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The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women

Cheim & Read June 25-August 14

Installation view.
Installation view.

Touting Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as the curatorial premise of its group show, The Female Gaze: Women on Women, Cheim & Read promises a look into how women see themselves and other women, surveying self-portraits, portraits, and female nudes, all by women artists. The goal of the show to topically unify women artists by means of the female form, however, is patently gendered. Relying on the readymade association of women artists as an identity-body-politic, with the female form as their primary subject, limits the scope of how we see many of these accomplished artists—and their ability to be provocatrices—considerably.

Mulvey argued that in the context of film’s persistent male scopophilia, the condition of the feminine was totemic at best: “Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” If, as the gallery promises, the show delivers a “debunking of the male gaze” where “artist and subject relate…as woman to woman,” we must wonder why it has limited the show to the sexualized topography of the feminine, where she will be understood first as the “bearer of meaning.” The gallery’s selection of Mulvey’s argument as the ethos for the show, then, problematizes rather than updates the theory. Narrowing the show’s scope to typically “female” imagery that carries the residue of male otherness in its very pictorial conventions ultimately corners the artists, limiting their expression to the confines of women’s bodies.

Lisa Yuskavage’s pert and fluffy painting “Heart,” in which a fantastical female object of desire masturbates, resides compellingly in the problematic. Its girly palette and aureole of light above the figure in an otherwise womb-like field of bubble-gum pink seem to restage the structure of religious icon painting, along with the religiosity of Playboy pornographic devices—soft lighting and warm flesh tones. Yuskavage’s parody of the hyper-sexualized fantasy female, a staple of her work, seems a likely fit for Cheim & Read’s curatorial game, but it is questionable whether her work demands to be read as a powerful act of sexual reclamation via satire, or if it’s another form of abjection.

Installation view.
Installation view.

Cindy Sherman’s untitled 1982 film stills and Sarah Lucas’ “Cigarette Tits II [Idealized Smoker’s Chest II],” a chair retrofitted with bra and spherical cigarette breasts that mocks the allure of the sexy, offer levity in the face of the prescriptive. Louise Bourgeois’s solution to the readymade association between femininity and sexuality is to opt for gender neutrality. The sculptor renders pink coital dolls in something of a hierarchic scale, as a larger figure cups the smaller. Both are on all fours, but are otherwise androgynous.         

If the show seeks to present, as its title begs, the inversion of spectatorship and female objectification, Diane Arbus is perhaps the most schematic (though by virtue of her aggressive use of the camera, she is also borderline masculine in her gaze). In “Blonde Girl with Shiny Lipstick, NYC,” her subject’s doll-eyed adolescence, an uncomfortable mixture of beauty, passive innocence, and bawdy extroversion embody Mulvey’s “presubjective moment of image recognition.” As she stares forward, eyes glazed as if in a trance, the girl’s unplucked eyebrow hairs and bloodshot whites would seem to betray her implicit desire for objectification (as well as our current infatuation with nip-tuck cosmetic perfection).

Other portraits range from figurative paintings to serial photographs. Rineke Dijkstra’s juxtaposition of prepubescent and pubescent girlhood vaguely resembles the emotive gradations of Roni Horn’s portrait sequence of the actress Katherine Hupert. Both artists show transformations that come with age or hormonal storms. Some similarities are also found between the handling of paint in Alice Neel’s “Olivia,” and the citrine-colored shadow of the voluptuous sitter’s leg in Maria Lassnig’s “Girl with Wine Glass.” Other specimens of feminine form include Collier Schor’s 2006 “Torso,” which crops out everything but the bush, legs and stomach, to such classicist-inspired images as Zoe Leonard’s gelatin silver prints of erogenous sections of nudes.

The contemporary viewer wonders, if we are really living in a so-called “post” era—post-feminist, post-racial, post-gay— can the identity politics of its premise be truly invigorated by this survey? Does there exist an inter-female gaze purged of male scopophila? And if so, how do we read it against our current moment, when political charades like Sarah Palin’s blend the worst of patriarchal power and coquettish come-ons? While none of the works are objectionable, the show fails to take up the timely and provocative complications—implicit in its investigation of gender.


Cora Fisher


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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