If you go to the artist Barbara DeGenevieve’s website you will be greeted by laughter. Raucous, playful, sinister? But now also uncanny, because Barbara DeGenevieve died on Saturday, August 9, of complications from cervical cancer. She was 67.
Born in 1947, DeGenevieve received her MFA in photography at the University of New Mexico in 1980, the same year that she began teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. She joined the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994 and continued teaching there until her death; for part of that time she served as chair of the Department of Photography. DeGenevieve was a well-beloved professor. Her dedication to teaching was deeply admired by her peers and deeply appreciated by her students.
It may be in part because of her devotion to teaching that she’s underrecognized as an artist. But it may also be because she was a genuinely transgressive artist. DeGenevieve was able to elicit criticism and discomfort from the entire political spectrum, from right to left. What’s that saying? “In a liberal democracy you can say whatever you want — as long as you don’t have any effect.” DeGenevieve could make you squirm in your seat. She wasn’t only attacked by the political right, having her 1994 NEA grant overturned, but also by artists who think of themselves as politically enlightened and left leaning. In a letter to the school announcing DeGenevieve’s death, Lisa Wainwright, the dean of faculty, wrote:
So while she pushed at that arbitrary line of propriety (often crossing it), her practice was always grounded in central questions of power and class, and her work and actions were always statements about artistic liberty against a tide of legal and moral rulings.
It’s the “often crossing it,” segregated in parenthesis, that feels important in that sentence. It was DeGenevieve’s willingness to do what she believed in, to give voice to unpopular sentiments, that distinguished her — all the more so in an age of self-conscious production for the marketplace, when self-censorship has become so ingrained and subtle that it no longer requires denial. DeGenevieve’s work was about sexuality but also about class, a subject not often enough acknowledged, much less spoken of seriously, in the United States. And she took a lot of grief for her commitment to her subject matter. I don’t think she set out to shock, but she was not so naive as to suppose that she didn’t. She seemed interested in the singularity of people, in the process of making work, in life experience. She wasn’t much good at returning phone calls or answering emails (at least from my personal experience), but I think that may have been because she was busy being in the present moment.
If you watch her in the video she made documenting The Panhandler Project (2004–6), in which she photographed five different homeless black men from Chicago on separate evenings, you can see how totally comfortable she is in her own skin and with them, as she goes about instructing these men to pose for the camera.
The setup for the project was that she found these men on the street and offered them a set of new clothes, a hundred dollars, lunch and dinner and a stay in a hotel room, all if they would shower and pose naked for her in the hotel. So, we see this middle-aged white woman with a series of naked black men in a hotel room. One of the men pulls a knife on her to see what will happen. She deftly diffuses the situation and goes back to work. She tells one of the men that someone will surely say she’s exploiting him because she’s asked him to take off his clothes. She said of the project:
It is routine to denounce this project as an instance of exploitation and objectification of a cultural group to which I don’t belong. I am interested in challenging these accusations as a predictable response to an unexamined political correctness, which in fact, removes any agency these men have in making the decision to work with me. Do I have the power because I have the money to pay them, or do they have the power because without them I have no project? It’s the free market of capitalism at its best. The economic exchange of money and goods for services. I don’t deny that it’s a sexually and politically charged situation that’s created, but I believe that the ethical and social dilemmas that this project presents to the viewer involve long overdue conversations about the volatile issues that arise with regard to race, class, and the sexualization of bodies of men, who are rarely if ever seen as sexual objects.
People are often afraid of the homeless men they see in the street; the naturalness of DeGenevieve’s proceedings suggests that those fears are probably unfounded most of the time. It’s hard to say whether the still images — the finished products — are more engaging than the documentary behind-the-scenes video. And that may be the entire point: DeGenevieve has gotten us to a place where we are not sure if the artwork or the process matters to us more.
In a video titled “Acapella,” DeGenevieve presents us with numerous takes of a model named Catherine Dennis singing “Whatever Lola Wants.” Catherine Dennis is a large woman, and she sings for us without accompaniment, against a black seamless background with only her blue strapped sandals on.
Towards the end of the 25-minute video, a long scarf is added as a prop. With each successive take the singer seems to hone her seductive skills. Of course, in conventional media, we don’t see overweight women acting out seductions — in fact, we generally dismiss the idea as impossible. The performance is compelling to watch, needling us about our assumptions all the while. It’s not exactly the kind of performance that politically correct feminists are comfortable with.
Many people seemed to want to tell DeGenevieve what to do — ideologues from the right and from the left, institutions she taught in; showing porn to her young students wasn’t especially appreciated, but to her credit, DeGenevieve did not want to tell those same others what to do. It seems to me there’s a difference between being an intellectual and being an ideologue, and DeGenevieve was the former — and probably didn’t think much of the latter. She took risks that many of her peers would have been afraid to take.
In the video “Desperado” (2004–6) we see her alternately being interviewed in an office surrounded by books and the all the trappings of professorship, and then being filmed together with a working-class truck driver whom she goes on a road trip and has relations with on camera.
The interviewer asks at one point if she is “slumming it,” hanging out with this working-class guy, and she responds: “You are trying to make Daryl into a victim, into an object.” By intercutting the documentary of the interview with the documentary of the road trip that’s being discussed in the interview, she is able to have a conversation about what she’s doing and what she knows others will accuse her of doing.
No one enjoys being denounced and attacked, and I think there were times when sticking to her guns was a pretty lonely business.
Chrysanne Stathacos and I were planning to interview Barbara DeGenevieve for our art blog MOMMY. I wanted to interview her because I wanted a chance to sit in the same room with her and talk — to share her company for a few hours and celebrate her achievements as an artist and intellectual. Now, of course, that will not be possible. But I would like to honor her here. I hope her work will become more familiar to a larger audience — that her stature in the public eye will continue to grow and that her influence will be passed along by her former students to younger aspiring artists, and especially to young women, to whom she was so inspirational.
According to the dean’s letter, DeGenevieve is survived by her sister Karen and her dog Jackson. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is planning a memorial service for her in the fall.