Author Archives: Katherine Devine

Chapter Entry: Deborah Willis, “Exposure”

Deborah Willis’ essay “Exposure” focuses on the years 1942-1968, a period of extraordinary change in American society. As Willis explains, it was also a period of exceptional growth in black image-making, and a time of distinction for American news photographers. Willis explains her essay as an exploration of the “social conditions governing the act of being photographed and decoding of the photographs.” [1] I interpret “Exposure” as achieving two ends: First, Willis describes the importance of photographs in African American communities during this period, and suggests that the creation and dissemination of photographs fostered individual identities and forged community bonds. Second, she explores the role of photography in the civil rights movement, suggesting that the images – especially images made by news photographers – were crucial to the formation of a true political collective. These twin investigations provide a brief but comprehensive look at the role of photography and photographers in the civil rights movement.

Willis suggests that “what we imagine about this period is meditated through the insights of the photographers” who committed moments from key events to film. [2] These events were local and national, personal and political, individual and collective. The photographs, Willis states, represented the “conscience of this country.” [3] The result was a “collective visual memory” that persists today. [4] “Exposure” explores the development of this memory; to enhance this exploration, Willis and the editors, Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, use plays of omission and inclusion to trigger the reader’s memory and reinforce the essay’s arguments.

In African-American communities, photographers celebrated progress and documented historic changes. Family photographs were construed as both progressive and historical: the publication of baby photos in the NAACP’s Crisis was both a statement of “family” pride, with the family defined as all black Americans, and a historical record of, and argument for, the continuous improvement of the social, political and economic situation of African-Americans. Willis argues that this created a “visual taxonomy” – a vocabulary and syntax that could be used to read (and, perhaps, author) images of black Americans. [5] Baby pictures, which were published frequently in Crisis, did not merely elicits coos and grins; these babies were, in W.E. Dubois’ words, evidence of “a large and larger class of well-nourished, healthy, beautiful children among the colored people.” [6] These images were meant to be enjoyed, but they were also meant to instruct viewers – such is the nature of evidence.

The turning point in Willis’ essay – the shift from a focus on photography’s role in building individual identities and community norms to a broader exploration of photography’s role as a catalyst for social change – is a discussion of Ernest Withers’ photographs of Emmett Till. These photos do not accompany the essay. This omission is a brilliant twist: by avoiding reproductions of Withers’ photographs, Willis and the editors ask us to recall the images. The prompt is productive for many readers, who will be able to summon the horrifying photographs immediately, underscoring Willis’ point: these images are burned into our individual minds and imprinted on the American psyche.

Willis asserts that photographers in this period were witnesses who crafted “a visual language” to “testify” about “their individual and collective experience.” [7] Photography galvanized young people, motivated cultural change, and helped define the civil rights movement. Images helped messages coalesce, and allowed civil rights leaders to develop a different “visual taxonomy” that described atrocity in stark detail. These photographers were, by and large, white and employed by major news outlets. However, they were also deeply embedded in the civil rights movement, and often saw themselves as activists. A discussion of two images in the chapter will help explain this dual role.

Charles Moore was raised in Alabama, the son of a Baptist preacher. He trained in fashion photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, but was hired as a staff photographer for the The Montgomery Advertiser and The Montgomery Journal after graduation. Moore’s Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 [below] is an icon image of the civil rights movement.

Charles Moore, Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

At the center of the frame, three figures cluster together. They face away from the camera, towards glass doors hung with wooden blinds. A bright vertical line shoots into the frame from the right side, ending its trajectory at the lower spine of the tallest figure. The image is marred by a profusion of white flecks that are most concentrated in the upper right corner. Moore’s photograph records the use of high-pressure water hoses on peaceful demonstrators. The doors they face are shuttered, allowing those inside to turn a “blind” eye to the proceedings. Spray from the water hose, knocks the protestors into the building, but they do not cower; the man on the far right, who is taking the brunt of the water’s force in his back, stands strong, bracing himself against the building. The white flecks are spray from the jets, suffusing the atmosphere with water and drenching the group with residual moisture. Critics have suggested that the Moore’s decision to leave the hose operator unseen “implicate[d] the whole nation.” [8] Legislators and historians have credited images such as Birmingham Riots with fostering public support for the civil rights movement.

