With Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum and Cindy Sherman at MoMA, this past year has seated women artists at the forefront of the New York art scene. These impressive retrospectives called attention not only to the force and depth of the artistic creation of women, but also to the woman as subject matter in contemporary art. The woman’s body lies at the core of a complex iconography that spans over hundreds of years within the history of art. This heritage is burdened with imagery that reveals issues of sexism, misogyny, and exoticism.
Mickalene Thomas, You’re Gonna Give Me the Love I Need, 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel, 96 x 144 in. Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Gallery.
With Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum and Cindy Sherman at MoMA, this past year has seated women artists at the forefront of the New York art scene. These impressive retrospectives called attention not only to the force and depth of the artistic creation of women, but also to the woman as subject matter in contemporary art. The woman’s body lies at the core of a complex iconography that spans over hundreds of years within the history of art. This heritage is burdened with imagery that reveals issues of sexism, misogyny, and exoticism. Contemporary artists, particularly women artists, still respond to this overwhelming visual repertory of representations of women when they decide to focus their own art on the female body, feminine sexuality, and gender identity.
Between artist and model, as well as between portrait and beholder, there is an interplay of gazes—gendered gazes—that adds a strata of meaning to even the most innocuous representations of women (as many of Cindy Sherman’s images seem to be). The work of feminist artists such as Barbara Kruger exposes and denounces the masculine gaze. Activist images of women reveal or invert the stereotypes associated with women, fighting against empty identities generated by societal norms and sociopolitical conventions. In her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey uses the phrase “woman as image” to emphasize the dichotomy between looking and being looked at and to ground voyeurism and fetishism in the pleasure derived by men from looking at women. This understanding of the gaze can be further complicated in a number of ways, from focusing on the queer gaze to subverting the desire that accompanies the act of looking. Young artists such as Nikki S. Lee and K8 Hardy obscure the identity of the women and destabilize a fixed position for the beholder, creating artwork with a chameleon-like subject matter.
The woman as image is still pervasive today, from painting to cinema, and especially in advertisement, which makes the work of artists like Judith Bernstein particularly significant. On display at the New Museum under the exhibition title “Hard,” Bernstein’s images carry explicit sexual meaning. As a woman and an artist, Bernstein creates phallic pictorial signs that reference the graffiti in men’s restrooms and protest against sexual violence, understood as stemming from the same root as political and military aggression. Her monumental drawing HORIZONTAL from the early 1970’s confronts the viewer with the image of a swirling screw, bearing immediate sexual connotations. The shape dominates the surface of the paper, the spiraling lines and the softness of the charcoal emphasize its organic dimension. Under this jarring representation, the signature of the artist is enormous and clearly legible, shouting the artist’s endorsement of the image’s activist message.
Feminism has run parallel to postmodernism in many respects, and with important points of junction. In its manifold manifestations, contemporary art rushes beyond postmodernism—what is there beyond postmodernism?—and responds to post-feminist lines of thought. In a broadened field, the representation of the woman’s body and of female sexuality continues to be politically charged and to express the tension between personal and public identity.
In this period, when artists are struggling to move beyond –isms, it is encouraging and useful to see art that constructs feminine identity and sexuality in a larger framework, with an inquisitive attitude. The mixed media works of Mickalene Thomas reframe the identity of African American women and engage with notions of beauty in an historical perspective. Thomas’ images are the result of an assiduous process of transformation. On the one hand, her portraits of women are paintings or collages based on the artist’s photographs. The use of rhinestones emphasizes the lush quality of the surface. On the other hand, the contexts in which the figures are depicted bear art historical references; Thomas’ work thus elaborates a sophisticated critique of the stereotypes around and attacks on female black sexuality.
“The Origin of the Universe” is the artist’s most recent exhibition, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. According to the exhibition catalog, the paintings focus on the woman’s body in landscape, exploring how feminine presence adds the dimension of gender to the environment. The title of the exhibition refers to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (Origin of the World). The art historical legacy built in her work, the mixed media technique of the paintings, and the installations created for the Brooklyn Museum show reflect the multimedia character of her artistic vision and her holistic approach to redefining gender and racial identity.
References to art history are interwoven in the creation of other contemporary artists, as well, increasing the level of depth and complexity of the work’s iconography. Carina Linge’s photographic series include stills reminiscent of Flemish Masters, staged by the artist with objects found in the domestic environment of her female models. These fragments of daily life echo the cropped portraits of her sitters, where the beholder is refused visual access to the entire body of the woman. Ted Lawson’s sculptures of women evoke the rococo or the Art Nouveau, not necessarily in order to condemn a disparaging attitude about women in those periods (as Mickalene Thomas does), but in order to recreate the effect of fascination toward an ideal woman that pervaded those periods in history. In an effort to capture time and to cope with its irreversible character, Lawson’s exploration of female sexuality focuses on its anatomical and physiological dimension.
Limitations of time and space also haunt the photographs of the Mozambican artist Camila de Sousa, who depicts incarcerated women with a history of domestic violence. The standard format of her photographic series replicates the standardization of life for the confined women she represents. Carefully staged photographs in bold colors, Sousa’s powerful images reflect the energy of these women, despite their state of detention, the provisional character of the spaces they inhabit, and the different sense of time they are experiencing.
These artists and themes are but a cross-section of the overwhelming multitude of approaches to feminine sexuality. This selection particularly emphasizes the activist role of female imagery and the engagement of several contemporary artists with an art historical dialogue. With a more or less overt investigation of feminine sexuality, focusing on various aspects of the female body in its diverse environments, contemporary images of women not only reflect, but also construct new feminine identities.