The New Museum July 22 – October 18, 2009
Housed in the lobby of the New Museum, the cult of the eternal goddess and the dying god has come home to roost—at least that is the atmosphere of Dorothy Iannone’s first and only U.S. retrospective, Dorothy Iannone: Lioness. Fusing the visual worlds of ancient fertility rites with a stylized contemporary bravado, Iannone, with an unapologetic adulation for the act of lovemaking, transforms the museum’s small gallery space into a veritable aesthetic orgy.
Summoning a kinship with the kaleidoscopic mosaics of the Byzantine era, the erotic paintings of the Middle East, and the compositional flatness of Japanese woodcuts, Iannone’s paintings, video, wood cutouts and illustrated text pieces, primarily from the artist’s early career, reveal the visions of a matriarchal high priestess. Adorned in elaborate headdresses and jeweled designs, the female muses of Iannone’s painted motifs (almost always self-portraits) commingle and collide at various angles with the male form—most often that of her longtime lover, the German-Swiss artist Dieter Roth—while intricately patterned mandalas radiate crystalline hues of gold, royal blue, and crimson. Exposed genitals abound in the work, from beneath the garments of kings, businessmen, harlequin dancers, and street thugs. But while Iannone’s themes deal strictly with adult subject matter—sex, love, betrayal and power, to name a few—a childlike exuberance defines her markmaking, placing this self-taught artist within the insider ranks of art world outsiders such as Henry Darger.
In the large-scale painting “I Am Whatever You Want Me To Be” (1970), a female figure bends at the waist while a male form, grabbing her throat with elongated arms, penetrates her from behind. Across the female’s stomach reads the title of the piece, signifying a submission on Iannone’s part that, in the pro-feminist eras of the 60s and 70s, not to mention the relatively conservative mindsets of artistic institutions up until the mid-90s, often resulted in the censoring of her work. In the New Museum show, however, this brand of self-objectification is balanced by the artist’s cleverly illustrated reversals of power. “I Love To Beat You” (1969-70), for example, depicts the same scene as “I Am Whatever You Want Me To Be”, but this time Iannone emerges as the dominant player. Wearing a mask and holding the male figure in place between her legs, she exudes a distinctly feminine authority as her hands clamp down on her lover’s throat.
Another piece that is sure to raise eyebrows is one of Iannone’s more famous works—the video-sculpture, “I Was Thinking Of You III” (1975/2006), a video loop of the artist’s face as she reaches climax. For those who may remember it from its inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, the effect is no less diminished at the New Museum. While in some ways synonymous with the work of her salaciously oriented feminist peer, the performance artist and videographer Carolee Schneemann, “I Was Thinking of You III” offers a confrontational assault on the senses that, thirty years later, remains equally shocking and impossible to turn away from—the end product of a prurient rebel spirit.
Text is an integral component of the artist’s repertoire, often contextualizing the work’s explicit imagery with a sense of playfulness and sincerity. In fact, one of the most poignant pieces in the show is the three-part artist’s book and memoir created after Iannone’s first encounter with Dieter Roth. Aptly titled “An Icelandic Saga” (1975/78/83), it chronicles the journey of Iannone with her then husband, James Upham, to Iceland, their meeting of Roth, and her subsequent decision to leave her husband and return to Iceland only one week later. Rendered strictly in black and white, the combination of ink drawings with Iannone’s childlike cursive and block printing reveal a truthfulness and vulnerability rarely exposed in an artist’s oeuvre. It is this same vulnerability, I would argue, that inscribes Iannone’s imagery with such powerful magnetism.
In a culture that categorizes the sexual act in word and action as taboo, as something that should only happen behind closed doors, Iannone’s erotic symbolism is palpably refreshing. In the concurrent show of her work at Anton Kern Gallery, a collection of more recent paintings (and lovers) lines the walls, solidifying the idea that for this artist, sexual intimacy is not something to be hidden, nor are the spiritual and emotional bonds that emerge from such an exchange. Rather, it is to be celebrated, made visible and exalted, much in the same way the cults of the ancients did. Perhaps we too can learn from the example of such a passionate advocate; given the visual punch dealt by Iannone’s amative iconology, it would be hard not to.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.