Known for her nude portraits that explore gender identity through sexually ambiguous models, Rowan Renee has developed a singular creative approach that combines alternative process photography with raw subject matter as a source of self-expression. In her latest exhibition, Bodies of Wood, currently on view at Peninsula Art Space, Renee presents an autobiographical series of self-portraits that are highly impactful on a visual, emotional, and social level.
The exhibit is titled after an infamous quote by sculptor Carl Andre referencing a man’s position of privilege: “Wood is the mother of matter. Like all woman hacked and ravaged by men, she renews herself by giving, gives herself by renewing.” Bodies of Wood began as a written account of Renee’s traumatic childhood experiences with a sexually abusive father who ultimately died in prison after being convicted on molestation charges. While contextually jarring, the written piece — now an editioned booklet — seems to be the beginning of Renee’s cathartic, and ultimately successful, process of reclaiming her life that is evident in this current body of work.
For this exhibition, the artist has shot a series of highly personalized images that offer an optimistic and curiously romantic glimpse into her secret world as she works through the long-term psychological trappings of incest, latent anger regarding the cyclical patterns of abuse, her own pan-sexual explorations, and the ability to overcome adversity through telling her story.
Taken with a vintage Yashica camera and a remote shutter release, the photographs are delicate secrets that resonate because of both their honesty and their technical precision. Using color film and natural lighting, Renee staged each individually in response to the environment in which it was shot. The result is a set of unique analog C-prints depicting sophisticated compositions that integrate color, balance, and spatial hierarchy.
Each scene is its own fabricated narrative riddled with symbolic imagery — everything from a naked body discarded in a public parking lot to unclad bits of female anatomy seen through a hand mirror — and open for interpretation. Typically, the nude form is placed secondary to more brazen or suggestive visual elements like dildos, orchids, ribbons, and footprints.
“The room through eyes that see askew” (2016) depicts a dilapidated kitchen adorned with suburban ephemera. Harsh lighting shines through a decorative stained-glass window, reflecting off the back of a nude form perched on the countertop. At first the image appears to be calmly domestic, yet upon closer inspection, hardware seems to be encroaching on the figure in a louring manner, drawing attention to chipped paint and sinister nature of the unkempt home.
A similarly themed work, “The brightness where I am bound” (2016), features a monochromatic kitchen comprised almost entirely of wood with the exception of obnoxiously lush orchids and a bright pink ribbon extended from an industrial pulley on the ceiling, serving as a physical restraint for a somewhat prone nude form. By utilizing domiciliary objects and effeminate colors, Renee denotes the traditional role of women being confined to the kitchen, the seedy underbelly of traditional households, and the pervasive need to be viewed as perfect by the outside world.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, “The way I learn to play both parts” (2016), shows a nude female form reclining on the bed in an intimate boudoir setting. Central to the maudlin scene is a large pink strap-on dildo framed by sheer fabric and illuminated by the soft, diffuse light of an evening sunset. Because of the tranquil setting, the sex toy appears unintimidating and serves as a welcome focal point for the viewer to explore the underlying components in the image. Upon further reflection, it becomes apparent that the strategic placement of the gauzy curtains is meant to evoke a vagina encasing the dildo/phallus. By strapping the dildo to her own body and placing herself compositionally between the vaginal curtains, Renee transitions into the dominant figure in sexual intercourse, a position she once viewed as violating. In an attempt to confront her own gender identity, this poetic gesture can be viewed as the artist’s final breakthrough. Through understanding that the male organ can be used for pleasure and not abuse, she avows herself victorious, leaving a positive seal on the entire body of work.
The photographs in Bodies of Wood emanate an air of silent acceptance, one that allows us to understand the artist’s story without being asked to relive her experience. Through her multi-layered subject matter and gallant vulnerability, Renee positions herself as a profound voice in the political struggle against patriarchal hierarchy and proves that sharing the individual experience can be an effective tool for social change. Ultimately, the exhibition — by virtue of its disconcerting beauty — is a triumph against the fear that keeps us silent, an outcry against perpetuated violence, and a tangible reclaiming of the artist’s sense of self.
Bodies of Wood continues at Peninsula Art Space (352 Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through May 15.