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Ros­alyn Drexler, “Self Por­trait” (1964) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

I was standing with a female painter friend in the Metropolitan Museum recently, in front of work by Van Gogh, when she said, “There are no rules.” Then, after a beat, she added, “Or he was hallucinating all the time and painted exactly what he saw.” For women, rules define a set of social expectations that are meant to keep them under control. In the arts, purportedly so much more liberal than the rest of society, this problem is acutely magnified, since culture tells us who we are, both literally and imaginatively. For the exhibition In the Pink at Joe Sheftel Gallery, which focuses on art about the female body, curator Sarvia Jasso has brought together a group of younger women artists with women artists from earlier generations who were slow to surface and find audiences, and were sometimes confronted with overt hostility because they refused to be controlled by prevailing norms.

Given this history, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that artist Dorothy Iannone would choose a style associated with the marginalized — ”outsider art,” or the art of the untrained, the idiot savant, the incarcerated, the mad — to express explicit sexual desire: a clever strategy that is self-conscious but also becomes ironically (or knowingly) a self-fulfilling prophesy, for she is now 79 years old and not well known. For many years she was part of an artist couple, and yes, the man (Dieter Roth) was more famous. Curiously, the artist K. Garcia, who is 45 years Iannone’s junior, has, in the past, adopted a similar strategy, creating drawings while afflicted with some form of unspecified madness. Sadly, her one drawing in In the Pink is upstairs and feels a bit isolated from the rest of the show.

K. Garcia, “Carla O. Lisk” (2012), graphite, cherry, vinegar, salt on rag paper, 38 × 50″ (courtesy Joe Sheftel Gallery)

Explicit pornographic imagery is the subject matter of Betty Tompkins’s incredible paintings and drawings — imagery that has been defined as stimulating to the male gaze but uninteresting to women. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” So said John Berger in Ways of Seeing in 1973, the same year that Betty Tompkins was painting “Fuck Painting #4,” an 84-by-60-inch black and white realist painting — a close up of a penis inside a vagina.

Betty Tompkins, “Fuck Painting #4” (1973, courtesy the artist’s website)

Is it any surprise that I got through a graduate degree in fine art without ever having heard her name mentioned? We are still being told that women do not respond to explicit erotic imagery, another peculiar way of denying female agency even after years of feminist discourse. And there have always been severe punishments for women who are deemed to have too much—either agency or sex, for that matter.

Cindy Hinant, who is the youngest artist in the exhibition (b. 1984), has a piece called “Women” on view. It is a collection of images of women’s breasts culled from the internet, tinted pink and shown side by side in one frame. It seems these breasts belong to women artists, and the roster includes Carolee (Schneemann, also in this show), Francesca, Hannah, K8, Lynda, Marina, Regina, Sophie and Yoko.

Not long ago I ran across an interview in the New York Times that Andrew Goldman conducted with Marina Abramović. He asked her about getting a breast enlargement, which, he wrote, “some found to be anathema to the feminist tradition of performance art.” This was Marina’s response:

I don’t care. You know, I was 40 years old. I heard that Ulay made pregnant his 25-year-old translator. I was desperate. I felt fat, ugly and unwanted, and this made a huge difference in my life. Why not use technology if you can, if it can build your spirit? And I’m not feminist, by the way. I am just an artist.

While the disclaimer about feminism is unfortunate, the interpretation of breast enhancement is intriguing. It has generally been assumed that the woman identifies with male desire and changes her body to please men, a perfectly male-centric notion. But if men are so consumed with the size of their penises — the ultimate symbol of virility — why can’t we simply allow breast size to be a celebration of femininity? I don’t say this to privilege biology but to point out that the notion of breast enhancement as self-loathing is pretty self-serving for those who want to disempower women even further.

Below, my reflection in Marina’s ample post-operative breasts.

