Saturday, October 16

‘My pubic hair paintings could hang in your living room’: Artists reclaim women’s sexuality | Art

During the darkest days of the Trump presidency, writer Alexandra Weiss and her colleagues at the Black book Gallery in New York decided to tackle a topic that felt increasingly urgent. For centuries, women’s sexuality had been considered an issue for men to choose from, with the man in charge of the White House being the most prominent recent offender. But there were no shortage of examples, from L’Origine du Monde, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting of a woman temptingly spreading her legs, to Alfred Kinsey’s revealing 1953 report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.

Instead, it seemed like a potent time to celebrate women’s perspectives on sexuality. Reproductive rights were under threat: Among other things, the Trump administration had banned taxpayer-funded family planning clinics from referring women for layoffs. Exploring women’s sexual pleasure in words and pictures, Weiss says, felt like “an act of resistance. Why not now? With social media, women have been more comfortable talking about their bodies, but pleasure is often left out of the conversation. “

The result, Weiss’s erotic compendium, A Woman’s Right to Pleasure, was released late last year, while an accompanying podcast has just been released. They are both cheerfully pansexual, with a racy roster of writers, artists, activists, and performers. The tone is set in the book’s forewords by Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay and novelist Erica Jong, whose 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying introduced the concept of “zipperless fucking,” a sexual encounter as quick as it is guilt-free.

Alongside Jenny Saville’s meaty paintings, Sarah Lucas’s misogynistic imagery, and Ellen von Unwerth’s glossy bondage-inspired magazine photos are photos taken from Renee Cox’s bold and intrepid 2001 series American Family. . Cox tackles big issues: religious conservatism, the absence of the black body in art history, and the tensions generated by depicting an American family with a black mother and a white father.

Inspired by the insults directed at her friends ... a work from the Insults / Laments series by Betty Tompkins.
Inspired by the insults directed at her friends … a work from the Insults / Laments series by Betty Tompkins. Photograph: Courtesy of Betty Tompkins and P · P · O · W, New York

American Family also brings Cox’s own sexuality to the fore when he turns 40, the age when female attractiveness seemingly begins to decline, or so we are often told. Posing in high-cut black lace lingerie, in a tight corset, or nude except for a white fur thong, Cox refuses to take a back seat or hide her desire. The work, the artist tells me, makes a proud announcement: “I am still visible, I am still viable. I’m still out here. I’m still doing my thing. And I’m going to do it as I want. You can’t write me off. “

Cox credits her French husband’s family with giving him peace of mind with his body. “When I met him,” he says, “his parents were naturists. We spent six weeks in a nudist camp in Corsica. The first three days were a bit strange. After that, you don’t even pay attention to it anymore. “

She makes a distinction between the sexual images used in American Family and other works, such as Yo Mama’s The Last Supper from 1996, in which she is simply naked, occupying the position of Christ in a version of Leonardo’s original. “Nudity was about liberation from being judged, from being placed in a box because of clothing or paraphernalia.” Once you’ve got the clothes, he says, attention shifts to “the class, where you’re from, and other little landmarks. So I like nudity in terms of purity. “

The first edition of A Woman’s Right to Pleasure sold out in weeks. You may think that it is not surprising: sex sells. Not necessarily. The exploration of sexuality from a woman’s perspective has been and continues to be controversial. When New York-based artist Marilyn Minter searched the history of art for nude works that included the pubic hair of women, she could find only ten paintings. “Artists thought pubic hair was vulgar,” says Minter. In the early 2010s, he began a series of large, lush paintings that approached pubic triangles of “all colors, all races. And I make them so pretty that you can put them in your living room. But nobody buys them. I do not mind. I know how good these bush paintings look. “

Minter, who has several works in the compendium, is not a fashionable naive. These days, so many young artists are suggestively dipping their fingers into moist, jonic foods that it has become a cliché. But Minter was getting sexy with food as early as 1976, with the 100 Food Porn series of paintings, in which the preparation of everything from lobster claws to ears of corn is given a sexually charged treatment. Minter went on to use actual pornography as the source material for the enlarged and cropped paintings of the 1989 pornography grid.. His work is displayed and compiled by institutions around the world. Five years ago, he had a great traveling retrospective called Pretty / Dirty. But can Minter change the paintings of large bushes? No, she can not.

