Her eyes are closed and her mouth smiles quietly. Pulsing slightly, she is silent for several seconds, then her mouth pops open. She cries out in a sharp, barking moan. As if surprised from sleep, but not yet awake, her eyes open wide and the camera catches a glint in the whites of her eyes. With her eyes and mouth still open, her head rolls slowly back, dropping below the camera frame. The black-and-white video loop shows a woman’s face during orgasm. Made more than 30 years ago by artist Dorothy Iannone, the video elicits different reactions: women stop and watch while most men quickly move on, impatient perhaps for the “money shot.”
This summer it was possible to wade in the waters of pornography, erotic art, psychoanalysis, and feminism by visiting four almost concurrent art exhibitions: Peeps at CUNY’s James Gallery; John Currin: Works on Paper—A Fifteen Year Survey of Women at Andrea Rosen Gallery; Dorothy Iannone: Lioness at The New Museum; and The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women at Cheim & Read. Taken together, these shows trace a line of erotic imagery from the crass commercialism of pure pornography to the more refined commercialism of the art gallery, raising questions about how these forms relate to modern sexuality. Let’s be explicit: sex sells. It sells itself—always one click away—and it sells other commodities: beer, cars, tennis rackets, and, yes, art. Certainly, the aspiration for erotic imagery presented in an art setting is that it would stimulate reflections on desire, sexism and human rights. Working from the opposite direction, however, the exploitative forces at work in the making and selling of pornography cannot be completely sugarcoated in a fine art frame.
In Peeps, curator Amy Herzog exhibits genuine pornographic film shorts made from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, but positions them within the context of the history of peepshow technology, free speech and privacy legislation, cinematic iconography, and sociological trends. The films are presented in an elaborate warren of spaces, designed by artist Pierre Huyghe, to mirror the experience of the original peepshow arcades. The ordinary bodies of the women in these films poignantly underscore their amateur role-playing; these girls could actually live next door. These films may seem quaint compared to today’s pornography, making it easy to overlook the exploitation at their core.
Some of the related art photography, films and videos exhibited in Peeps by such figures as Jean Genet and Alvin Baltrop touch on homoerotic themes, which fill out Herzog’s story. The peepshow arcades were often raided on obscenity charges, but Herzog suggests the underlying reason was a fear of public homosexual activity. While her approach to the history of pornography provides an academic armature for showing explicit subject matter, a queasy discomfort comes from the thought that the blue nature of the films might also be a come-on for the show. Whether this show rises to the level of art or is simply cultural artifact, we have to ask why we are looking.
If Peeps aims to raise pornography to art, the Currin show is more than willing to meet it in the middle. Dressed up in traditional fine art trappings, his drawings of nude women betray a mocking smugness infused with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy as well as stylized commercial imagery dating from the same era as the “Peeps” films. Grouped by type of distortion to female anatomy—most notably breasts—the physical morphing of his subjects trades on the innocence associated with yesteryear, while bringing to mind today’s pumped porn stars. Currin’s approach to nude women has been amply rewarded by the market, where it appears that naked exploitation needs to be elevated only by the sheerest of winking ideas.
Responding to Laura Mulvey’s influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975)—her feminist “call to arms” against crippling phallocentric attitudes in Hollywood filmmaking—The Female Gaze is a diverse selection of depictions of the female form by forty women artists. Mulvey’s argument posits that “the roots of [woman’s] oppression” in patriarchal society are in an unconscious language mirrored by and built into narrative cinema. It is the language of men, who, as its creators, show women to be dangerous unless they are confined as desirable fetish objects. (Could there be a better description of Currin’s work?)
Current sexist attitudes and other breaches of human rights, such as female infanticide, bride burnings, girls denied educational opportunities, and even the press’ recent trivialization of our Secretary of State, can be traced to the male gaze. Feminist thinking has evolved: gender—now more broadly defined—is seen as occurring along a continuum of female/passive and male/active qualities available to both men and women. The audience of Female Gaze, (and by extension, the three other shows) must decide how Mulvey’s argument applies to the exhibition’s broad range of fine art and how the artwork expresses her hope for an empathetic alternative language. Alice Neel’s oil portrait, “Olivia 1975,” painted the year of Mulvey’s essay, offers some clues: it shows a seated pre-teen girl, casually dressed who “double dares” the viewer to objectify and commodify her.
Neel’s painting links us back to Iannone’s video; both artworks employ an active female voice to express the essence of the individual portrayed, not something you’ll find in the Peeps films. Iannone is an American artist long-based in Berlin and her video is part of a modest-sized retrospective. The show includes brightly colored paintings, small plywood cutout figures, and narrative drawings. Her cartoon-like, flatly painted work emphasizes the erogenous zones of the figures in her narrative tableaus. It may look primitive next to Currin’s work, but it pioneers a revelation in erotic art: Iannone exalts our variable sexual identities and urges. Her work candidly documents a personally risky journey in pursuit of sexual expression that leaves feminists, Freud, and even free speech on the sidelines. In the process, she meets Mulvey’s challenge to advance our understanding of the female unconscious.
The cumulative effect of these shows is to accentuate the question of whether erotic art can move beyond exploitation to affect our thinking about healthy gender identity and human rights. Peeps sets the stage, documenting the roots of the commercialization of sexuality. Female Gaze generously offers a rare alternative, one in which only the most self-hating woman could produce images like those in Currin’s show. Perhaps its best to see Currin’s work simply as a foil for the work of the brave and underappreciated Iannone. Yet it is Peeps that stays with you: the show may archive a minor historical moment, but it has a troubling poignancy. What looks like more innocent times are not innocent at all; rather they stand as a benchmark of just how little our view of women has progressed in sixty years.