‘Monster/beauty deviates from the beauty ideal in which form, inflexibly ordered, is content; for monster/beauty shows off the more fully sensuous and intelligent content of soul-and-mind inseparable-from-body’.
- Joanna Frueh from ‘Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love’ (2001)
Lychee One proudly presents Monster/Beauty: An Exploration of the Female/Femme Gaze, a group exhibition curated by Marcelle Joseph featuring the artwork, ephemera and archival photographs of nineteen female-identifying or queer femme artists who portray the feminine body in its sexed or sexual state, empowering the womxn artist as both subject and object as well as image and image-maker. The works of these artists largely depict the female or queer femme body in a radically narcissistic way as theorised by Amelia Jones or in a ‘monster/beauty’ fashion as theorised by Joanna Frueh, disrupting the gendered polarisations structuring conventional modes of art production and interpretation (i.e., female/object or model vs. male/subject or artist). These feminist ideologies support aesthetic/erotic self- creation, giving agency to people who wish to be erotic subjects and objects – that is, those who wish to enjoy themselves and be enjoyed. The works in this exhibition confront the male gaze by subverting it and exposing its insufficiency, privileging feminine genius and womxn viewers, ‘thereby [in the words of Amelia Jones] crippling the [male] gaze and forcing it to surrender’. To paralyse the ‘male gaze’, the theoretical term coined in 1975 by the film critic Laura Mulvey to critique the use of women’s bodies as objects of voyeuristic pleasure for male viewers, these artists celebrate female or queer sexuality and desire in their art, treating the gendered or queer body as a cultural product or social and discursive object or sign where meaning can be ascribed. The artists in this exhibition are what Frueh defines as ‘monster/beauties’, embedding ‘corporeal subjectivity and agency’ into their artistic portrayal of the body as inseparable from the mind and ‘manifest[ing] a highly articulated sensual presence’ as they wed Eros and Psyche in their creative expression as artists.
This exhibition centres around a group of photographs and art ephemera from the 1960’s and 70’s, each documenting a powerful woman artist critically fashioning her own image as she either posed alongside her work for publicity or documentation purposes or incorporated her own body as well as her lived experience in a gendered female body into her artwork. These artists are Hannah Wilke, Alina Szapocznikow and Yayoi Kusama.
This exhibition spotlights a 1978 nude self-portrait by Hannah Wilke from her So Help Me Hannah: Snatch-Shots with Ray Gun series as Wilke was the original feminist narcissist, although she only officially entered the feminist art historical canon five years after her death in 1998 courtesy of Amelia Jones’ aforementioned theory of radical narcissism. During her lifetime, Wilke was repeatedly denounced for displaying her own ‘too-beautiful face and body’ in her art and thereby practicing ‘a regressive feminine narcissism’ drawn from psychoanalytical models. Feminist art critic Lucy Lippard, in a 1976 essay, condemned the art of ‘glamour girl’ Wilke as not properly feminist due to ‘her own confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist’. Jones’ theory of ‘radical narcissism’ expands this restrictive definition of narcissism that is tied to a debased femininity to argue that Wilke’s ‘obsessive use of her own body in her work produces a narcissistic relation that is far from conventional or passively ‘feminine’, turning this conventional, regressive connection of women with a non-worldly (non-transcendent) narcissistic immanence inside out’.
Equally, in the reproductions of archival photographs of the Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow striking an exaggeratedly erotic or feminine pose alongside her fragmented body part sculptures and casts in her studio in Paris in the mid-1960’s, Szapocznikow subverts the male gaze as a ‘monster/beauty’ by challenging convention and restoring agency and self-representation to women by aesthetising her own body in a stereotypically feminine fashion. As Frueh argues, beauty and self-pleasure do not have to be construed as complicity with man’s desire and pleasure. Szapocznikow instead unveils the female artist, ‘anatomically female and so culturally feminine’, as a public figure of artistic authority and genius, appealing to a female or femme gaze from womxn consumers of art. This consumption of art outside of the male gaze thereby devalues the patriarchal arbiters of artistic value and proposes an alternative female/femme body/psyche subjectivity outside of the conventional norms of masculinity and femininity.
Alongside these performative self-portraits by Wilke and Szapocznikow is a poster published by the Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of Yayoi Kusama’s 1998 solo exhibition titled Yayoi Kusama, Love Forever: 1958-1968, featuring Kusama’s 1962 collage, Sex Obsession Food Obsession Macaroni Infinity Nets & Kusama. This collage incorporates a photograph by Hal Reiff of the artist reclining naked and heavily made-up on top of her phallic knob-covered sculpture Accumulation No. 2 (1962) and sporting high heels, long black hair and polka dots covering her bare flesh. Staring unapologetically into the lens of the camera and meeting the gaze of the viewer head-on, Kusama dramatically stages her work and her self as both the artist-subject and the explicit body-object of desire and exploits her double otherness as an Asian female artist in a flambouyant masquerade of identity at odds with the normative conception of the artist at the time as a white Euro-American male. Although condemned at the time as exhibitionist and publicity-seeking, this fearless aesthetic/erotic self-creation by Kusama must be considered as part of a larger restructuring of beauty performed, enjoyed and laboured on by a community of ‘monster/beauties’ who cater to the female/femme gaze.
Each of these three pioneering artists unrestrainedly celebrated her own beautiful body in its sexed and sexual state and embedded her consciousness as a female artist subject, creating artworks that were successfully feminist at a time when the language of feminism was non-existent. In line with these artists, the exhibition will feature the work of sixteen other female-identifying contemporary artists who also perform their own revolutionary brand of femininity and erotic sexuality in their work that spans photography, painting and sculpture. From the intersectional photographic depictions of queer femme humans of colour by Martine Gutierrez and Zanele Muholi to the painterly female bodies from patriarchal art history reimagined by Lisa Brice and Mira Dancy, this exhibition presents the female/femme gaze in an unashamed ‘soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body’ way. Echoing the fragmented erotic body part sculptures of Kusama, Szapocznikow and Wilke, Tai Shani, in three dimensions, and Chelsea Culprit, in two dimensions, pursue their subjectivity as a womxn artist through the subversive and playful fragmentation of the female body in their artworks displayed in this exhibition. Rafaela de Ascanio, using ceramic as Szapocznikow and Wilke did in the 1960’s, and Kira Freije, using steel and cast aluminium, materials more associated with masculine artistic genius, employ sculpture to give agency to their lived experience in a gendered female/femme body. Like Wilke’s body artworks, each of the performative photographic works of Juno Calypso, Kirsten Justesen, Mary Stephenson and Sophie Thun feature the artist’s own nude or semi-clad feminine body in a pose (or act of labour) that cripples the male gaze with its radical narcissism. The surreal, expressionistic or grotesquely exaggerated feminine body is presented in the works by Sara Anstis, Cristina BanBan, Jessie Makinson and Hannah Murgatroyd, begging the female/femme viewer to examine their own interior life as well as those of the depicted female-identifying figures.
All of the works in this exhibition turn the male gaze inside out, merging the depicted feminine body with its cognitive, emotive interior and revising gaze theory by opening up avenues of visual delight for womxn consumers of art and restoring agency and self-representation to this community of ‘monster/beauties’ who challenge convention through their rendering of the feminine body as a site of pleasure and erotic fantasy.
Rafaela de Ascanio