NSFW: Female Gaze
Co-Presented by Creators at VICE Media
Museum of Sex
June 21-September 24, 2017
233 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016
By KURT MCVEY, JUN. 2017
Though “sex” as a hybrid noun-verb could be defined many ways and include anywhere from one person, to say, twenty-five, the word, even halfway through 2017, still seems to evoke the image of two individuals joining forces in a tumultuous hyper-loop exchange of flesh, dirty talk, heightened emotions and bodily fluids. At its best, it is the perfect confluence of earthly circumstance and cosmic chemistry. The same could be said of NSFW: Female Gaze, an all female-identifying group show at the Museum of Sex, co-curated by Marina Garcia-Vasquez, Editor-in-Chief of Creators at VICE Media and Lissa Rivera, Associate Curator of the Museum of Sex and successful photographer in her own right.
The show was a result of what Garcia-Vasquez and Rivera independently recognized as a cultural phenomenon, expressing itself both in the larger public sphere certainly, but online especially, where artists and viewers have more freedom to create and explore their own digital (safe) spaces to express, celebrate and consume their seemingly non-conformist sexual appetites and fetishes outside of the oppressive corporate mainstream.
“Marina came to the Museum of Sex (MoSex) wanting to do a collaboration with Creators,” says the wide-eyed, soft-spoken Rivera from inside the exhibition. “She knew our Creative Director, Serge Becker. I was brought into this because my background and interests aligned with this exactly.” Rivera’s recent and highly celebrated photography exhibition at Clampart gallery in Chelsea, Beautiful Boy, which opened June 1st, features gorgeous images of her domestic romantic partner, BJ Lillis (who identifies as gender-queer) inhabiting various, highly fluid gender roles in shared, auto-biographical fantasies. Rivera, who received her MFA from SVA, was creating this body of work (beginning in 2014) for her and Lillis first and foremost; pushing boundaries, both internal and external, while remaining true to their own artistic sense of self, respectively.
What Garcia-Vasquez noticed, from behind her editor desk, was that Rivera was far from alone. In fact, work built from the perspective of the female gaze and brandishing the “NSFW” warning was by far the most clicked on material at Creators, especially work created by women for women. “It was perfect,” says Rivera. “We wanted to see how this phenomenon could merge with the mission of the museum itself. We’re all about empowerment and opening people’s minds. This show is a convergence, a cultural singularity, where concept effortlessly meets space.”
Garcia-Vasquez was picking up on her audience being largely younger women, boldly clicking on NSFW material and “not having shame around it.” Rivera claims MoSex’s visitors are mostly younger women between 20-30-years old. It is no coincidence that the expansion of people’s minds, especially concerning how we view sexuality in all its forms, is coinciding with the museum’s own internal expansion. MoSex just opened up a brand-new fourth floor and looks to expand even further as it approaches its 15-year anniversary this October. Rivera, though unable to go into specific numbers, claims the museum sees a “really big visitor intake, especially for a small museum,” apparently an audience comparable to museums in New York City that are roughly twice its size.
NSFW: Female Gaze features roughly 25 artists, none of whom identify as cis-males, mind you, though Rivera, before launching into an in-depth tour of the exhibition claimed, “I like to keep it open. I don’t like putting anyone in a box.” Rivera, in defense perhaps, is quick to reference the thousands of men’s magazines in the museum’s offices and archives, all firmly rooted in the male gaze. “This funny thing happens when you look at it [a men’s magazine] as a woman,” says Rivera. “You see all these women posing and it’s bizarre, because it’s not really for you. It’s a complicated feeling that you get, witnessing it all. For so long, if you did want to explore your sexuality as a woman, you might be labeled a slut or someone who was maybe a provocateur. It was a big statement that could potentially alienate you from certain professions or even within your program as an artist. That’s changing a lot now. We really wanted to honor the artists in this show as well as their work, without it coming across as odd or weird or some big decision that they made.”
