If pressed, I maintain that the reason I keep up with news about popular culture is that, for me, it adds all-important context to the various forms of "legitimate" art that I take in as a job. Visiting Richard Saltoun’s show of Viennese feminist art (that, specifically speaking, of VALIE EXPORT and Friedl Kubelka) for instance, the phrase "proto-selfies" played continuously in my mind: not a phrase of my own design, but one coined for the exhibition by a writer at Blouin Artinfo. Women these days—famous women, typically, but also the occasional civilian (the much-discussed personal trainer who is famous for the shape of her ass, for instance, or the "Fit Mom" who shared her post-birth abdominals with the caption “What’s Your Excuse?")—are newsworthy in a way they have never been before.
Both context and intent are crucial in reading feminist work, and—for better or for worse—we are observing VALIE EXPORT and Friedl Kubelka’s work here in a wildly different sociological setting from the ones against which they were first designed to kick. Kubelka’s beautiful, remarkable Jahreportraits series, for instance, feels different in an age when a woman documenting her appearance on a daily basis is more typical (cast your mind back to the cousin or ex-schoolmate in your Facebook feed who feels the need to perpetually share her pout, or the infants whose likenesses are shared by their parents from birth), while her Pin-Ups series now calls to mind the leaked "sexts" of Hollywood stars as much as it does erotic magazine photography.
Friedl Kubelka, Untitled (Pin-up), 1971, Black and white photograph mounted on cardboard, 11.8 x 16.6 cm; Copyright the Artist / Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
"I was interested in the relationship between the inner and outer person," she explains of the Jahreportraits. "The state of mind recurs, but the skin gets older."
As it happens, Kubelka was guilty of one of the same crimes for which we harangue our scantily-clad celebrities: using a slimming mirror. The intersections between concept and vanity are easily blurred, if we choose to blur them. I have, of late, seen three-hundred-comment debates about whether Beyonce Knowles can be a feminist if she Photoshops her Instagram "selfies"; likewise, I have seen it posited that Knowles is either a Supreme Modern Feminist or a Covert Misogynist for the fact that she displays her bare ass-cheeks in a music video. If a body is conventionally beautiful (as, indeed, Kubelka’s is in Pin-Ups) can the sharing of it ever be truly considered a gesture for the betterment of women? Questions like this—if you know where to look for them—are being raised as much in popular culture as they are in contemporary art.
VALIE EXPORT, Smart / Export II, 1968/1970, Vintage gelatin silver print, 60.7 x 40.5 cm, Edition of 5 plus 2 AP's; Copyright the Artist / Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
In photographing herself, legs akimbo, in crotchless trousers, VALIE EXPORT displays her own agency as well as her genitals; indeed, the artist holds a gun, as if to dare the bravest of her viewers to even consider sexualizing a body she defends by force. The notion of a woman reclaiming her own sexuality and aligning herself with a brand—becoming a brand, in effect—as is evident in Smart / Export II, feels, again, more commonplace now; I had previously written a piece for this very website which compared the commando limo-exits and leaked sex tape of socialite Paris Hilton to EXPORT’s performances, and as popular culture advances, these comparisons feel ever-less ironic.
[Image on top: Friedl Kubelka, Reise (Voyage), 1974, Black and white photograph with blue pen text "Mantua 11.6.74", 12.5 x 18 cm; Copyright the Artist / Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery]