The Female Gaze
Turning the table on the erotic and passive views of the female form by male artists, a New York gallery—one, ironically, run by two men—presents a summer group exhibition where women take charge. The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women, which is on view at Cheim & Read through September 19, offers a dynamic display of work in a variety of media by 40 international women artists.
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Photography is the favored medium and the earliest work in the show is an 1866 albumen print of a young woman depicted as the head of St. John by Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Portraying the New Testament story of the decapitation of the preacher at the bequest of Salome, the sitter stares out at the viewer with a forgiving look in her eyes. However, the history of photography is turned 360˚ with Marilyn Minter’s 2009 large color print, Wangechi Gold 3, a closeup view of a gold-spewing mouth. Minter’s stylists transformed artist Wangechi Mutu into an alchemist’s dream girl, which she the captured on film as a rabid beast.
Painter Deborah Kass appropriates Andy Warhol’s Pop Art style, as well as his means of silkscreen on canvas production, in her 1993 diptych Double Red Barbara (Jewish Jackie Series) that makes Streisand the figure of reverie. The notorious YBA Sarah Lucas straps breasts, made from cigarettes and soccer balls, onto a side chair in her provocative Cigarette Tits II (Idealized Smoker’s Chest II) from 1999. Meanwhile, Ellen Gallagher’s 1993 mixed-media collage, Bouffant Pride, celebrates African-American hairstyles from an earlier age.
Conceptual artist Roni Horn contributes a striking 2005 sequence of five color prints of the French actor Isabelle Huppert, who expresses an all-knowing look on her face. Vanessa Beecroft’s 2008 sculpture Blonde Figure Lying presents a mythic female nude, with curly blond hair flowing to her feet, lying on a stark white plinth. Dreaming or dead, her open hands recall Jesus on the cross. Meanwhile, Lisa Yuskavage’s mid-‘90s painting Heart offers a blonde bimbo, toying with her crotch.
Other noteworthy works include Sally Mann's 1992 black-and-white photograph of her mesmerizing daughter, reclining nude on a sofa, that’s titled Venus After School; a striking 1945 portrait of a standing black woman by the painter Joan Mitchell, from her pre-abstraction days; a 2003 Catherine Opie photograph of a self-confident Rachel with her surfboard on a California beach; and a large, examining self-portrait from 2008 by painter Anh Duong, mysterously titled The Lure of Disillusion.
Showing us how women perceive women, this show adds to the ongoing dialogue of representation. Whether these artworks make a statement dramatically different from art made by men is still up in the air, but the fact that this is how women want to be portrayed is worth studying.