NSFW: Female Gaze

MUSEUM OF SEX | JUNE 21, 2017 – APRIL 15, 2018

Amanda Charchian, India in Woodstock, 2013. C-Print, 20 × 30 in. Courtesy the artist and the Museum of Sex, New York.

NSFW: Female Gaze is a large thematic group exhibition at the Museum of Sex, curated by Vice’s Creators’ editor in chief, Marina Garcia-Vasquez, and Museum of Sex’s associate curator, Lissa Rivera. The exhibition is severely overhung, with only a handful of works installed off the wall, and features seventy-five works that, according to the wall text, highlight a “new generation of women artists who are exploring many levels of sexuality through layers of identity and using the internet as a tool for sexual empowerment.” While the show leans heavily on photographic images, the internet’s preferred medium, less than a handful of the artists make digital works, and there was no mention of how each artist uses the internet as an extension of their practice. As a result, the viewer is left wondering what role the internet had in creating these art works.

The curators do, however, put forward several exemplary works that begin to break down how female artists use the gaze to disrupt a range of constructs. Amanda Charchian’s photograph of model and activist India Menuez (India In Woodstock, 2013) shows her as a young sprite naked in a forest with her hair wrapped around the trunk of a tree, offering a glimpse into the feminine divine communing with nature. Amy Ritter’s Foundation III (2017) combines cinder blocks and ten life-sized nude self-portraits that stress a range of affects including tenderness, warmth, sass, and power. Her work finds strength in the emotionality that is often used to discredit women as irrational and hysterical. In her short film A History of Masturbation (2011), artist Jessica Yatrofsky presents the viewer with soft, intimate portraits of gender-bending subjects while questioning notions of beauty and presentation. The exhibition’s most poignant work comes from Nona Faustine, particularly her photograph Like A Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her Into The Patriarchy (2012), where the artist is seen washed up on the Atlantic Coast, wearing only heels. Her photographs are solemn but powerful and command the gaze in a way that makes the presence of her black body in the landscape and its history inescapable, as if to say, “I am here, I have always been here, and I will continue to be here.”

Jessica Yatrovsky, A History of Masturbation, 2011. Video, 3:45 min. Courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Sex, New York.

Nonetheless, the show suffers from several curatorial shortcomings, least of which is Rivera’s decision to include her own work in the exhibition. Rivera’s photographs document a playful game of dress up and feature the artist’s male partner styled as a woman. Her work vaguely addresses the traditional relation- ship of the artist and muse but aligns, almost too closely, with a statement from the wall on the same topic, leaving an unsavory feeling that this show was designed with her work in mind. Ultimately, it is the show’s presentist and populist leanings that reduce the scope of the exhibition. It’s as if the show was created in a cultural and historical vacuum. For example, there is no mention of psychoanalysis nor of Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” where the feminist theorist and filmmaker, writing in the British film journal Screen in 1975, first used the term “male gaze” to describe directors to render female characters objects of desire for the male viewer. Without Mulvey’s criticism, it could be argued that the female gaze and its troubling absence from media and the collective conscious may have never been given ground to build on.

Despite its catchy title and number of strong works, the exhibition fails to justify its claim that these feminist artists push their mediums and identities as female makers in a way that is distinct from their predecessors, in part because these nebulous predecessors go unnamed. The market’s ageist obsession with newness is a low standard to organize a show around. By omitting older artists and references to earlier waves of feminism, NSFW implies that previous generations of women artists somehow failed to create a “bold new visual language of desire, breaking expectations and social norms to be nakedly afraid.” This thinking ne- gates the histories of artists like Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, and Catherine Opie, who used their bodies as tools to push consciousness and disrupt the rigid roles of women in art and media. What is most upsetting is that the curators failed to capitalize on an opportunity to teach people who might not otherwise learn about this important history. This failure belongs to the curators, not the artists included in the show, and reflects a looming crisis in contemporary art where media producers assume the role of curator and in turn organize trend-oriented exhibitions centered on universal concepts with little nuance or awareness of the histories central to their curatorial work.

While NSFW, contrary to the claims of its curators, has little to say about how its artists use the internet “as a tool for sexual empowerment,” it’s very likely that the internet was an integral tool used by the curators to select many of the artists in this show. In a promotional Creators article, co-curator Garcia-Vasquez cites the numerous “likes” that NSFW articles garner as inspiration. In an attempt to recreate these “likes,” the curators mostly featured photographs of smooth, young, and light-skinned bodies presumably because that is what people want to see; however, these works do little to offer the viewer an alternative view of what is desirable. While the exhibition features exclusively female identifying artists, many of the artworks still objectify the male and female body as a hypersexual site for pleasure and are easily consumable by the male gaze, much like the media this show purports to stand in opposition to.

Contributor

Jesse Firestone

is the current Curator in Residence at Trestle Projects. He is pursuing his MA in Curatorial Practice at SVA and is the assistant curator at Satellite Art Show (FL).

ADVERTISEMENTS