Cindy Hinant, “Women” (detail, 2011), archival pigment prints, 12 x 86″

While In the Pink suffers a little bit from the strategic problems of selecting specific works to represent a larger idea — I’m assuming that artists were chosen first and the works second, rather than the other way around (although I’m happy to be corrected if wrong) — both the premise and the individual artists have great merit. Those artists include: Rosalyn Drexler (age 86), Dorothy Iannone (age 79), Carolee Schneemann (age 73), Betty Tomkins (age 67), Manon (age 66), Dasha Shishkin (age 35), K. Garcia (age 34) and Cindy Hinant (age 28).

Dasha Shishkin, “Cars like gloves” (2012), mixed media on canvas, 35 x 36″ (click to enlarge)

At a time when the social and political backlash against women is so pervasive and fervent, this show of women suggests that the process by which work is vetted and made visible to collectors and institutions is still hugely problematic for female artists. There is more out there than is allowed to meet our eyes, and Sarvia Jasso persuasively shows us that there always has been.

In the Pink at Joe Sheftel Gallery (24A Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) continues through July 31.

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Susan Silas

Susan Silas is a visual artist and occasional writer living in Brooklyn.

16 replies on “Female Artists, Female Bodies”

  1. I’m really happy you included that quote by Abramovic, which seems to reflect ambivalent feminist ideas by contemporary woman artists today:”…I’m not feminist, by the way. I am just an artist.”

    That last line is exactly what a lot of my twentysomething peers say. In a way I feel it stems from not wanting to be categorized or ghettoized as male-authored Feminist category, but also denies a long history of efforts from women and queer artists to be seen as equal to male counterparts. I might also note that I’ve gone farther by writing a two-liner artist statement without the F-word in it, but my work never escapes that reading. ho ho ho.

    Thanks for writing such a thorough analysis on the problems of female self-representation–as represented by curation :D

  2. Often, certain individuals of any given minority group will tend to exploit and thus revel in their own delusory sense of indignation born explicitly from generic presumptions about what being victimized really is and signifies in a specific culture and then grossly manipulate this idea to their obtuse spiritual, intellectual and sometimes even social advantage as best exemplified by silicon breast implants and their reactionary techno-capitalist agenda …

      1. When a woman somehow arrives at the ungodly decision to foolishly waste truckloads of hard-earned cash so that her beautiful earthen torso can be plastically maimed and then summarily stuffed with gargantuan silicon breast implants she does so utilizing to her extremely capricious will both erroneous and secondhand laissez-faire conceptions about being holistically defined by and living in a giant phallic cosmos brimming with man’s evil and libidinous credos all of which is only a rueful attempt at self-deception expressly meant to blanket from consciousness machinations of sexual profiteering as by her now bionic frame constructed in terms of uneducated guesses into what men eternally desire and will doggedly beg for at any price.

        1. Whatever, try breaking up your sentences into something with meaning. all academic fluff. You aint no Hemingway or Marquez. Obviously a virgin, as far as women are concerned anyway. Some of us love women, in All ways. Mind, body and soul. But it only takes one. More than that would kill you anyway,
          This is the real world, try it sometime. Its not as bad as you want to think, as thinking obviously isnt going on here, just posturing.

  3. Women are hardly a minority, but truly THE majority. Feminism is over, women have won. take a look around, its not getting access to power, its what to do with it. Hopefully better than what men have done lately.
    This is all therapy, about individual issues and problems it has nothing to do with Woman. Many of wife friends are all successful, from doctors to lawyers to publicists) are more looking at what to do positively with their lives than success in business or getting attention. A buncha really beautiful and brilliant mostly black women. Now THATS a minority.
    This is more self hate. Go outside, the world is beautiful, you can be too but you must become a part of the world, not apart from it in the insular and inbred artscene.

  4. Way-ay-ay too much art by women was about their bodies. Sometimes sit seems that soon as you disrobe you’re supposed to be making a feminist statement. It’s all so tiresome. And so is the debate. Talk about naval gazing: this makes it a pun.

  5. The only thing holding women back from their own power and true identity is fear, the negative social stigma can only stick if we let it. There are enough women in the world to change the tide, we must free ourselves of all the false projections we have allowed to influence us young girls and reach our full maturity.

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