In 2009, Cheim & Read hung the provocative group show The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women, which showcased women artists taking control of their own images. In an encore presentation this summer, women artists turn their gaze this time toward men, reversing one of art’s most long-standing power structures. The Female Gaze Part II: Women Look at Men brings together work from 32 artists, all utilizing the subject of men, or the male body, as a way to confront, or even turn the tables on the Male Gaze, which has historically objectified and excluded women from art.
The three rooms of the gallery offer a veritable who’s-who of women in the art canon, spanning generations, although not much else—only a handful of non-white artists are included in the mix. But it does offer a primer on a certain strain of feminist art throughout the last century, expressed through photography, painting, and sculpture.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Justifying Doctor's Note, 2010, Oil on canvas, 63 1/4 x 78 7/8 x 2 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
The blanket of “the female gaze” joins this somewhat disparate grouping of works together, and we see many manifestations of what this gaze means. The paintings, which carry with them the history of the reclining nude, the still life, and the woman as object, confront the male gaze head on by replacing that object with the male figure. This puts the Female Gaze in direct opposition to the Male Gaze. Cecily Brown, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Marlene Dumas take the Odalisque form to the male figure, obscuring and abstracting the body like the object/subject women’s bodies have always been treated as, erasing the human or personal elements that have historically been afforded men in paintings. In Dumas’ Morning Glory (1998) or Brown’s Raspberry Beret (2015–16), the faces and genitals are obscured, striping these figures of both their personalities and their manhood. In Yiadom-Boakye’s Justifying the Doctor’s Note (2010), the subject maintains his face, but with a Marilyn Monroe-type coif: he is a man posing as a woman.
Celia Hempton, Eddie, 2016, Oil on polyester, 13 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches. Courtesy Galerie Sultana, Paris
Then there is the more cheeky side of the show, with works like Ceclia Hempton’s trio of Eddie (2016), Ben (2015), and Ben (2016), which isolate moments of male anatomy—dick and balls—to wonderfully seductive, but hardly sexual paint strokes. The colors—all pastels and nudes—run so perfectly together, like a swirl of soft-serve ice cream, you could almost lick them. Then you remember these are dick and balls you’re looking at. There’s something sweet and almost emasculating about Hempton’s palette, contrasting the models’ graphic poses, which could have come right out of Pinups Magazine. Instead, the works explore the shapes and colors of the exposed male anatomy in an entirely painterly way.
Grace Graupe-Pillard, Dillon: Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, 2016, Oil and alkyd on wood, 48 x 36 inches.
In the same room is Grace Graupe-Pillard’s Dillon: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (2016), the subject of which is an attractive, shirtless man taking a “selfie.” A paintbrush hangs seductively out of the corner of his mouth, his eyes intent on his own presumed image. We are not sure if we are supposed to swoon, or laugh at this artfully crafted image, because, in addition to this being the female gaze upon man, it reflects man’s own narcissistic gaze upon himself (as the artist). Graupe-Pillard captures and translates into paint all these gazes for our scrutiny, making the work self-reflexive in a roundabout way.
Lynda Benglis, Smile, 1974, Cast bronze 15 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 2 1/4 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York
Lynda Benglis doesn’t seem as interested in flipping the gaze, as she is subverting it, by placing her own sexualized/objectified body in the frame with the male body—or erection—or dildo. The representation of the double-headed dildo, which comes up both in Smile (1974), and Secret 3 (1974–75), is flippant—a bronzed tribute to the manless, ball-less dick. But her irreverent tone makes us wonder: is this monument or mere memento?
And where Benglis left off in 1975, Sarah Lucas picks up with White Knob (2016), which subverts the idea of monumentality by being big enough to be larger-than-life(-sized), but too small to be truly impressive for its scale alone—the white knob instead stands freely as an awkward relic. Stripped of its monumental power, a useless dildo.
Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #51, 2014, Acrylic on canvas 22 x 36 x 1 1/2 inches. Courtesy P.P.O.W.
And from dildos, we move on to porn, another motif throughout, seen in works like Ghada Amer’s Pencil Drawing With Love #1 (c. 2008–09), or Betty Tompkins’ aptly named Fuck Painting #51 (2014), and even Nicole Wittenberg’s Red Handed, Again (2014). These works confront the more overt, commercialized male gaze that we tend to come up against in contemporary society, the one that has spawned a million dollar industry (pornography that is, not the art market). But by utilizing this imagery in a female narrative, it disrupts our relationship to those images, making us question our simultaneous attraction and discomfort with them.
So, if the male gaze is about dynamics of power—clothed male artist stares at objectified nude woman, so that clothed male viewers can stare at objectified nude woman—many of these woman artists are interpreting the female gaze in similar, albeit about-faced manner. But one of the show’s greatest achievements is highlighting the nuance in the way women must gaze upon men, because women have had to operate as the “other” for so long.
Berenice Abbott, Cocteau in Bed with Mask, Paris, 1927, Gelatin silver print; printed later 10 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
For instance, the photographs of Bernice Abbott, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin have an observational feel to them—they capture human emotion or condition, which on a whole lets the viewer empathize with the subjects more than the sculptures and paintings in the show. In this sense, these photographers don’t seem to be flipping the gaze, as much as building an entirely new one, one created from capturing life on the fringes and operating outside of the traditional power structures.
With the inclusion of these photographs, along with the sculptures that explore the iconography of the penis, like Louise Bourgeois’ Fillet (Sweeter Version) (1968–99), defining the Female Gaze becomes more than simply the chance to poke fun at penises, or utilize the visual language of oppression that already exists. Rather, it is about the agency to have a viewpoint, and the ability to identify the power structures within the art historical trajectory in order to break them down.
All of the artists on view—along with many others who did not make the cut—have spent their entire careers doing just that. To put them together in a last-gasp summer group show seems just slightly patronizing, but if nothing else, it’s a good way to see many of the Greatest Hits all in one place.
Olivia Murphy is a writer and editor based in New York, covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in various publications both in print and online, including L'Officiel Magazine, Freunde Von Freunden, Whitehot, Riot of Perfume, doingbird, and Whitewall Magazine.
(Image at top: Cecily Brown, Raspberry Beret, 2015–16, Oil and pastel on linen, 43 x 65 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone New York/Los Angeles)
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