Betty Tompkins “Virgins”
through May 13th
535 West 22nd Street, third floor
New York NY 10011
By INGRID DINTER, APR. 2017
Betty Tompkins first solo exhibition at PPOW is titled “Virgins”. Considering the subject matter, this seems somewhat disingenuous - or maybe not. The artwork is installed and arrayed throughout the gallery’s several spaces, in a seemingly orderly, chaste, almost prim, manner.
Perhaps there is more going on here than meets the eye.
The first gallery space contains six large elegant grisaille paintings. Their soft gradations on the pristine and well-lit white walls beckon, then, when you move into the space to further explore, you discover their subject matter - what happens next is up to you.
It is perhaps that response to the subject matter which has propelled Tompkins’ career since the late 1960’s. When she decided that the stack of pornography in her then husband’s corner of the room could engage her painter’s imagination, she ran with it. For close on five decades Tompkins has stayed true to her vision.
Born to some degree of the “women’s liberation movement” of the late 60’s, and in tandem with the social and cultural upheavals of the times, women—particularly, female artists—pushed back against gender stereotypes and outmoded expectations—seeking fresh ways to define themselves (see Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Lozano, Judith Bernstein, and many more). Tompkins saw the potential to co-opt what was then considered “male” territory, as in pornography, and made and changed it to her own - almost like a good old-fashioned squat.
She turned this subject matter into a language (literally, as well), in which she has been telling us, for a very long time, that it is quite alright to be who you are as a woman (and by extension, a person) and live a life - just take it and do it.
Sounds simple enough, but in terms of the 1960’s it was really quite radical. The fact that this story has survived this long, and remained true to it’s essence, gives truth to the purity of it’s intent.
In contrast to the wild impulses of her subject matter Tompkins work habits are almost academic. The canvasses are perfectly stretched and primed, the best quality art paper is carefully gridded out, the images are thoughtfully selected and cropped. Much effort is given to preparation of paint and color. Her studio looks much like that of any other painter.
Tompkins has pretty much confined her painting palette to four shades of gray, and white and black. This monochromatic palette gives the pornographic visuals an almost quaint retro look.
Running parallel to the use of pornography as subject matter Tompkins has also long been interested in words (though these works are not in this current show). In earlier times she had dozens of rubber stamps made of crude and slangy words referring to sex: pump, hump, boff, schlong, ball, to name a few. She stamped the surface of the canvas with these words, creating the same paintings we see today. It is only by moving right up close to the canvas that it becomes apparent that the entire image is composed of stamped words, in different shades of gray (no, I don’t think fifty). A remarkable feat, indeed.
The physical strain of this working method eventually started to take a toll, and Tomkpins turned to the air brush more and more. This gives the painting a different quality, softer, breezier, which belies the intensity of the earlier hand stamped or painted work.
Decades ago Tompkins took it upon herself to solicit “words” that referred to women, mostly in crude terms, from anyone far and wide. She called the project “Women Words”. She placed this assortment of words (not her own), in plain Helvetica font, on colorful small canvases (ca. 5 x 7 inches), with a variety of whimsically painted and often abstract backgrounds. The original intention was to create 1000 of these paintings, and then to find a venue for exhibition. This took place last year at The FLAG Art Foundation in New York City (and has since been on view at various other places). This project continues today, and includes works in acrylic paint on watercolor paper, in black and white and color.
As one moves towards the back rooms at PPOW one rounds a corner and on the left wall is an installation of smaller paintings, 16 x 16 inches each, in a grid of nine works. These are all “Pussy Paintings”, the earliest from 2011. Again, over and over, subject matter is often transcended. The close crops transform the depictions, morphing them into other things—clouds, landscapes, flowers, mushrooms —and, yes, female and male genitalia. A few more large paintings hang in the space, showing various forms of sexual activity and arousal. Then in the very back room we stumble on to color.
There are nine works on paper here, 29.5 x 41.5 inches each, all dated 2016 but one 2017, forming a long horizontal line around the room. The images have been carefully laid out and composed, the paper gridded. Each drawing has a different colored background and the images are airbrushed in gray acrylic paint.
What are they telling us? Many things. The joy of painting. Of being free to choose your subject matter; of seizing one’s right to live free and of fighting for this right; of sexual politics; of innocence lost and found; about being adult; about being a certain age and of a certain generation and gender, and the consequences thereof.
There is more to Betty Tompkins work than meets the eye. WM
A further exhibition of small color paintings, titled “Small”, is concurrently on view, through May 20th, at Marlborough Contemporary New York.
Ingrid Dinter is an independent curator and sometime writer, based in New York City. She was the owner of Dinter Fine Art, a gallery in Chelsea, from 2004 to 2009. Besides curating 35 exhibitions at the gallery, she also curated “Consider The Oyster” at Graham & Sons (2010) and “Summer Salt” at The Proposition (2011), as well as an ongoing artists film program called “Bohemian Nights”, shown at various venues including the Gershwin Hotel (New York City), The Emerald Tablet (San Francisco), and at IMC LAB (New York).
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