“So really, who cares about love?
Who wants to feel taken away?
For fifty-two weeks of every year
There’s a new man every day
It’s too hard a choice to make up my mind
So many men can turn on my light
Don’t want true love, don’t want friends
Just give me the bodies tonight”
–Miquel Brown “So Many Men So Little Time”
2016 seems to be the year that the art world rediscovered women. Well, at least in their summer group shows. With this glut of all-women exhibitions, there are valid arguments on either side whether all-women shows are good for the careers of women artists. On one hand, women could be slotted solely as “women artists”–their careers relegated to essentialism and on the other, increased visibility is never a bad thing.
For me, the only uncomfortable aspect of some all-women shows is the underlying generalizations that come from any exhibition based on a singular identity whether sexual, gender, race, etc. A current exhibition The Female Gaze Part 2: Women Look At Men at Cheim & Read–a gallery that has not, until now, received the Filthy Dreams treatment–certainly runs the risk of asserting blanket statements about the female gaze.
However, with the strength and diversity of the chosen artists and their mediums, the exhibition becomes less about strictly defining what the female gaze looks like. Instead, it develops as a dynamic response against the monolithic representations of women by men, as well as–more importantly–portrayals of men by men.
Curated by John Cheim, following in the footsteps of their initial 2009 Female Gaze exhibition Women Look At Women, this current incarnation gathers together 32 women artists’ reflections of men. Women Look at Men ranges from feminist foremothers Louise Bourgeois’ hanging phallic sculpture and Diane Arbus’ freaky photographs to younger contemporary artists like Dana Schutz. Forging multigenerational connections, Cheim & Read creates rich relationships between the artists as seen in Catherine Opie’s androgynous image of fellow photographer Ryan McGinley that is hung on an opposite wall from Berenice Abbott’s romantic and decadent black-and-white photograph of Jean Cocteau.
As clearly set out by the title, the gallery’s main argument in the exhibition seems to emphasize the female gaze as a countermeasure to the regulatory, repressive and objectifying male gaze that fills the art history textbooks and museums. With portraits of women by male artists as a centuries-long tradition, the women in Women Look At Men disrupt this normative gaze by turning their own gaze back at men, putting a new spin on classic portraiture as seen in portraits like Grace Graupe-Pillar’s Dillon Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Cecily Brown’s Prince-referencing painting Raspberry Beret.
Rather than merely countering the male gaze toward women, Women Look At Men also disrupts the eroticized male gaze toward the male body. As a woman in the queer community that is still largely dominated by men, I can’t tell you, dear readers, the number of times I’ve attended exhibitions with themes on eroticism, desire or really anything LGBTQ-related only to be greeted by a constant stream of hypermasculinity and well, an oppressive amount of dicks. I won’t name names but you museum and galleries know who you are.
Of course, I understand and appreciate the importance of these representations of sexuality, but sometimes I think these art institutions miss other forms of eroticism beyond the masculine ideal that has held significant power since the 1970s. It also becomes alienating for those who do not fit into the hypermasculine role whether trans individuals, femmes, women or anyone else who does not perform this version of masculinity.
Women Look At Men counters this predominance of hypermasculinity by revealing a different female perspective–irrespective of the artists’ sexual identity since many of the women in the show are queer–that embraces a variety of gender performances. However, this certainly does not mean there isn’t sex in the show. There is a lot. I mean, Betty Tompkins’ appears in the backroom (*wink wink nudge nudge* get it) with her Fuck Painting #51–a wonderfully shocking, beautifully rendered and certainly not shy up-close representation of penetration.
Similarly, just because the show centers around the female gaze does not mean it is all romance novels, rose petals, candles and smooth jazz. On the contrary, boners abound in Women Look At Men through paintings like Marlene Dumas’ small and bleary-eyed Morning Glory and Nicole Wittenberg’s bright red painting Red Handed, Again.
In their press release, Cheim & Read write on the artists’ work in the show: “Instead of seeing men as oppressors, men become the subject of their gaze.” An oversimplification of the political statements made in many of the works, the gallery’s press release misses the undermining and often amusing mockery of masculinity and the dominance of the phallus in many of the works. Sure, men become the subject of the women’s gaze (notice their use of “subject” with a male sitter rather than “object” as a woman would likely be described.) But that does not mean the women are not constructing subversive narratives within these depictions.
More than just love sick imagery of men, many artists poke fun at the obsession with the male body as in Cindy Sherman’s hairy doll photograph or Sarah Lucas’ giant White Nob. Similarly, Lynda Benglis’ hilarious Smile transforms a sex shop classic–the double-headed dildo–into a classically rendered bronze wall-mounted sculpture. While I would argue this is more of a representation of queer sexuality than men, Benglis’ sculpture still reflects a conversion of the language of the male body for her own transgressive goals. Nearby, the gallery places a series of Benglis’ photographs in which she plays with a dildo. Appearing to be from the same shoot as her infamous nude 1974 Artforum ad, Benglis’ photographs and sculpture usurps masculinity.
Unsurprisingly, one of my favorite works in the show also delves into female power and gender relations. Kathe Burkhart’s Whore from her Liz Taylor Series (The Only Game In Town) depicts Taylor in bed with an almost feminine male suitor. With a stack of books including Women in Prison and the Downtown collection High Risk: An Anthology of Forbidden Writings (who knew Liz’s tastes ran so countercultural) and a condom embedded into the painting, Burkhart’s painting grapples with the policing of women’s gender presentation and sexuality through the lens of this high camp cinema legend. While Liz seems to have all the control in the bedroom as her partner licks her finger, the painting is still emblazoned with the scarlet letters “WHORE.”
The gallery asks in the press release, “Would we react differently to these works if they were made by a man?” Clearly, yes. Mostly because these works would be different if they were made by a man. Whether some art critics like it or not, identity and authorship is essential to understanding an artist’s creative output.
In an interview with Dazed, Collier Schorr speaks on the frequent overlooking of her gender identity in her representation of men. With her photograph Peter, Paul and David featuring a nude man holding an image of a nude Peter Hujar, Schorr’s statement highlights the importance of Cheim & Read’s Women Look At Men, as well as the consideration of gender in the analysis of an artist’s work. She explains, “Gay men, historically lacking power, sort of cordoned off the entire male race as a subject. I suppose I learned to objectify men from other men in literature and art, but it was troubling to feel my view was being attributed to a male one because my female authorship was being erased by the way in which my images were being consumed. I always feel that the connection between myself and the boy or man when I’m shooting is very clear: he is aware that I’m a woman and he’s clearly posing for a woman. It’s a very different kind of picture.”