When a press release went out from one “Harry Gablowsian,” hundreds of pop fans RSVP’d for the new gallery’s opening reception: “Justin Bieber: Paintings From Space.” The artist was promised to be present.
Though most in the art world easily saw through the ruse—Harry Gablowsian, of course, is a play on the world’s preeminent mega-dealer Larry Gagosian—the exhibition made headlines in the New York Post’s Page Six, which outed the project as a hoax, and even prompted a cease-and-desist letter from Bieber’s lawyers.
Now, Artnet News can exclusively reveal that the “Justin Bieber” paintings are actually the work of Brooklyn artist Brian Whiteley, founder of the Satellite Art Show, whose last few months have been spent in character as Bieber.
“As an artist who’s been trying to break through and make it, I thought it would be interesting to see the power of celebrity and the lure of the mega gallery,” Whiteley told Artnet News. “I’ve been told I kind of look like Justin, so it made sense to choose him.”
To more fully embody the “Baby” singer, Whiteley underwent a complete makeover, with blond hair, (temporary) tattoos, and a new, baggier wardrobe. He’s also been listening to Bieber in the studio, trying to channel the musician’s creative energy—a kind of method acting meets conceptual performance art, if you will.
Whiteley’s Bieber works are made with acrylics, spray paint, and markers, plus, in a nod to Andy Warhol, the artist’s own urine. (He noted that the press release’s promise of “bodily fluids” had most people guessing semen.)
The project was partially inspired by the recent furor inspired by Hunter Biden’s debut, and his controversial $500,000 price tags—money that no other emerging artist could ever dream of earning from a single painting, no matter how good, at their first gallery outing.
“You can tell why celebrities turn into artists—all of a sudden you can make a buttload of money,” Whiteley said.
The artist has made viral news in the past, notably with his guerrilla artwork depicting an imagined Donald Trump tombstone, erected in New York’s Central Park during the 2016 election campaign. But he was nevertheless surprised how much attention “Paintings From Space” got purely on the strength of Bieber’s name.
“You do so many art shows, and you see marginal returns 90 percent of the time,” Whiteley said. “Under the guise of a celebrity, it was a thousand percent more—press, collectors, everything.”
“The whole press release is all art speak, over the top and stupid,” Whiteley said. Even so, “collectors were emailing me and signing NDAs to see the art, and the RSVPs were through the roof, wanting to see the show, even after the Page Six article came out.”
Also posing as “Gablowsian,” Whiteley told prospective collectors the works were priced at $100,000 each—and he says they were disappointed when he claimed they had been sold to other buyers.
The one “Bieber” painting Whiteley leaked to the public, titled Cool Cat, was actually the work of his son, who is in kindergarten. Glasstire compared it to the work of Katherine Bernhardt, and he claims 100 people offered to buy a limited-edition print of the work priced at $1,000 each—which would have brought in a cool $100,000. It will instead be on sale at the gallery for $125, along with the “Bieber” paintings—which range from $2,100 to $7,400.
“I think they’re very playful and fun with something underneath that’s very dark and brooding—it feels like Bieber to me,” Whiteley said. “I think he would love this art show.”
The response from Bieber’s legal team, the Los Angeles law firm Myman Greenspan, however, suggests otherwise. The firm did not respond to inquiries from Artnet News, but their letter accused “Gablowsian” of “direct infringement of our client’s intellectual property rights.”
Whiteley’s attorney, Ronald Kuby, responded that the exhibition is “satirizing the ‘artistic’ community… We are deeply saddened to learn that your client, Justin Bieber, either does not get epigrammatic parody or does not think it is funny.”
To be safe, however, Whiteley has rechristened the project “Justin Bieber Is Suing Me,” and the gallery’s Instagram page now acknowledges the parodic nature of the project.
“Living as Justin Bieber has been the highlight of my life,” Whiteley’s official artist statement proclaims. “I thank god for the opportunity to bleach my hair, get new tattoos, and dance while painting.”
See works from the show below.
“Justin Bieber Is Suing Me” is on view at Gablowsian Gallery, Parasol Projects, 212 Bowery, New York, November 4–7, 2021.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.