LOS ANGELES — Commissioned by pornography website Pornhub, The Pleasure Principle at Maccarone is an all-female show ostensibly aimed at women’s reclamation of sexuality and sexual desire.
The subject is rife with promise — above all, of exploring the intersection of female desire and agency, and the need to view this not as a theoretical concept, but as an embodied concern. The press release states:
The show focuses on visionaries who have taken a stand against respectability politics, pushing the limits of imagery one might expect to find in an art gallery. The male gaze has always dominated popular erotica, but these artists disrupt this long and troubled history by carving out their own erotic space.
The joint disruption of “respectability politics” and “the male gaze” reads more as Pornhub’s brand expansion than a serious dialogue between art and porn or, to quote the press release again, than “divorc[ing] the erotic [female] body from its objecthood as a pure means for sexual arousal and gratification.” The result is a show that wavers between issues of women’s representation and those of pornography and art, without fully committing to either.
An artwork doesn’t disrupt the male gaze simply because it’s created by a woman. For example, Marilyn Minter’s high-gloss inkjet prints of women’s pubic areas, framed by their manicured hands (Plush series, 2014), fetishize with all the subtlety of a porn-magazine spread. It’s hard to see how Delia Brown’s live drawing studio disrupts the gaze: a small window in a gallery wall invites all viewers to watch as Brown paints nude and semi-nude women. And Trulee Hall’s videos of attractive women in lingerie groping giant rocks (SexyTime Rock Variatons, 2019) and live and papier-mâché women simulating group sex (Eves’ Mime Menage, 2019) seem to hover between performing and parodying women’s desire.
None of these works seem to critically engage with or reclaim female sexuality, nor do they push boundaries. Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” (1946-66) may be misogynistic, but it bites back at the viewer with its voyeuristic charge. (And no feminist artist confronted Duchamp’s male-centric art more audaciously than Hannah Wilke, who is not in the exhibition, in her deliberately stilted 1976 striptease video Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass.)
Two works that do push the boundaries of propriety are Kathe Burkhart’s paintings “Pervert: from the Liz Taylor Series (X, Y, and Zee)” (2007) and “Whore: from the Liz Taylor Series (The Only Game in Town” (2013). Yet without the context that the works come from a long-running Liz Taylor series, and that Burkhart regarded the star as her muse and surrogate, the paintings lose some of their complexity.
The exhibition’s best works challenge portrayals of women as passive surfaces by disallowing easy consumption of the feminine erotic body. In Nao Bustamante’s video Rosa Does Joan (1992), the artist poses as an exhibitionist named Rosa on The Joan Rivers Show, a popular broadcast-TV talk show at the time. The short video touches on different kinds of sexuality and gender identifications long before these were familiar in the art world. Bustamante’s charismatic Rosa slyly inserts terms like “multi-gendered ambisexual” into a mass media outlet, and refuses the shaming and caricaturing typical of reality shows.
Rosa Does Joan exemplifies the relationship between the body and the politics of female empowerment that are so fraught today, and that could have informed more of the artworks. Bustamante is also one of the exhibition’s only artists of color. Renee Cox is another. Her photograph “Garter Belt” (2001) is unflinching in its depiction of female sexual empowerment. Shown from her waist to her thighs, Cox stands firm in a black garter belt and g-string that digs into her flesh.
Mary Beth Edelson and Lynda Benglis also challenge patriarchal constructs of femininity and sex with compelling imagery. Edelson’s black and white nude self-portrait photos from the 1970s, painted with spirals and other symbols, or masks covering her face, align her with goddesses and tricksters, and situate her body in a sphere of ritual and mythology far from modern, heteronormative sexuality.