After entering the exhibition space, you’re greeted by one of Shona McAndrew’s increasingly recognizable (too soon for iconic?), somewhat larger than life acrylic and paper mâché sculptures of a young woman, “Norah,” (2016), who’s caught in the rarely witnessed, nebulous, anthropological female realm between “lean in” professional and sex object. The sculpture presents women as high-level primates really or just a female Homo sapien, chilling, perhaps noting that regardless of sex and gender, we all submit to the lizard brain once in a while.
McAndrew was a clear standout in RISD’s MFA thesis exhibition last year, primarily because she was one of the few young artists whose work actually backed up the timely talking points. In that 2016 MFA show, her sculptures were also selected to greet the audience as they entered the convention space. For the artist, who serendipitously dropped by MoSex mid-interview with Rivera, they’re all about confrontation.
“For so long I was thinking about what the word confrontation meant; whether it was their act or something my characters were holding in their face,” says McAndrew. “In my mind, confrontation just comes from the act of acceptance. I’m a larger woman. Sometimes I feel like the elephant in the room that no one can see-invisible and yet so large. So that’s kind of what these are; you have to accept that they’re here, in this room with you, no matter what.”
Rivera first discovered McAndrew’s work at this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show and it was love at first sight. “One of her sculptures caught my eye,” claims Rivera. “I love that these women are in these very private moments, lost in thought, very natural. She [“Norah”] might not even be masturbating; she might just be playing with her pubic hair. There are so many different body types in the world and so often plus sized women are not represented. I liked this as an entry-point.”
“It took me a really long time to understand what sexuality was,” admits McAndrew, graciously jumping back in. “For me, sexuality is so much more personal and subtle. So many women in particular think sex is something external that you have to grasp, but sex is not just in reach, it’s with you, it is you. For this piece, it’s sensual, because she’s just playing, exploring her body and enjoying herself. She’s looking inward as opposed to outward.”
McAndrew is headed back into the studio, most likely to create enough work for a worthy solo show a few months down the line. Where it will live remains to be seen, as she’s currently unrepresented, though not for long, one would imagine. With her new work, she hopes to deconstruct the idea of “naughtiness,” and how it relates to double standards within established gender norms. “I want to make a life-sized, nude sculpture of me playing with my boyfriend’s flaccid penis, which is something I like to do, especially while watching movies. It’s so soft and squishy!”
Next up is a series of illustrations by Yale MFA grad, Tschabalala Self. The drawings are culled from an animation work called “My Black Ass” and each has an interesting title, such as, “My Black Ass With Magical Yoni,” (2016). Rivera was initially interested in one of Self’s large-scale works, which combined different fabrics and textiles, but it wouldn’t fit through the door. Self, raised in Harlem, though now splitting time between New York and New Haven, merges an almost childlike playfulness with illustrator Ralph Steadman’s trippy disregard for bodily physics, while appealing to classic fertility goddess imagery.
KOAK, a San Francisco based painter and illustrator, creates fluid Matisse/Picasso chimeras with pastel and graphite that evoke magazine drawings from the 30s as well as nostalgic, Nickelodeon, cartoonish silliness, albeit with a lurking existential pain. In “Seagulls,” (2015), the hair of one of the two intertwined amorphous figures, in a moment that would make Dali proud, seamlessly transitions into a breast, which is then precariously suckled by a slightly more hidden, ambiguously gendered figure.
Berlin-based artist Paula Winkler’s “Centerfold” series features several, unframed, glossy “pin-up” figures hung on the gallery wall, much like the centerfolds in traditional men’s magazines, page crease included. In this case, however, Winkler’s subjects are nude men positioned in unconventional, ostensibly non-sexual poses. “Centerfolds like this are often associated with someone’s personal space, like a bedroom,” says Rivera. “We wanted to take the bedroom altar and bring it into a public space.” Winkler also has a video work in the exhibit, “MY WIG,” (2017), which explores the nature of “subject” in relation to the camera, let alone the often false narrative constructed by the person behind it.
