Is There a Female Gaze?John Haber
in New York City
Juergen Teller, Alfred Gescheidt, and Janine Antoni
Is there a female gaze? If so, what would it look like, and who would it see? Would it see a pink fabric couple having anal sex over a slab of cold steel? The question may sound more like metaphysics or a lousy sexist joke than gallery-going. Yet it goes back to one of the most influential ideas in contemporary art.
For feminist criticism, men looking at women has become a pretty good summation of art history—a history in which women's bodies are never their own. It may seem impossible to keep putting new twists on the story. And maybe it says more about the mess of contemporary culture than about the vitality of contemporary art, but artists do so all the time.
As fall 2009 hit the galleries, a male photographer staged the most blatant parody of the male gaze. And he did it with a fashion model and actress. If Juergen Teller thus directs a mostly one-note performance, a look back at Alfred Gescheidt rings has kept finding new insights over twenty-five years. His overlooked body of work straddles high and low culture, including commercial photography and fine art. It also offers a shifting portrait of American anxieties and American desires.
Meanwhile women are making a point of looking at and for themselves. Janine Antoni, for one, turns the video camera on an enormous eye. And an oversized gallery survey of "The Female Gaze" collects women looking at women. It never quite sorts things out, including whether "the female gaze" actually exists. It even has a male curator.
Feminists (like me) often have a problem with museums, summed up in a handy catch phrase, the male gaze. It means too few women artists, too many male viewers, too many women in a dollhouse, and too much willing female flesh. One could imagine the adolescent male version—too few superheroes and too few real naked women. Juergen Teller has an answer. He provides the R-rated version of Night in the Museum.
It still might disappoint kids of all ages. Nothing comes alive after hours after all, and no one reveals the da Vinci code. Teller photographed Charlotte Rampling, the actress, and Raquel Zimmermann, the model, stark naked in the Louvre. They stand erect beside towering Greek gods and heroes. They loll against the guard rail protecting the Mona Lisa, as if waiting for the action. If they looked any more detached, they might be Photoshopped in.
Art can shove your desires in your face—or more quietly pick apart your expectations. It can also end up reinforcing them. To get fancy about it, one might call these possibilities parody, deconstruction, and redoubling. Maybe any critique of anything has a hand in all three, but Teller definitely does. The parody part is easy, especially with such stately and enigmatic nudes. One can almost hear him shouting, a little desperately, "Get it?"
More quietly, no one behaves quite as expected. The Louvre turns out to hold mostly male nudes, not the male gaze, and the women upstage them. They also do everything they can to keep cool. Meanwhile the camera lingers over a statue's white male thigh. In another photo, a god or satyr thrusts his hand into a creature's innards. Nothing identifies the statue's gesture as an appetite for violence or just for meat.
The women could easily pass for mother and daughter. That adds another enigma, and it undermines the old obsession with youth and beauty. Yet for all that, the stars make an awfully attractive pair, as part of an awfully slick presentation. The show's title, "Paradis," may sound like mockery of fine art as an unspoiled paradise. In practice, it means that Teller staged all this for Paradis, "un magazine pour l'homme contemporain." In English, that means lots of fashion shoots and naked women.
One can enjoy and admire Teller's mockery, but also art's paradise by the dashboard lights. The women redouble the flesh and the poses behind them. Even their age difference, despite perfect bodies, echoes the supposed timelessness of art. A photo of Napoleon Crowning Josephine, a sad show of conformity by Jaques-Louis David, does not gain all that much critical distance from a spot washed out by Teller's flashbulb. Still, for the most part Teller's strangeness wins out, at least with Rampling and Zimmermann in the picture. These nudes hate to give anything away.