The photographs that comprise Benglis’s “Self” (2010) include her infamous Artforum ad (in which she posed nude, greased up, and sporting a gigantic dildo). But as one in a grouping of photos — which also features the artist throwing liquid rubber across her studio floor for one of her “pour” pieces, leaning against a car wearing a suit-jacket and Ray-Bans, mooning the camera, wearing a dog costume with a dildo, and dressed up as a teenager, among other images — the erotic is limited to one aspect of Benglis’s art, which comes across as multifaceted and iconoclastic.
In another standout, Anita Steckel’s oil-painted silkscreen “New York Landscape (Woman Pressing Finger Down)” (ca. 1970-80), voluptuous female giants turn the Manhattan skyline into their playground. An erect penis on one rooftop underscores the skyscrapers’ phallicism, but it’s dwarfed and outnumbered by the mighty women. These are works that unabashedly celebrate the untamed force of the feminine.
“Anatomy of a Pin-Up” (2006) by the pioneering performer and sex educator Annie Sprinkle — who successfully straddles the art/porn line — takes a different tack as it addresses standards of female desirability with intelligence and wonderfully sarcastic humor: a photo of Sprinkle dressed as a pin-up model is annotated with the reality of maintaining the image (e.g., “Corset makes my waist 4 1/2” smaller but I can’t breathe,” “boots take 19 minutes to lace”).
Unsurprisingly, few of The Pleasure Principle’s artworks deal critically with porn-related issues, such as porn addiction or the objectification of women, which can normalize both individual and systemic violence. Nor does the show address the decline of the commercial porn industry (concentrated in the nearby San Fernando Valley), and its affect on the livelihoods of porn actors, with the dominance of internet porn.
Doris Wishman, a rare woman director of sex films, is represented by movie posters and screenings, but the work that engages most directly with hardcore porn is Ann Hirsch’s video series Cuts (2017), which pairs more and (often) less conventional sex acts with soundtracks featuring Bruce Springsteen’s 1980s radio-friendly hits, Hirsch’s narratives about Freud and going on a juice fast, and other topics. The sound is audible through headphones, which means viewers can listen or just watch. The audio-visual juxtaposition is funny at times, but serious questions — particularly about the degradation of many of the women in the selected videos — are never touched on.
Strictly as a showcase of women artists, the breadth and quality of The Pleasure Principle’s artworks are impressive, and worth the trip to see the show. Contributions from Brooklyn-based performance artist Narcissister perhaps best unite the show’s two crisscrossing directions. “The Face (Performing male facial features)” (2019) is a monumental scrap-metal assemblage in the shape of a face, activated by a performer sitting in a harness straddling the nose.
Photo collages by Narcissister (all 2019) are tucked away in a small back room, including a number from the Norway Series, which replace women’s faces with vaginas and anuses. The Frankenstein-esque pastiche of body parts is at once viscerally grotesque and riveting, but the collages were made more subversive the day I visited because they were installed opposite Baroque black mirrors by Fred Wilson, from his recent exhibition, Afro Kismet, at Maccarone. Not part of The Pleasure Principle, and on view only temporarily, Wilson’s grand Murano-glass works are genuinely disrupted by the reflection of the collages, shimmering like apparitions and surrounding us with pieces of anatomy weirdly transformed into whole human beings — reversing the reduction of women to their sex organs.
While eroticism may be a conduit to liberation for some women, pornography is its own animal, and invites a host of thorny issues in relation to female self-determination. But without a sharper focus on society’s attacks on the agency and bodies of women, especially in relation to sex, the necessity of casting The Pleasure Principle as an explicitly all-female show is unclear. It’s delusional to think that free internet porn could play a meaningful part in women’s rights, when Pornhub’s viewers are 75-percent male and the exploitation and degradation of women are integral to pornography’s appeal; and Pornhub’s suggestion, through its sponsorship, that women can refuse or transcend their objectification in explicit portrayals feels disingenuous at best. The voices that rise to the occasion here do so because they are stronger than the platform they’ve been given.
The Pleasure Principle continues at Maccarone (300 South Mission Rd., Boyle Heights, Los Angeles) through December 22.