It’s an oh-so-good premise for an exhibition: exploring the female gaze. It has so much potential to open up areas of theorizing about how we look at each other as gendered beings and how else we might do that looking. So it feels disappointing that Cheim & Read has mostly squandered that potential in the exhibition The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men.
The foundation of the idea of the female gaze comes from an essay by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey discusses the male gaze, arguing that cinema in general is gendered, rooted in the patriarchal practice of taking on the perspective of a heterosexual male. One of the pernicious effects of this imbalance of power is that women are made into sexualized objects essentially existing for the pleasure of men — both for the male characters within the film and for the audience who views it. Like racism reduces people to the sign of their skin color, the male gaze reduces women to the sign of their sex.
The temptation in postulating the idea of a female gaze is to flip that coin, to embrace its opposite by reducing men to — yes, you’ve guessed it — the sign of a phallus. This concept doesn’t issue from Mulvey herself, but is rather the intellectually lax conceit taken up by the Cheim & Read show. In fact, other feminist theorists, such as Mary Ann Doane, have worked to show that “… the reversal itself remains locked within the same logic … [it] reinforces the dominant system of aligning sexual difference with a subject/object dichotomy.” In other words, there are other ways of looking at a woman or a man that do not diminish them as merely objects for visual pleasure or ridicule.
The Female Gaze, Part Two explores those ways sparingly. The participants are mostly strong, prominent artists who have well-developed practices, but, thanks to curation that mostly focuses on the artistic equivalent of dick pics (and sculpture), the whole show feels plodding and uncomplicated. Phallic forms are rendered in sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Sarah Lucas, while Marlene Dumas, Nicole Wittenberg, Celia Hempton, and Collier Schorr offer paintings and photographs focused on the penis. Some of them stand out by sheer visual force. Wittenberg’s “Red Handed, Again” (2014) is a riveting piece that features red arms and legs holding a long penis with white highlights; the rest of the body is slowly obliterated into a farrago of white paint flecked with red as the eye moves away from the phallus. It’s magnificently angry and sexual at the same time. Hempton’s “Ben” (2015) flips the script in an aggressive and impressive way: she makes a Caucasian man’s asshole the center of the composition, suggesting that the painter has reduced the body to an orifice for penetration.
There are pieces in the show that offer more nuanced considerations of their subjects. Photographs by Katy Grannan, Catherine Opie, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin all show men who are vulnerable, dazed, attempting to be seductive but also shyly inattentive. These — as well as a painting by Sylvia Sleigh, “Paul Rosano in Jacobsen Chair” (1971), and one by Grace Graupe-Pillard, “Dillon: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (2016) — seem to be made with real affection for their subjects, the figuration infused with admiration. There are, truthfully, enough works like this in the show to let you come away with a sense of the female gaze as not being constituted in echoing the phallocentrism of our culture. But it’s difficult, because the penis shots are so leaden and so littered throughout the gallery as to weigh the entire ship down.
The first iteration of this show took place in 2009, when Cheim & Read staged The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women. According to Cora Fisher, writing in the Brooklyn Rail, that show also succumbed to some basic and unexciting thinking about how women see themselves and other women, by prioritizing a conceptual framework that regards identity as produced by the intersection of body and politics. The lesson learned in both cases is that under-theorizing an exhibition can sap the potential from a brilliant premise that promises, but fails to deliver, a transformative conversation on gender.
The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men continues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 2.