On ViewCheim & Read
June 23 – August 31, 2016
If criticism manifests most strongly in the face of what is meant to move us forward as a species, one can only imagine what curator John Cheim was expecting for the onset of his most recent exhibition, The Female Gaze, Part II: Women Look at Men.1 It might be easier, though perhaps a bit militant in this case, to look askance at a man for tackling a women-centric show, or at the canon-grounded lineup, or at the cautionary, simplified curatorial statement [Would we view these works differently if they were made by men?] than to admit that Cheim is at the forefront of disrupting galleries’ absence from “the conversation.” Taking cues from Cheim & Read, it is pressing that galleries recognize their immense audibility and visibility—that they acknowledge that what and who they choose to represent matters.
The Female Gaze… with its roster of legendary women artists, encompasses painting, sculpture, photography, and mixed-media presentations of the male body: hyper-feminine males, graphic pornography, and sculpted penises play to both our cultural fixation with erotica and unfold persistent gender/sexuality biases. From Louise Bourgeois’s massive, brown member, Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968 – 99), a dangling sculpture that seems to rot in real time; to Lynda Benglis’s photographic depictions of the ambiguous boundaries between gender/sexuality identification in Secret 3 (1974); to EJ Hauser’s gestural shrine and Whitman’s brilliance, Big Whitman (2012), each artist has adopted the male body as their subject, immortalizing them into objects married with sweeping sentiments. These women have sown seeds of pride, disgust, frustration, confusion, indifference, and reverence that, taken together, personify the historically tangled rapport between men and women.
According to Cheim, these artists “reverse stereotypical gender roles; instead of seeing men as oppressors, men become the subject of [women’s] gaze.” In today’s terms, is it still remarkable for women to illustrate a man’s body? Or is this an outdated claim that censors or occludes, more evolved and relevant commentary on gender and sexuality? While more transgressive in the case of works like Berenice Abbott’s 1927 photograph, Cocteau in Bed with Mask, Paris, the curatorial mold wilts when applied to contemporary works, like Celia Hempton’s Ben (2016). To be fair, the show spans ninety years of boundless revisions to the language of identity and there is no doubt that these artists have assumed command of their gender, sexuality, and sovereignty. However, it is also fair to admit that these works conjure historic power discrepancies. Tracey Emin and Jenny Holzer, for example, have harnessed the power gap, exposing otherwise camouflaged notions that stain the ways in which women navigate reality.
Emin’s Is This a Joke (2009), rendered on a coarse blanket with light-brown smudges, hangs central on its own semi-permanent wall, washed with sun from the gallery’s skylights. Wrought with aggressively thick black thread—forging hard lines and a jerky abstraction—two bodies are caught in an intimate moment. Above the couple, written with childlike dexterity, are the words: “IS THIS A JOKE.” The woman lying beneath the man wears an expression of either pain or ecstasy, perhaps both, echoing Bernini’s ethereal Teresa and emotional ambiguity as Teresa surrenders:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold […] He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; […] The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.2
Four lines, resembling knives or some penetrating object, horizontally align across his spine. Is the joke, heteronormatively speaking, rooted in our capacity to love men and adopt a jaded disposition to emotional anguish and daily degradation? Emin probably had in mind her own idea of the joke in question, but the obscure forms and the lovers’ enigmatic faces easily absorb the messiness of our own romantic relationships and complex dynamics with the opposing gender.
An abrupt shift from emotional gravity, Jenny Holzer’s marble footstool is placed in front of Emin’s embroidery. Selection from Survival: Men Don’t Protect… (2006) recalls ancient Greek and Roman traditions of carving moral codes into architectural landmarks, but Holzer’s surface offers a new moral code, “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE,” carving into women’s contemporary concerns—consider, for example, the intense dialogue on justice for sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work, maternity and child-care services, etc. The bond between the classical and the contemporary alters the artist’s semantics, skewing the work to function as satire or protest; ultimately, by presenting protest as mockery, the work allows for a loose admission of “progress.”
The Female Gaze… illuminates perpetuating male behaviors that have hindered women—whether exercised from a place of intention, indifference, or external pressure. It embodies decades of revision to gender/sexuality norms and is vast with kaleidoscopic responses to the male body. Most transparently, it is another concrete rupture of conventional exhibition trends, made possible by pioneering artists, and another welcomed proffer that galleries wager with radioactive discourse over neutrality. Without demonizing men, The Female Gaze… manifests, through a contemporary lens, a persistent complexity between genders, and prioritizes women’s strength, encouraging a necessary shift in the global imbalance of power.
- Women Look at Men: Part II is the follow-up exhibition to Cheim & Read’s 2009 show Women Look at Women.
- John J. Burke, ed., Saint Teresa of Jesus: The Order of Our Lady of Carmel, (New York: The Columbus Press, 1911), 215.