'In the eighth take, people are disarmed' ... a detail of one of the photographs that Dani Lessnau took using her vagina as a camera.
‘In the eighth plane, the people are disarmed’ … a detail of one of the photographs that Dani Lessnau took using her vagina as a camera. Photography: Keith Snyder / Dani Lessnau

The book also features the glorious and outspoken feminist artist Betty Tompkins, who recalls a talk once given by a New York gallery director. “Someone,” he tells me, “had given him this great advice: the most difficult paintings to sell were paintings of cocks and green paintings.” So after the talk, Tompkins “did an airbrush painting of a penis. All paint is fused with a green. I also did a version on canvas. And then I did some others with greenish colors. “She laughs.” And I own all of them. “

Although Minter and Tompkins test the conservatism of the art market, challenging it is not their raison d’être. The paintings they chose for the book probe a less obvious, less mapped territory: things that are kept hidden, like pubic hair, and ignored subjects, like the desire of women. Particularly in the early years, this made her work a problematic proposition, not only for collectors, but also for her feminist contemporaries.

Sex, Tompkins explains, “has definitely not been considered a feminist issue.” In 1969, she did her first Fuck Paintings, based on penetration details from black and white pornographic photos owned by her then husband. These large photorealistic paintings seemed out of step with the anti-porn feminism of the time. Largely ignored in New York, the Fuck Paintings were selected for display in Paris, but censored upon arrival and never cleared customs. They have only been widely shown in the 2000s.

'An act of resistance' ... the cover of A woman's right to pleasure.
‘An act of resistance’ … the cover of A woman’s right to pleasure. Photography: Cass Bird. Cover courtesy of BlackBook Publishing.

Tompkins says this territory is still considered risky. “My observation over the years was that from time to time a younger artist would embrace the subject of sex. And they would until they were a little known. Then they diversified, each one of them, because it wasn’t really acceptable as a topic. “

This is not surprising: bringing sexuality to the fore is still a double-edged sword for women. In Tompkins’ Insults / Laments series, insults directed at her friends loom over airbrushed paintings of vaginas: “The only way to do it in the art world is from behind” or “I’m going to Jackson Pollock all over his face. .. “

In 2016, when Minter wanted to photograph Miley Cyrus to raise money for Planned Parenthood, an organization that fights to maintain layoff services in the US, he had to argue a lot for the group to agree. “I saw how [Cyrus] She totally owned her own sex agency from day one, ”says Minter, who speaks admiringly of the star’s Happy Hippie foundation for homeless and LGBTQ youth.

When he was young, Cyrus’s “crime” was an overtly sexual performance on MTV. “She grabbed her crotch,” says Minter, “and was embarrassed across the country. I had to argue that she was an activist. “The artist blames the insidious influence of conservatism in the US for the fact that Cyrus is one of the few celebrities who will speak publicly about the firing. Last year he reminded her of the point: “I did a show called Abortion is normal. And the women I know well, in my age group, they said, ‘You can’t say abortion is normal.’ They really drank the far-right Kool-Aid, without stopping eating ”.

Interestingly, in a book devoted to the female erotic gaze, there are few images of men, while a disappointing predominance is attractive women as models. (According to Minter, “women have fun looking at other women: what turns women on is being desired.”) Among the few male nudes, the blurred and jagged-edged portraits captured by artist Dani Lessnau, using her vagina as a camera, stand out. shutter. “I was trying to photograph a relationship that I had in a normal way and it felt flat,” says Lessnau. “It didn’t feel like my perspective. I found Ann Hamilton’s work: she put pinhole cameras in her mouth. I realized that if he could put it in his mouth … “

Like sex, the process was complicated: Lessnau turned eight cans of plastic film into pinhole cameras, covering each one with a condom before use. A single exposure took up to 90 seconds – a long time when you’re trying to stand still with your legs apart. “Sometimes the shoots were sexual and sometimes they weren’t,” he says. “But there was always a lot of desire. All the men on the series responded differently – some saw it as funny, liberating. There were always interesting conversations. “

Friends and former lovers who initially portrayed her felt uncomfortable having to stare at Lessnau’s vagina for an extended period. But, he says, “by the eighth shot, the people are unarmed.” After centuries of women’s bodies being watched by male artists, it’s an immaculate investment: Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde strikes back.

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