Thursday, June 30, 2016


Definition: The male gaze, coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, is the way visual arts depict the world and women from a masculine point of view and in terms of men's attitudes.

I have experienced the “male gaze” my entire life; as a young woman, I felt too visible, often wanting to bulwark my body with impenetrable sheathing from infiltrating eyes; as I aged eyes looked past me - I was now unobservable. When I began studying art, the youthful, blooming, female form was celebrated in the art historical canon - the painter’s erotic feel of the brush on the torso; the sculptors’ hands caressingly molding sinew and muscle out of thin air - falling in pygmalion love with their creations. Hidden from view and left out of these representations were the elderly, the infirm, those whose shapes reveal the ravages of childbirth, and the folds and creases that imprint our flesh with time. 

Female genitalia are still anathema in the repositories of culture - the inner caverns with its secret and delicate vaginal labia are usually deeply hidden by the protective wrap of pubic hair curling over private recesses. Courbet’s L'Origine du Monde, dove into blackness, lost in mysterious nothingness;  his depiction of the orifice from which life emerges triggered debate and censorship.

The Female GazePart Two: Women Look at Men, is a group exhibition of 32 women artists, with “variegated portrayals of men” addressing gender and sexuality curated by John Cheim who asks the question: “…would we react differently to these works if they were made by a man?”  Many of the artworks include images of the penis  - a symbol  of manhood incarnate, vulnerable, swathed in no protective hirsute covering, and possibly the art establishment’s last taboo. 

John Cheim’s design of the show, utilizing abrupt scale changes is critical - the installation which incorporates photography, drawing, painting and sculpture initiates conversations between the artworks demonstrating conceptual clarity.

We enter the exhibition and see photographs by Katy Grannan, and Catherine Opie of young men bared to the waist - adorned with holy jewelry, the metal of the chains burnishing their white flesh. Grannan’s figure is flooded with sunlight while Opie’s picture of Ryan McGinley is dark and shadowed - night and day, both frozen in personal reverie. Nan Goldin’s photograph, Warren In Bed gives us another youth, his one visible hand tucked under a vivid pink coverlet, caught in a moment of self-absorption. Diane Arbus’ photograph of Jack Dracula, the Marked Man, flaunting several of his 306 tattoos, reclines in the midst of vegetation, defiantly staring at the photographer with a look which challenges anyone from questioning his corporeal ornamentation. I particularly loved Bernice Abbott’s exquisite black and white silver print titled Cocteau in Bed with Mask illuminating words that Jean Cocteau had once penned:
“Since the day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.”

Some artists eviscerate men with biting humor; Cindy Sherman’s gelatin silver print of a hairy, overly muscle-bound doll, mixing and matching body parts with other dolls - the penis dismembered - creates a new species of man re-invented and twisted into Sherman’s idiosyncratic vision. Dana Schutz' painting Frank As A Proboscis Monkey  is doing her own version of transplanting the physique, inserting the long nose of a monkey, and affixing it to a man’s face making us aware of our anthropological lineage.

The sculptures in the show most directly delineate men’s “cocks,” initiating gasps of fascination and curiosity, as well as  generating  giggles, titters and selfies from  puerile onlookers raised in an age of “sharing.” What cannot be ignored is the intrepid Louise Bourgeois’ Fillette (Sweeter Version), a shiny, wet-looking latex over cloth penis with oversized scrotum hanging from the ceiling as if lynched by the anger of betrayal and arrogance. In contrast, Sarah Lucas’ White Nob stands almost four feet high - rock solid hard, like a tree trunk that has pierced its way through the ground to claim its lordly presence with all its accompanying authority. Lynda Benglis’ cast bronze double dildo affixed to the wall in the form of a smile, a work which created a stir in 1974 when Benglis  was photographed for Artforum Magazine, oiled and naked, the prosthesis in her hand re-claiming power for all women artists. If you need a “dick” to make it in the art world, Benglis brandished one bigger than any you had ever seen.

Nicole Wittenberg and Marlene Dumas paint the piquant pleasures of self-gratification where your hand controls the rhythms of desire;  Betty Tompkins’ chimerical black and white airbrushed painting offers an eagle eye view of vaginal penetration; an intimate picture of the mechanics of sexual intercourse filtered through the poetry of atomized sprayed fluid on canvas. Kathe Burkhart’s Whore From The Liz Taylor Series (The Only Game In Town) utilizes acrylic, fabric, a condom, fake pearls and gems floating among digital prints - a plethora of mixed media cunningly depicting the Queen of seduction with the word WHORE boldly inscribed on the canvas, characterizing the small-minded judgment of public opinion when women take charge of their own sexual appetites.

Portraiture is also part of this conceptually complex exhibition. Huma Bhabha’s Waldemar, fashioned out of styrofoam, wire and clay culminating into a deformed head, utilizing a pastiche from many cultures to create her own post-apocalyptic view of man. Joan Semmel’s vigorously painted full-length study of David, his back reflected in a mirror, and Sylvia Sleigh’s double portrait of Paul Rosano - both of their subjects appear comfortable with being lovingly scrutinized by the female gaze. Lois Dodd’s tiny cubist-like painting Caleb Martin is such a sensitive work of art that I can acutely feel the model’s  tender fragility. Collier Schorr’s stunning photograph of a selfie titled Peter, Paul and David is hung next to my painting of Dillon - Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, another selfie glorifying beauty, coming full circle to the male gaze where such veneration was honored, but reversed in this exhibition - since all the artworks are screened through the lens of  the female gaze. And to answer John Cheim's original question - yes, I believe the exhibition would be considered differently if done by a man.


The complexity of the viewpoints in this group exhibition have barely been touched upon. There are many other terrific works to be seen at:
CHEIM & READ Gallery, 547 Tenth Avenue, NYC. Summer Gallery Hours are: Tues-Thurs 10-6 and Friday 10-3.

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