Some of the most intricate works in the exhibition come from New York-based fiber artist Sophia Narett, who has, much like Robin Kang, obliterated the stigma surrounding work otherwise dismissed as “decorative” or “kitsch,” and elevated it beyond most contemporary painterly work featured in the market today. In her 2014 piece, “She Whispered and They Tried Things On,” crafted with embroidery thread and fabric, Narett constructs an impossibly detailed visual story that speaks to our sexual insecurities in an oversaturated media landscape. “She’s transcending the materials with the strength of the work,” says Rivera. “She’s capturing these cliché dream scenarios and showing how they can easily transform into nightmares. You can’t question the quality of this work.”
The small sculptural work of the always badass and irreverent Rebecca Goyette builds on this same dialogue, more specifically the pressures women face in regard to marriage and all the pomp, circumstance and stress that comes with it. Goyette has recently been performing live and creating video work with the clown prince of the New York City art world, Brian Whiteley. This work has almost succeeded in out trolling even someone as vociferously absurd as our current President.
For the considerably less outwardly political NSFW, however, Rivera chose to highlight Goyette’s 2009’s hand-built, ceramic sculptural work. “I know she’s more well known for her video, but we were looking for some strong 3D pieces,” says Rivera. “This ‘DisFUNKtional Bride and Groom” series spoke directly to the problematic nature of bridal culture. I love that inside of this bride [“Horsies and Butterflies Bride,” 2008] is a giant penis sex toy! In the bowl [“Junk Food Bride,” 2009] it’s a giant orgy. A wedding is supposed to be this pure event and the bride, even more pure. But for Goyette, she clearly feels this huge drive to push back.”
Here, it’s mentioned to Rivera that humor, mostly that of the darker variety, has to a degree, momentarily taken the place of outrage, a latter sentiment so clearly expressed in multiple, all-women groups exhibitions that surfaced right after the inauguration earlier this year. Perhaps female identifying artists are so frazzled and baffled by the current political climate that laughter has emerged as a necessary coping mechanism. “There’s no way to find logic with what’s going on right now, that’s for sure,” says Rivera.
New York-based artist Pixy Liao has been photographing her partner for over ten years. “They met in Memphis,” offers Rivera. “She’s Chinese and he’s Japanese. He’s also six years younger, which is very controversial in China if you’re traditional, let alone being the more powerful, established figure in the relationship.”
Instead of bowing to the cultural pressure, Liao went full force in the opposite direction by satirizing power dynamic norms in heterosexual relationships. In “Soft-heeled shoes,” (2013), Liao rendered two 3D sculptures of her partner’s penis and affixed them to a pair of spiked high-heels, which she can be seen wearing in “Walking in my shoes,” (2013) a roughly two minute video piece. Picking up on the phallic nature of heels, Liao seems to wonder if voyeurs, under the male gaze umbrella, still have an erotic reaction when they discover the oddly wobbly heels are in fact molds of her boyfriend’s flaccid dong.
For Rivera, the conversation around heels is a delightfully complex one. “I spoke to a woman earlier today who loves wearing high heels because she says they connect directly to her clitoris. So, I guess it depends on who you’re talking to.” A lesson can be learned from this statement. Perhaps, we as individuals, instead of making broad generalizations about female agency could instead take a moment to investigate an individual’s unique preferences on a case-by-case basis.
In the far corner of the inventively constructed gallery space, which allows for the original exposed brick to intermingle with the sectionalized white wall and its metal scaffolding, Amanda Charchian’s sensual photographs of her dynamic female friends, though interesting as singular art works, are perhaps more valuable as documentation of a very fascinating and essential breed of post-Millennial young women. In “India in Woodstock,” a photo of celebrated Indigo child, model, actor, and performance artist, India Menuez, culled from the photographer’s 2013 series Pheromone Hotbox, Charchian further reconstructs present and future notions of femininity.
