|In her seminal text, Representing Women, Linda Nochlin, the celebrated feminist art historian of the 1970s, writes, “women’s bodies have always served as allegorized objects of desire, of hatred, of elevation, of abasement … .” Historically women art subjects have been sexualized, objectified, and reduced to naked flesh that passively awaits sexual domination. While for Nochlin, the nude female represents the object of desire of the male subject and author, other feminists would argue that male artists—not just women—can be feminists too, and are even capable of creating feminist images of nude women.|
In her seminal text, Representing Women, Linda Nochlin, the celebrated feminist art historian of the 1970s, writes, “women’s bodies have always served as allegorized objects of desire, of hatred, of elevation, of abasement … .” Historically women art subjects have been sexualized, objectified, and reduced to naked flesh that passively awaits sexual domination. While for Nochlin, the nude female represents the object of desire of the male subject and author, other feminists would argue that male artists—not just women—can be feminists too, and are even capable of creating feminist images of nude women. While for feminists of Nochlin’s generation, the male gaze has been understood as a penetrating act that inherently involves the desire to posses the female sex, third-wave feminists—and even post-feminists—of today agree that men too are capable of creating respectful and admiring representations of women that are aimed at honoring them and raising them up. In fact, as the renowned queer theorist Judith Butler reminded us in her key gender studies text of the 1990s, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, gender is not a “stabilized, polarized, discrete, or intractable” identity, but rather, a “performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo.” Hence, gender—masculine or feminine—is not an essentialized construction that belongs to any of us by birth, but something that we choose to identify with, enabling any “sex” to identify as a woman and as a feminist.
This position is well evidenced through the stunning feminist artistic practice of male artist, Kimberly Berg. Motivated by both Zen philosophy and Thoreau’s back-to-nature mentality, Berg moved from Manhattan to upstate New York to reconnect with nature and lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Influenced by the spirituality of the natural world, and Layne Redmond’s When Drummers Were Women, Berg was inspired to become a feminist. For Berg, art is a mode of resisting patriarchal hegemonic institutions, which he believes are detrimental and unsustainable. Through his evocative and compelling mystical feminist imagery, he believes he can alter the mentalities of his viewers and help change the world.
According to the contemporary feminist art critic, Griselda Pollock, “If we allow ourselves to introduce into culture another symbolic signifier to stand beside the phallus … could we not be on the way to allowing the invisible feminine bodily specificity to enter and realign aspects of our consciousness and unconsciousness?” Berg would wholeheartedly agree, a fact that is most evident in his recent series he entitles simply, Mandalas. His vision is one of returning to matriarchal prehistoric times before patriarchy dominated, when women were considered powerful forces for humankind. According to Berg, “my art tries to restore that part of the herstorical Mother Goddess culture that honored women for their sacred, life-giving, life-affirming powers, powers associated with the moon and wild animals … . I think one way this can be accomplished is to provide a visual connection to women’s primal roots: their relationship to Nature, their awesome ability to give birth, their goddess-based spirituality, and their psychic affinity to the cosmic powers, symbolically represented in my paintings as a Mandala image.”
Relying on the ancient symbol of unity, peace, cycles, rebirth, and fertility, each image contains a circular Mandala hovering on surfaces of warm, sunny hues of golden yellows and fiery oranges. Works such as Mandala I and Mandala II depict nude women outstretched upward toward radiating Mandalas, in yogic positions reminiscent of the Sun Salutation series, seemingly worshipping the life-giving power of the beaming, floating orbs above them. Through careful applications of pastel, Berg creates gentle strokes that evoke a sense of glowing brilliance, which are both uplifting and divine in their tenor and intonation.
Only one image, Mandala VII, a pastel executed in sea foam greens and midnight blues, employs a cool palette. Here we see a star-like explosion of white light radiating out into darker shades, suggesting the mysterious power of the moon and the feminized night. Another striking image, Mandala VI, depicts a female figure curled into a fetal position on a barren Surrealist landscape. Her bare back faces the viewer, while she, herself, faces a distant sun. The apocalyptic landscape, along with the haunting Mandala-sun suspended in the lemon drop-yellow sky, is an apt metaphor for the repressed position of women in patriarchal society.
Mandala IV, executed in a luminous shade of neon pink and soft violets, depicts a Mandala encapsulated in a star-shaped form under which a young woman crawls on her knees. The power and suggestiveness of these images and their symbolization of the position of women in society are undeniably persuasive and gripping. Exuding Shakti energy, these mesmerizing images are spellbinding, transforming the very nature of all who view them.
As the British feminist art historian Amelia Jones has explained, “Today, I think feminisms need to address and theorize gendered identity so as to accommodate the intersectionality … of how we position ourselves in the world and how we are understood by others. Women, if there is such a discrete category … never perceived simply or exclusively as women: Our feminine identity is always already imbricated in other aspects of our perceived and experienced identity.” Heeding the call of feminists such as Jones, Berg is willing to expand notions of “gendered identity,” proceeding with a sensitivity and honesty uncommon in many male artists. He presents his vision and subject matter with a delicate agility that communicates his messages clearly and compellingly to the viewer, a fact exemplified by his statement that “Both men and women, myself included, would benefit from a deeper respect and understanding of what it means to be woman in perfect attunement to her inner being.” His modesty and willingness to be open-minded is evident not only in his words, but moreover in his riveting imagery. Bringing the feminist vision full circle, Berg’s Mandalas alter not only the mentality, but more importantly the spirit, of all who view his work.