Female Artists, Female Bodies

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"
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"
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"
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"
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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