Still trying to quit smoking? You could morph the end of the cigarette into a combination lock—or light it with sparks from sticks of dynamite. You could die, impaled on a cigarette, or go up in a puff of smoke. You could trap yourself forever in a vending machine wanting more. You could put the cigarette on the couch to analyze its appeal, your failure, or therapy itself. Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Alfred Gescheidt thought of all these and more back in 1964. He works seamlessly, with double exposures, overprinting, and shifting lenses. They leave the illusion obvious but the fakery behind its marvelous humor impossible to tease apart. Like all Gescheidt's photographs, Thirty Ways to Stop Smoking is not about advice, but desire. A woman even reaches out from a billboard to offer a cigarette. Not that the man on the street, trapped in his suit and tie, can respond.
Photoshop has made manipulation a way of life, and art has responded by harping on rough edges. Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol insisted on them long ago, long before Andy Warhol came to stand for changes in contemporary art. David Salle and the "pictures generation" made the edges rougher still. As Surrealism goes, one could call it a battle between Man Ray and Max Ernst, and Ernst's mad collage has won out. For now, in dreams begin irresponsibilities. Gescheidt's age still dreamed deeply but trusted surfaces.
Gescheidt learned from modern photography's finest artisans of the surface, in Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Strand. He also studied design, and his images appeared widely as commercial photography. They also peer beneath its surface. In fact, their surface still looks familiar enough to be worth peeling away. I mistook the woman's slim offer of a cigarette pack for an iPhone. Yet Gescheidt may depart most from convention as photojournalism—and as a chronicle of a quarter century of desire.
His postwar America seems confused by its own optimism, like his man with a bathing beauty at his fingertips. The Cold War brings irony and dread, from a woman quite literally walking on the head of a pin to a man clinging to the side of a skyscraper. The 1960s loosen up, even as the pressures build. The white shirt and narrow tie give way to the young urban professional—stuck in his own briefcase with a slide rule, too many papers, and "creative department classics." Political upheaval peeks out through the horseshoe snagging the Washington Monument, with another on its way through the sky. Money looms large too, like the long shadow of the words mutual funds, but the sexual revolution increasingly dominates.
Frustrated desire was at the heart of Gescheidt's special comedy and anxiety all along. The camera's eye is always male, like the photographer himself looking back from a pair of binoculars, but then an anonymous hand grips them both. A drawbridge parts for a nude flat on her back like a barge. A man treads warily on a carpet of breasts, like walking on eggshells. Another naked man stares up in wonder at an enormous naked crotch, but there is no turning back. He is already well between her legs. Even without a cigarette, this work smokes.
Janine Antoni puts a lot of herself into her work. As early as 1992, one could call her work performance art, but she presented it as sculpture. She carved Gnaw not in marble but in chocolate and lard—and not with a chisel but with her teeth. Her Saddle of 2000 shaped the rawhide into a fallen or degraded woman. The shapes, the materials, and the process all invoke a woman's body image, but nothing privileges her anxieties over the viewer's. Nothing, that is, but her way of turning them into art.
Performance often has macho overtones. No wonder a feminist like Carolee Schneeman adopted it. When Chris Burden drags himself across broken glass, Matthew Barney scales the Guggenheim, and Tehching Hsieh punches a time clock for a year, they boast of their "Endurance." Antoni concluded a 2003 performance, a tightrope walk, simply by falling. Even when Marina Abramovic turns performance art into an act of submission, naked on a gallery shelf, she stares back. Face to face with the viewer, Antoni blinks.
She blinks thunderously at that. Every blink of an enormous video eye (no razor blade in sight) lands with quite a thud. For all that, she is not above laughing at it, and nothing identifies it as hers. The wrecking ball on the floor could monumentalize the eyeball, stare it down, threaten it with destruction, or drive it to tears. The work's title, Tear, cuts both ways. The ball has seen better days, but so have a lot of people.
