Owning Your Gaze
Where now, for the male gaze? In the week of Hugh Hefner’s death, three exhibitions offered challenging perspectives on the role the artist and gallery can have in countering stereotypical depictions of women in the media and popular culture.
We grew up with Playboy on the shelves, but we also inherited an art history in which women are objectified. To mind from school come Manet’s ‘Olympia’, Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’, and Delacriox’s ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, all depictions of women as prostitutes. You were lucky if you had a teacher drawing your attention to the wider social and economic role this art played.
That male gaze today? Let’s own it and question it. Own how we feel sexually while also treating how we look and act responsibility. How far have we really come since 1972 when John Berger (who passed away in January this year) in Ways of Seeing considered the history of the female nude based on male sexual desire and noted that “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself.”
Luke Willis Thompson
Luke Willis Thompson is one of the most interesting New Zealand artists practising today. His work is vital for the way it quietly, radically renegotiates the space in which we see and think, particularly in relation to racial politics. autoportrait was commissioned by London’s Chisendale Gallery, where Thompson was recently on residency. Now on show at Hopkinson Mossman in Auckland it is likely to be the most powerful art experience I have all year.
Thompson has created a portrait of Diamond Reynolds in collaboration and conversation with his subject. Reynolds is known for having in July 2016 in Minnesota bravely broadcast via Facebook Live the moments immediately after the fatal shooting of her partner Philando Castle by a police officer, wanting people to “know the truth” at the very moment she feared for her life, a gun pointed in through the open window of their car. Just days after the exhibition opened in London the police officer was acquitted of manslaughter.
Thompson gently swings around the violence of the gaze onto the film projector, the media, that feeds out the images itself. It is a new, powerful form of protest.
Diamond Reynolds has with her phone video found herself in the whirlpool of digital social media attention, and Thompson has countered it with a black and white 35mm analogue evocation of Hollywood’s era of grandeur. In the nine-minute silent work projected large in an otherwise pitch black space, two head and shoulder portraits of Reynolds are seen. Head bowed, she is strong yet emotional, elegant yet appearing to be not made up to be anyone other than absolutely herself. There is an innocence. There are two portraits: one at peace, in the other talking to herself, as if praying. A contemporary Madonna or Mona Lisa, perhaps then, Thompson’s collaboration over time with his subject is key - this is portraiture for an age when the selfie can be as destructive as it is empowering.
Yet what dominates the space is the large noisy projector, film spooling out to a large horizontal plate at its rear and then back to clatter and shake as it crosses the projector’s strong white light. Walking into the installation is an encounter with the power of light in darkness; an experiential cinematic spiritual awe is caught. It takes time in the dark to feel confident in approaching the large piece of industrial machinery; to admire its complex workings which turns me to consider the way lives get caught up in the brutishness of the state and media. I feel danger and fascination approaching the rattling machine (usually kept secreted in a projection booth) just as I do seeing that gun in the car window in Reynolds’ phone video.
Robert Heald Gallery in Wellington meanwhile is showing the work of Czech artist Miroslav Tichý, an overt voyeur, who from at least the 1960s to 1985 - often receiving the attention of the police - obsessively photographed women (usually unknowingly) in his hometown of Kijov. Dressed in rags and using homemade cameras constructed inventively from tin cans, rubber bands, tape, cardboard tubes and other found junk, Tichý celebrates the accidental beauty to be found in the imperfect. Coming in close to his subjects, giving them little space, the images blur into abstraction and corruption. Printing them himself unevenly at home they are then soiled, scratched and drawn upon, and cut savagely into rough cardboard frames. They are both grubby in all senses of the word and poetic in their sensitivity to an unglamourised beauty.
Tichý shoots women both seemingly indiscriminately and with an erotic gaze. Many are as ordinary as one can imagine (although Tichý’s interest in bottoms is clear), while others are in the Peeping Tom vein. In one image he crops in on a womans’ bikini briefs (later drawing around the garments edges) and in others zero in on sunbathing. I’m reminded of all those images by Renoir of women bathers. Yet within the flood of sexualised image in our popular media I find little titillating about them. The behaviour is often offensive, but it speaks to what was an ordinary illicit male gaze, and asks us to consider now how we look. Many works simply celebrate an appreciation of each other - the range of ways of looking makes you consider the boundaries we set.
Heald exhibits thirty-eight of these one-off images salon style. As Serena Bentley’s text accompanying this exhibition notes, Tichý took up to 100 photographs a day. He’s clearly left quite an archive. That feels analogous to our own obsessive recording today. Yet once Tichý had finished the works he threw them messily to one side, never titling, exhibiting or selling them.
So the new tension is the way these voyeuristic works have been embraced and are now sold as part of the contemporary art market. It was only in 2004, after the work’s promotion by a neighbour Roman Buxbaum that with their inclusion in a Biennial in 2004 by renowned curator Harald Szeeman that Tichý started to get widespread exhibition attention. The artist himself, Bentley relates, attended none of these exhibitions, dying in 2011 “content to exist on the periphery”.
Commentators are quick to point out that, despite his behaviour, Tichý was no self-taught artist. Interestingly, given his subject, he originally trained as a social realist painter at Praque’s Academy of Fine Arts. This show is in interesting conversation with Heald’s exhibition of the 1960s-70s work of Susan Te Kahurangi King, a self-taught artist who draws copiously without any mind for exhibition or sale, but whose drawing offers such fresh, muscular energy.
These images do offer a way to think about our cultural history, and consider voyeurism at a distance. Conscious or not there is an exploration of the boundary between subject and object. Many works have a light-filled, moving abstracting power that led Szeeman to compare them to the paintings of Gerhard Richter. Others just aren’t as memorable, of more conceptual and back-story interest.
Too Much Truth
If Tichý and Thompson offer two very different kinds of male gaze, what of exhibitions by women looking back?
Too Much Truth: Women’s Global Resistance to Sexpolitation was brought together by Renee Gerlich at Thistle Hall Gallery in Wellington for a week at the end of September. The exhibition featured international women artist and activist responses to prostitution as an oppressive force, through a range of artworks, posters, magazines and other ephemera.
The exhibition and accompanying essay made no apologies for taking a standpoint (the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective comes in for particular criticism) on prostitution as not a real choice: “I don’t know any women whose own personal sexuality drives her to be with a succession of strangers,” writes Chelsea Geddes in an introduction. Having galleries like Thistle Hall to provide public space for such pointed discussion is really welcome. Whatever your views on the prostitution industry, the bigger message is that we’re now more than ever in danger of complacency over the way women are depicted in the media, and how that makes them feel.
If Luke Willis Thompson turns on the gaze of our media with a tender collaboration, the women artists presented in Too Much Truth offer raw, direct expressions of pain and anger. A declaration of ‘no’: as expressed in simple graphic painting (Cherry Smiley’s ‘No’ and kpm@artivist’s ‘(Untitled) he let me pick the colour pen)’ or through activist street poster design (the Untameable Shrews’ ‘Fempire Strikes back’). These aren’t always exceptional works of art, but as Gerlich argues “as long as prostitution exists, art will perhaps remain the only sphere in which women can taste justice.” The exhibition is strong in providing this space, offering an alternative to the Tichý archive.
Different approaches are offered in the exhibition in the photojournalistic work of American Barbara Davidson of a girls boarding school in India that saves girls from prostitution, and Heidi Stevens’ photographic work ‘Matched pair/Forever Alone’, including a two panel image of a topless woman in crouched movement with her back to us, her big flouncy skirt providing a nest. In these, there is a sense of repair and gathering strength as much as damage.