The Body in Woman’s Art Part 2: Flux

The second part of the trilogy The Body in Women’s Art Now deals with the body as the permutable site of the self and women’s identity. Pushing on the line of enquiry started by the likes of Cindy Sherman who produced an image of the body as simulacral self, performative and open to interpretive intervention, the artists represented in the show have absorbed the postmodern body in their own depiction of selfhood in the 21st century. Their work reflects a cool, self-possessed attitude towards the representation of female sexuality, and show a willingness to embrace the multi-layered complexities of womanhood.

Tracey Emin uses the direct, spontaneous technique of print-making to reveal her self in the most intimate act of masturbating, outlining the contours of her body while taking special care in the depiction of her left shoe. Her legs are disproportionaly long and her hand too large but what could appear as a grotesque, crude erotic drawing in the tradition of Schiele is a sensitive evocation of woman’s lust and loneliness, faithful to Emin’s personal exploration as artistic motive and graceful in its seemingly effortless, flowing execution. Incidentally, Emin used a similar print as the basis of her animation projected on a large wall in the White Cube gallery in May 2009. I had found the flick book-style animation a rather harsh bodily display – it felt as if the brutal jerks and associated hand movements were violating my sense of self in a continuous, spasmodic loop. Sophie Platt of the F-Word discovered that masturbation remains a taboo for both girls and women, but dismissed the glittering Rampant Rabbit and glamourous series such as Sex And The City as possible remedies for increasing women’s bodily and sexual awareness. Emin would certainly provide a genuine and bald, no-nonsensical one.

Also dealing with sexuality in a most open manner is Cecily Brown. She is said to appropriate the macho techniques of abstract expressionism but New Louboutin Pumps reminds me of Bacon’s darker, figurative world. It depicts a couple in an animalesque, sexual embrace. The paintbrush seems to have licked the flesh-coloured surface like an avid tongue and a caricatured, smily face – perhaps the mirror’s reflection of the viewer’s own self – appears in the background as an ironic, voyeuristic clin-d’oeil. I had discovered the work of Brown a few years back at the Saatchi Gallery and had unfairly compared it to the more seductive, if no less radical and daring, paintings of Marlène Dumas. Even today, the large canvas, from which striking gestures and sexual matter are dripping with excess, confound the conventional expectations of a female painter.

Helen Carmel Benigson’s sugary world of pink floral wallpaper, cupcakes and over-sexed, girly attitudes addresses the liminal experience of teenage girls growing up with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as role models. Her performance as ‘Princess Belsize Dollar’, her rapper alter-ego, is as gauche and comical as the lyrics are sharp and witty, cleverly playing on the contradictory messages delivered by the media, the (mostly commercial hip hop) music industry and the multifaceted, popular and academic feminist discourses, from the pop to the punk to the postmodern version. Throughout the performance, I couldn’t stop thinking of Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of young girls on the beach or going out clubbing, dressed up like mature, sexy women on the pull but so obviously uncomfortable in their tiny bikini and mini-skirts that they appear painfully grotesque.

Tiina Heiska remains one of my favourite female painters working today, having discovered her by chance in a Parisian gallery a few years ago. Her series Butterfly Caught, in its small, intimate scale and tryptich format, evoke the subtle changes in the day-to-day life of an adolescent girl – the troubled, transforming self, hiding within the folds of the flashing pink dress, half-dreaming about fairy tales, half-aroused by the first erotic pulses of womanhood.

The most compelling works in the show are the paintings by Sarah Lederman. Ascension also deals with the disruptive changes of adolescence portraying a naked girl on a washed-out background, the red paint on her nipples emphasising her nascent sexuality. She stands upright, twitching her arms behind her back, lowering her chin into the hollow of her shoulder, her features blurring with the plain background. Her awkward pose recalls that of Munch’s vulnerable girl in Puberty (1894) as well as the ambiguously shy but provocative looks of Schiele’s Standing young girl (1912), both reflecting a psychological malaise associated with the sexual awakening of adolescence. The clumsiness of the (trans)forming body becomes an unpleasing, almost humiliating sight in Ascending in Tights I. The unflattering contours of the black tights that only succeed in shaping the legs of an otherwise formless body and ghostly face, could also belong to the body of a mature woman, evoking the aging process and the psychological pressures of growing old in our youth-obsessed contemporary society.

The Body in Women’s Art Now Part 2: Flux is at Rollo Contemporary Art Gallery, London, until 6 November.


~ by lavivette on October 18, 2010.

One Response to “The Body in Woman’s Art Part 2: Flux”

  1. […] second installment, Flux, was a frank and open dialogue on female sexuality, revealing the ambiguity, fluidity and […]

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