As John Berger once said, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” The impulse to objectify women has become culturally ingrained to such a great extent that a 2016 study concluded in 2019 that choosing not to objectify women depletes our body’s self-regulatory system and decreases our performance in cognitive tasks. In other words, it is human nature to judge a woman’s body based on societal standards, and doing otherwise is literally bad for our health. But in the past century, artists of all genders have begun to approach the female body in new ways that challenge this attitude. No longer a passive body reduced to an instrument of pleasure for another person, the female figure is an autonomous woman.
This innate urge to sexualize and exploit the female body finds a new (and encouraged) voice in LGDR’s landmark exhibition Rear View, which explores representations of the human figure as seen from behind. It is a show of transhistorical asses, in all of their objectified and empowered forms. Though many of the show’s female nudes are by male artists, ranging from Félix Vallotton to Fernando Botero, Harry Callahan, and Lucien Freud, shown together, these works depict powerful women who flaunt their derrieres and flex their feminine eroticism. Many of the women who engage with the concept of a rear view here seek to reclaim their feminine sexuality, as in Issy Wood or Jenna Gribbon, or address societal issues, seen in the political protest work by Yoko Ono or the realistic insecurities and imperfections of female bodies by Jenny Saville.
Viewing a painting of a nude is an intimate experience. Take John Currin’s “Nude in a Convex Mirror”(2015). The round shape of the canvas is highlighted by the curvaceous, milky white buttock that takes up the majority of the picture plane. Currin’s use of Rückenfigur, a conceptual and formal device in which artists deploy the human figure as seen from behind, reconfigures an idealized odalisque into an all-knowing woman, who looks over her shoulder at us, as we observe her. She asserts her dominance through her awareness of our gaze, and as Alison Gingeras denotes in her essay for the exhibition, that is key to being a bad ass.
The female gaze directed at female bodies is evident in about 10 works on view. In Danielle Mckinney’s “Lost in Translation” (2023), a foreshortened, Black female nude lays on a green bedspread, her hair wrapped in a towel, as she leafs through a book. This image of leisure, without concern for the observer, reclaims the art historical trope of the reclining (White) nude and repositions it through the lens of a modern Black woman’s experience.
Jenna Gribbon’s “Demonstrative (in our bedroom with spotlight)” (2023) is more forceful in its messaging: a blond model spreads her legs open as she covers her sex with her hand, flipping off voyeurs. As a queer female artist, Gribbon has sought to put more pressure on the viewer through body language, eye contact, and lighting. In the work on view, the figure confronts us, as if to ask, “What the fuck do you want?”
Proving your worth by your desirability is still primarily women’s work. Sexual objectification drives the commodification of the body by fashion, media, and entertainment industries, shaping societal expectations. Rear View offers a sensitive and probing critique of what it is like to both view and occupy a contemporary female body.
Rear View continues at LGDR (19 East 64th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 1. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
Editor’s Note, 5/24/2023, 5:19 pm EDT: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect link. This has since been corrected.