“She’s very free, India,” notes Rivera of Charchian’s muse. “I think people like that overly expressive fearlessness. That’s been part of her trajectory. It’s why she’s able to collaborate with great photographers like Amanda.” Charchian, who is based in LA, was traveling with her friends, all women artists, and noticed this charge of energy and creativity that came from their pheromones. “It was a real sexual energy that wasn’t necessarily Sapphic, but just a raw magic.”
Charchian’s photos serve as a backdrop to New York-based artist, Amy Ritter’s large multi-media sculpture, “Foundation,” (2017). “She’s restructuring her own history,” says Rivera. “Here she is taking these materials-wood paneling that would be in a trailer, large Xerox prints that you could find at a place like Staples, and cinder-blocks-all easy to get, and she’s playing with different ways that the gaze functions, while struggling with her own past and how it informs her present identity.”
Coming around the stretch, Brooklyn-based artist Joanne Leah combines the color-saturated portraits seen in Bay-area photographer Parker Day’s ICONS series with all things Marilyn Minter. Leah’s “deviant” pop-candy images invite the viewer to explore the connection between childhood trauma and adult nostalgia. Much like Rivera, Leah also boasts a concurrent solo exhibition of her own excellent images, in Leah’s case, at the raw but spacious Not For Them gallery in Long Island City: Acid Mass.
In both exhibitions, Leah creates a wide array of playful yet cryptic fetish scenarios that place her subjects in often-uncomfortable positions, placing strict emphasis on the body as opposed to personal or public identity. “The Whole,” (2016), an archival pigment print featured in both exhibitions, places the faceless subject, a “self-tying” bondage enthusiast in a very subordinate form. “With this piece in particular, I realized that when I’m behind the camera, I start to assume this ‘Dom’ role with my subjects,” says Leah from inside her Acid Mass exhibit in Queens, which deserved its own tour. “I’m not like this in my private life. It’s totally separate. However, all of these images are very personalized journeys for me. Each is an exploration as well as an intimate collaboration.”
Though each artist in NSFW: Female Gaze stands as an essential link in the exhibition’s narrative chain, we’ll conclude with the work of Marie Tomanova, who is based in New York, but was born in former Czechoslovakia. “She mentioned that overseas, her teachers were a bit chauvinistic,” says Rivera. “So when she came to the U.S., she doubled down. Her work is very androgynous, but they’re very blown up and exposed.” For “Between Flowers, Rocks, Trees, and Self,” (2016), Tomanova traveled to Portland, set a timer, and photographed herself in extremely compromising positions. “It’s really great as a curator to have images like this when you walk through the door. It’s a big statement.”
Each work in the exhibition makes a statement of equal significance, all with a unique and powerful personal flavor, while speaking to this larger “phenomenon” as Rivera called it earlier. Of course, phenomenon might not be the right word. A tiger ripping a gazelle to shreds isn’t a phenomenon simply because you let it out of its cage. That’s what tigers do. This is what these artists-these people-do. They’re just now operating in a free, natural and transparent arena that nurtures and celebrates who and what they really are. Where some misguided artists create work because it speaks to a larger, press-worthy trend in the contemporary marketplace or a hot-button social justice issue, the work too often rings hollow or appears opportunistic. At its worst; soulless.
In NSFW: Female Gaze, these talented artists took the more powerful route: they created work that was extremely personal, challenging, intimate, vulnerable and most importantly, they created it on their own terms. Though co-curator Maria Garcia-Vasquez was essentially inspired by clear trending analytics, she, along with Lissa Rivera, should be commended for strengthening and fueling this larger cultural movement via this joyous and seemingly inevitable creative consummation. The biggest lesson seems to be this: When women are empowered, whether in the art world or in the world at large, everybody wins. WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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