Whitehot Magazine

September 2009, THE FEMALE GAZE @ Cheim & Read

The Female Gaze, Installation view, The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women, Cheim & Read, 25 June – 19 September, 2009

THE FEMALE GAZE: Women Look at Women at Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
June 25 through September 19, 2009
Though the word “feminism” was never used in the exhibition, Cheim & Read’s THE FEMALE GAZE: Women Look at Women could be considered the next wave – ahem, so to speak – of WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the seminal feminist retrospective that toured the country and stopped at PS 1 in 2008. THE FEMALE GAZE makes a teensy step forward for artwork made by womankind, even though it wouldn’t admit to it. And, by including both the very new female artist (painter Ghada Amer, photographer Katy Grannan) and the very old female artist (Julie Margaret Cameron) in the mix, the show at least contextualizes the more recent contributors’ work and gives it a place in art history.
Gender, lustful gazes, and curatorial messages aside, if you’re a modern and contemporary art lover, it’s a thrill to see these female artist all-stars together, side by side - and for free. There are 41 works in total, and from Marina Abramovic to Cindy Sherman to Sally Mann to Tracey Emin, this showing is a thorough who’s who of female art history.

Rather than acknowledging and raging against the male gaze that Laura Mulvey pointed out in 1975, as the feminist artists of the ‘70s-WACK era did, this exhibit aims to reclaim the gaze, by showing “a group of works in which the artist and subject do not relate as voyeur and object, but as woman and woman.” This concept of a woman-to-woman power dynamic feels about right at times, and completely falls flat at times, too.
Make no mistake about this body of work. THE FEMALE GAZE is a near-museum-quality show in a Chelsea art gallery. The pieces are thoughtfully laid out over four rooms, loosely arranged according to themes – faces/portraits in the front room, sexuality and sex in the second, bodies and body parts in the third, and then straight-up nude and full body portraits in the fourth. From the pioneering mid-19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron to Anh Duong, a Vietnamese-Spanish painter whose portrait painting in the show dates to this year, over a century of artwork by female artists is on display.

The range of nationalities, though mostly American and European, is fairly impressive, as is the range of media. Though painting is queen here there is variety to be had, including: Female Sensibility, a video tape loop (1973) by Lynda Benglis, detailing a woman-to-woman sexual encounter; a Vanessa Beecroft sculpture, a stunningly imposing life-sized female model made of beeswax and laying prostrate; and Couple, a pink fabric and stainless steel sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, in miniature and encased in glass, representing a duo engrossed in animalistic lovemaking.

The Female Gaze, Installation view, The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women, Cheim & Read, 25 June – 19 September, 2009

Yet a consciousness and/or awareness of the male gaze thoroughly saturates several of the works. For example, the small, signature-style gesso and cut paper piece by Kara Walker, showing a silhouetted caricature of an antebellum slave girl about to suck her thumb; there is no removing the voyeur-object push and pull from any of her highly charged works that deal with the exploitation of and apathetic attitude toward the history of slavery. Also there’s Heart, a painting by Lisa Yuskavage, showing a grotesque yet pixie tween-woman – with pointy breasts and flipped-out hair – touching herself. Its colors are rendered so pink-and-orange, sticky sweet and the figure so hyper-sexualized that all you can think of is 70s-era porn and smut mags (which are inextricably linked to the male gaze). Even the very contemporary and gorgeously crafted Ghada Amer work in the show speaks to the legacy of the male gaze – a gray, black and white embroidery painting of female nudes on canvas, out of which threads sprout messily and whimsically from the bodies sketched underneath. (This work is powerful, messy and precise all at the same time, and in the vein of what she exhibited in Love Has No End at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2008.)
The freshest pieces in THE FEMALE GAZE are those more concerned with the connection of culture politics to the female body rather than the act of looking at the body. Shirin Neshat’s large-scale photographic portrait of a Middle Eastern bride, is mesmerizing. The female gaze back at the viewer (and artist) is depressingly solemn here. Dressed up in a wedding gown complete with headpiece and string of pearls, and posing in front of a wall filled with Arabic text, this woman seems to be pleading for a helpful gaze to rest eyes on her.

Marilyn Minter’s slick photograph, Wangechi Gold is undoubtedly the most aggressive piece, the most contemporary, and the one that speaks to where feminists – young artists and women alike – are at now in terms of the gaze. There are no eyes present in this portrait, only mouth – the big, open mouth of artist with gold-capped teeth and liquid gold spewing.

The Female Gaze, Installation view, The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women, Cheim & Read, 25 June – 19 September, 2009

No piece in the show is more captivating than Jenny Holzer’s Untitled (Selections from ‘Lustmord’ Text) from 1994. This panel series of cibachrome prints – three across and seven photos down – rely on text, as Holzer always does, though in more immediate, human, and visceral ways than any other of her works. This piece is from 1993 and relates to the Bosnian war and the sexual brutalities that humankind wages at times of war: Each photo in each panel shows a piece of a body part inked with thoughts pertaining to sex murders, rapes, and violent desires.

The piece is eerie, haunting, mesmerizing, and its effect stays with you. As any effective artwork – and a few in this show – require more than a just a gaze. The real looking is after you’ve walked away and you can no longer see it.

Joanne Hinkel

Since 1999 Joanne Hinkel has been writing about urban culture, food, and mostly about art, for alternative magazines, weekly papers, and websites. She has written for The Boston Phoenix, Stuff at Night, F Newsmagazine, UR Chicago, Chicago Artists' News, and Film.com.

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