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Can the Artist's Perspective Change the Art? A recap of The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men

Diane Arbus, "Jack Dracula, the Marked Man" (1961), vintage gelatin silver print, 11 in. x 14 in. (Image courtesy of The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC)


Cheim & Read’s current exhibition The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men showcases a range of work from female artists depicting men. On display until September 2, the selection from 32 women initiates a dialogue on how gender affects the lens through which we see our daily world. The show is a follow up to the first show in 2009, Women Look At Women. Both exhibitions are supposed to explore the question: “would we react differently to these works if they were made by a man?”

Diane Arbus, "Young couple on a bench in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C." (1965), gelatin silver print, 14 3/8 in. x 15 1/2 in. (Image courtesy of The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC)

The exhibition brings together a range of interpretations through diverse media including photography, painting and sculpture. When you enter the gallery, the first smaller room includes varied perspectives sometimes even from the same artist. There are two photographs from Diana Arbus with two distinct stories; one showcases a young male and female couple assuming stereotypical gender roles. The girls sits with her legs crossed, looking toward the camera; her boyfriend sits with his legs spread, taking over the bench with one leg weighing down on top of both of her legs and showing no regard for the camera. This contrasts with another one of her photographs, where a man lies seductively in the grass. His entire body is decorated with tattoos; his fingers flash rings and he looks straight into the camera, fearless and proud. Also in this room, Lynda Benglis’ "Smile" is a double dildo cast in bronze and pinned to the wall as an outline of a smile; like many others works in the show, the sculpture intensely sexualizes the male body. With the title of "Smile," the work also mocks the inability of the male body to fill a desire, with the need to turn to a sex toy.

Lynda Benglis, "SMILE" (1974), cast bronze, 15 1/2 in. x 6 1/2 in. x 2 1/4 in. (Image courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York)

On one end of the spectrum, men are represented in a natural, hyper masculine and animalistic manner. “Frank as a Proboscis Monkey” references man’s primal origins, with the man set in a lush forest setting. The man’s nose has been replaced with a longer snout of a Proboscis monkey and reminds us that man evolved from an ape. From comparing men to animals, there is also work that glorifies man. While Sarah Lucas also roots man to his natural origins, her large and stately sculpture of a phallus bears resemblance to a strong tree trunk with its bark-like sides and natural curve. It speaks to nature’s awe and grandeur. 

Throughout the show, the constant questioning of the male role continues with many of the paintings depicting men in typically feminine poses. Chantal Joffe’s "Man in a Riverhighlights a man with long hair and an androgynous body through soft brush strokes. In a similar tone, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s painting of a naked man posing for the camera is reminiscent of traditional portraits of nude women. Another painting "Paul Rosano in Jacobsen Chair" by Sylvia Sleigh shows a nude man sitting in a feminine pose, with a large scale mirror in the background. It alludes to the fact that he is able to view himself in this manner, though his back is toward the mirror. Celica Hampton focuses on only the male genitalia and buttock with the subjects in erotic positions, and objectifying and yet idolizing heir body. Lastly, Louise Bourgeois’s hanging sculpture of a gigantic phallus seems overtly masculine; yet, her title "Fillette" meaning ‘little girl’ raises ambiguity.

Dana Schutz, "Frank as a Proboscismonkey" (2002), oil on canvas, 36 in. x 32 in. (Image courtesy of Petzel Gallery)

Kathe Burkhart, "WHORE: FROM THE LIZ TAYLOR SERIES (THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN)" (2013), acrylic, fabric, composition leaf, condom, fake pearls and gems, decorative papers and digital prints on canvas, 58 in. x 78 in. (Image courtesy of the artist)

While some works focused just on the male gender, other pieces highlight society’s evolving relationship between men and women. A marble bench with the engraved inscription Men Don’t Protect You Anymore by Jenny Holzer sends a definitive message. With the phrase being emblazoned on marble, it challenges how men were once perceived in the days of the ancient Greek to society’s current stance. One of my favorite pieces “Whore: From the Liz Taylor Series (The Only Game In Town)” depicts an intimate scene, with the woman in the dominant role as she shows control over her male counterpart. While the bottom of the painting reads WHORE in bold, red lettering, it is ironic to note that she wears a ring on the finger traditionally meant to symbolize an engagement or marriage. The books on her nightstand allude to many sexual behaviors that are considered taboo. The painting warns of the destructive impact of society’s narrow thinking; her tattoos of “Bad Girl” and a witch on her arm show that society may have affected her self-assessment.

To answer the proposed question, the exhibition demonstrates how perspective can completely change a question's meaning. While the public views the works of men by female artists, this exhibition also raises the question of having a male curator overseeing and selecting works by women. WM


Nicole Murakami

Nicole Murakami currently lives in NYC. She works as a full time digital strategist and analyst, and freelance writer. Follow her thoughts or say hello @nmurakami20.

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