’s hard thing to explain, but I think it was my exposure to her as a child. I was a child during the ‘80s. It was one of the first albums that I remember … she happened to be one of the stars of my generation that I really connected with.”

Many reasons exist regarding the appeal of divas to queer culture. Firstly, “they’re fabulous”, but moreover, divas symbolize feminine power, something which is generally subjugated in a heteronormative society; it inverts the patriarchal hegemony and upsets dominant ideas of gender relations, thus proving an attraction or something to gravitate towards for a subjugated minority.

“It’s a display of female feminine power, and the other thing is it’s a rejection of the gender system. So, basically it’s an outlawed cultural object for a boy to be interested in. Boys are interested in sports. So, it’s non-normative. I don’t desire her, but I want to emulate–I want to be like her. There is, what I would call, an act of everyday resistance,” said Cooper.


“I think [Whitney Houston would] love it, and I think she’d say, ‘Hell to the no; this is fabulous.’ ” –Jamie Cooper


The exhibit itself is clean – both literally and figuratively – and simple. Walking in to the bubble-gum pink room, one sees a space that is primarily empty. Nothing occupies the space in the middle of the room. A few framed pictures and a bowl of candy reside in one corner, a glass case filled with magazines, albums, and other Whitney Houston paraphernalia sit in the opposite corner, and an electric piano lies in the corner opposite the doors. Cooper felt that it would have to satisfy the pop star if she were to walk through the glass doors of the gallery.

“I like minimalism. I like modernism, and I’m really attracted to that sort of aesthetic. But, the other thing is that it’s about perfection. It’s about mimicking a space that would honour her because, well, she wouldn’t have it if it was messy. She’d be like, ‘Uh uh’. It’s the best that I can do to pay homage to her, so I wanted it to be perfect,” said Cooper.

And, Cooper feels the star would be satisfied if she did end up seeing the exhibit.

“I think she’d love it, and I think she’d say, ‘Hell to the no; this is fabulous,’ ” said
ooper.

As well, elements of pop art are permeated throughout the exhibit.

“You can see it sort of hits off of pop art … Warhol had a lot to do with my research, how he worshiped female celebrity and how that came out in his own work. So, there’s this kind of idea that repeats itself through the work that you can see. But really, there are two shrines, and I wanted to play with the space a little bit and transform it,” said Cooper.

These two shrines and pop art sensibility are for more than aesthetic appeal though; they emphasize the theme of duplicity in the exhibit.

“It tells of this troping of this cultural practice of gay men worshiping and adoring divas, but also a troping of queer lives. But, it also speaks to the doubleness of meaning in culture, especially for figures like Whitney. So, in mainstream culture, she’s been, for a long time and particularly over the last ten years of her career, marketed as always trying to come back. She was very much considered a diminished diva or an antiquated icon. I think gay men, when it comes to divas, they like to elevate marginalized cultural texts and objects and elevate them and give them new meaning. So, it’s the doubleness of meaning in cultural figures, icons,” said Cooper.

Whitney’s Biennial runs until November 9.

Arts Radar

Nov. 8
Plants and Animals w/Rah Rah
The Artful Dodger
$15 advance/$18 door
Doors at 7

Nov. 9
Ryan Boldt w/Kacy & Clayton
The Artful Dodger
$10 advance/$15 door
Doors at 7

Nov. 10
Great Rooms w/Prop Planes
The Exchange
$10 at the door
Doors at 8

Nov. 11
Andy Shauf, Julia McDougall, and Evening Hymns
The Artful Dodger
$10 advance/$15 door
Doors at 7:30

Off With Their Heads, The Isotopes, Robin and the Hairy Bats, and Septic Paste
The Exchange
$10 advance
Doors at 7:30

Nov. 15
Brie Neilson and David Simard
Creative City Centre
$10 at the door
Doors at 7:30

Photo courtesy Tenielle Bogdan

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