Her show's title, "Up Against," could have her taking a stand or just "up against it." A handful of copper gargoyles peer out from their pedestals, more like pet geckos than architectural wonders, and in a photograph she pees through one. Antoni could be taking on male superiority, working through penis envy, or just fighting off animal interest in her crotch. One new photograph straps her in a harness, held up by ropes resembling a spider's web. Like the geckos, it plays against the old identification of a woman's body with nature. It stands for entrapment, too, and so could the ball and chain.
It also associates her with domesticity, by framing her thighs with an oversized dollhouse—and the entire scene with an actual interior. The spider web is one of many references in her work to weaving. The 2003 tightrope spun out from an industrial drum and across the gallery floor, like a loose spool of thread. After a 1994 performance, Slumber, she knitted the pattern of her brain waves into a blanket. An earlier tightrope walk, in 2002, made her seem to walk on water, and she speaks of her work as a search for balance. Plainly balance is hard to come by.
Antoni insists on a woman's agency, but she takes the consequences in stride. Her themes themselves form a loose weave. They can leave her shows too cryptic or too clunky, like leftovers from an opening-night performance that few will ever see. Just as often, though, that refusal to have the last word helps her shed roles as quickly as she embraces them. It leaves her a supporting actor in her own work, and few artists are so at ease in the role. As she pees on a balcony, she has the star quality of a fashion shoot.
When it comes to gender, Teller, Gescheidt, and Antoni taken together point the camera in every conceivable direction. Is there anything left? A gallery survey of women looking at women seems to think so. Maybe or maybe not, but it allows a kind of summing up of the story thus far.
In a way, art history begins with cult objects with big boobs. At least since the Renaissance, painters have lingered over the female nude, too, but with a more secular intent, although Gian Lorenzo Bernini did his part with The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa fully clothed. And at least since Judith Leyster in the Baroque, women have demanded the right to stare back. For Artemisia Gentileschi, make that fight back. With Manet's Olympia and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a woman's stare drove Modernism's rebellion. With feminism, it insists on still more.
"The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women" backs off from asking just how much more, but it leaves an intriguing trail of evidence anyway. In a much-cited 1975 essay on Hitchcock, Laura Mulvey saw a man with a camera riddled with lust and fear—a vision that Daniel Canogar on video has since made vivid. Even for Manet and Picasso, though, a staring woman meant a pleasure, a threat, and a whore. Art, like its subject, was a male product, a fetish object, and a basket case. Women take charge of recovery, and they do not simply stare back. Women do the looking, and they do not so much as bother to look at men. That creates a superficial unity, but also puzzles of its own.
John Cheim, the curator (and, yes, obviously male), finds women lingering over ideals of female beauty as long ago as Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian photographer. Well before Charlotte Rampling, Cameron already photographed an actress, Ellen Terry. Roni Horn, in her photographs of Isabelle Huppert, merely updates the ideal for a more critical, self-aware era. So do Marilyn Minter, Lisa Yuskavage, and Ghada Amer, with their very unidealized takes on soft core. The forty artists includes the proudly self-obsessed, like Tracey Emin, and the smartly self-critical, like Cindy Sherman. They also include artists that one hardly associates with a woman's point of view.
That is what makes show so ingenious, but also disingenuous. What exactly has changed when a woman looks at women, and what has not? For Diane Arbus, Catherine Opie, or Alice Neel, men would look just as sympathetic and just as creepy. For Marlene Dumas or Kara Walker, they would look just as much the victim of oppression. At least I think they would. The show does not offer a basis for comparison, and it hardly could without losing focus.
Should one care that the focus is itself the product of someone's gaze? Probably. Call it a formula or a cop-out, but it is still a surprise—like that pink fabric couple by Louise Bourgeois. Easy summer pleasure or not, it does give women the last word. When Abramovic says Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful while combing her tangled hair, every stroke hurts. But it is, and she is.
Juergen Teller ran at Lehmann Maupin through October 17, 2009, Alfred Gescheidt at Higher Pictures through October 24, Janine Antoni at Luhring Augustine through October 24, and "The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women" at Cheim & Read through September 19.