Willis quotes photographer Danny Lyon, using his images and his words as testimony. Lyon, a Brooklyn-born, self-taught proponent of New Journalism, became fully embedded with his subjects, a participant-witness. Lyon explains that he operated with the blessing of the SNCC, and was frequently directed to his images by James Forman, the executive secretary of the organization. [9] Lyon’s quote, printed under his photograph, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962 [below], reminds us that these photographs are not just evidence; they are also arguments. Water fountains were a symbol of the economic, educational and social disadvantages of blacks under Jim Crow laws.

Danny Lyons, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962

Lyon’s image of two water fountains, a large one for “whites” and a tiny one for “colored,” is both a record of a fact and a argument against the social conditions of that fact. Lyons’ matter-of-fact representational style tells us what is so, but its damns its subject: this is wrong on its face.

In the last third of the essay, Willis explores the impact of these images. She credits Moore and Lyon’s photographs with earning the investment of the American people, global attention to the civil rights movement, and critical changes in the legislation and enforcement of equality. Willis’ essay exposes the critical role played by news photographers in the success of the civil rights movement, giving these overlooked activists due attention by explaining the importance of their images. The magic of the essay is rooted in its demonstrative qualities. Willis, Fusco and Wallis do not merely tell us; instead, Willis evocative descriptions, the editors’ omissions and inclusions, and the photographs themselves combine to show us her argument.

I wish that the curators had been able to include some images of “life in the margins” – Willis’ description of images of black prosperity. “Exposure” is punctuated with searing news photographs, but Willis’ captivating introductory discussion focuses on more quotidian images. The richness of her scholarship is due, in part, to this comprehensive approach. A visual juxtaposition of the gentle and the jarring would have greatly enhanced this reader’s experience, extending the demonstrative qualities of the piece to its first third, as well.

Also, I wish that Willis had been able to devote time and space to analysis of the changing role of the photographs discussed. The function of these images has multiplied over the decades. The photographs were originally news items – reportage of important current events of the day. Over the decades, museum curators, art collectors, historians, and observers have added further meaning and purpose to these photographs. Lyons’ image of a water fountain is no longer proof of an existing situation; instead, it is a palimpsest of information, with multiple coterminous purposes and meanings. Today, it may be a record of the past, an art object to be collected, and an artifact to be displayed. I would love to know Willis’ thoughts on the sale of these images to collectors of “fine art” photography. Also, I would love to hear her thoughts on the display of these images as art rather than news. I think her take on the transmutation of these images – their acquisition of multiple identities – would be fascinating.

[1] Deborah Willis, “Exposure,” in in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 275.

[2]Id.

[3] Id., 281.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., 276.

[6] Id., 278.

[7] Id., 275.

[8] Douglas Martin, “Charles Moore, Rights-Era Photographer, Dies at 79” New York Times, March 15, 2010.

[9] Willis, 279.

 

Pinboard #6: Victoria’s Secret

During a November 2012 fashion show, Victoria’s Secret sent model Karlie Kloss down the runway wearing a leopard-print bikini, a wealth of turquoise jewelry, and a replica of a Native American headdress. In an image from the runway show (left), a reedy white woman with light brown hair and blue eyes strikes a pose. Her stance is strong, although she is half-naked and perched atop several inches of suede-fringed platform heels. Along with the heels, she wears cheetah-print bikini underwear; a belt of turquoise, silver, and more suede fringe; a suede bra; and hefty turquoise necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Atop her head is a voluminous feathered headdress made of red, black, and white feathers. Her left hand rests on her cocked hip, elbow thrust out to the side. Her half-smile suggests amusement and charm.

The headdress worn by Kloss was a replica of a war bonnet, an object of great magical and spiritual significance for Plains Indian men. The men of these tribes historically wore the bonnet into battle and now wear it for ceremonial purposes. Victoria’s Secret’s use of the war bonnet provoked ire for several reasons, primarily because it was treated as an object with no history or purpose beyond its decorative function. War bonnets are not merely dress items; each feather has significance, and the right to wear the bonnet must be earned through service to the community. Native American war bonnets are frequently used to denote “generic Indian” by sports fans, musicians, trick-or-treaters, and retailers, with no regard for their specific origins and uses.

After pictures from the runway were released to the media prior to a planned broadcast of the event, Native American activists, feminist blogs, lawyers, and journalists immediately and forcefully criticized the lingerie retailer (and, in some cases, the model).

Victoria’s Secret edited the outfit out of the televised lineup and issued a (non) apology for “offend[ing] individuals.”  Critics of the outfit charged racism, cultural appropriation, commercialization of a sacred object, and the “hypersexualization of Native American women.” [1]

Yet, it is a strange sexualization. This image – unlike the “Prairie Pinups” investigated by Aleta M. Ringlero – is not titillating. [2] It carries no hint of the dangerously foreign, no thrill of the forbidden. The erotic appeal of Kloss’ costume is nulled by its cheap parody. The headdress, when worn with animal print panties, recalls any “savage,” not a specific sexual desire. Sported by a white woman with a coy smile, it devolves into something merely cartoonish  – something safe.

[1] Ruth Hopkins, “Victoria’s Secret is Asking to be Boycotted,” Indian Country Today Media Network

[2] See Aleta M. Ringlero, “Prairie Pinups: Reconsidering Historic Portraits of American Indian Women,” in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003)

 

Pinboard #5: Andrej Pejic & Erika Linder

In the black and white photograph on the right, model Erika Linder poses against a white backdrop. She wears loose-fitting jeans, open at the waist, which slip from her hips to reveal the band of briefs beneath the pants. The outline of a star is tattooed on her muscular stomach. Her arms are held in front of her chest and her hands grip a t-shirt; this pose conceals a seemingly sunken chest. Her face, devoid of makeup, grimaces. Her short hair is in disarray. In the color image below, male model Andrej Pejic wears a black wrap dress, long blond bedhead, and subtle, feminine makeup. The dress has slipped off of the left shoulder, and a bra strap is visible. Text lines next to Pejic’s silhouette convey that the image was produced for a Dutch lingerie advertisement, selling a bra that claims to add two cup sizes.

Are these images intended to be humorous? Perhaps – but only those in the know.  Linder, a woman, frequently works as a male model. Pejic, a man, frequently works as a female model. Linder is not a drag king, and Pejic is not a drag queen; neither model caricatures, exaggerates, or lampoons gender norms. Instead, each model conceals himself or herself within the costume of the familiar. Each model works the parameters of gender to his or her professional advantage. Linder and Pejic conform exactly to current standards of masculine and feminine beauty. They simply don’t conform the beauty standard expected of their respective sexes.

Erika Linder and Andre Pejic force us to reconsider how we recognize and react to male and female bodies. I suggest that we looked at these bodies as sexed (if not gendered), and ask why we recognize Linder as “male” in the image on the left (when she is recognizably “female” in other images) and Pejic as “female” in the image on the right (when he is recognizably “male” in other images). Which elements of Pejic’s wardrobe and makeup tell us that he should be read as she? Which aspects of Linder’s outfit and physiognomy categorize her as male? Further, do we consider these distinctions useful and expedient? Are they visually or erotically attractive? Which norms are disrupted by these images? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are norms disrupted at all if no further explanation is attached to the images?

Pinboard #4: Richard Prince

Richard Prince’s Unitled (Cowboy)  is an iconic photograph that refers to an iconic advertisement that refers to an iconic American role. The image is a palimpsest of meaning, and seems to acquire additional layers of resonance with every passing year.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), chromagenic print, 1989

 

 

 

Prince (b. 1949) is an American painter and photographer. He is usually referred to as an “appropriation artist,” because his most famous works are rephotographed photographs, some of which are physically or digitally altered. Most of his early material, such as the Marlboro advertisement used in Unitled (Cowboy) came from magazines, newspapers, printed advertisements, billboards, and television. Prince is attracted to suspicious narratives in widely circulate images; of his work, he has said, “I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably.” [1]

Untitled (Cowboy) is taken from the Cowboys series, arguably Prince’s most famous works. In the far right of the frame, a cowboy seated astride a galloping horse seems to race off the very edge of the image. The rest of the image is filled with blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Each image in the Cowboys series was taken from a Marlboro cigarette ad, a campaign known for its celebration of traditional American masculinity. Marlboro’s ads seemed to depict authentic scenes of masculine action replete with wide open spaces, blue skies, tumbleweeds, lassos, and ten-gallon hats.

Prince’s rephotographs call the authenticity of these scenes into question; because Prince’s image isn’t “real,” the viewer is asked to reconsider what makes any photograph “real.” In this case, was the Marlboro ad, which appeared to document a cowboy at work, really emblematic of a type? Or staged with models? And if this “authentic” American experience could be staged, was it truly “authentic” at all?

[1] Marvin Heiferman, “Richard Prince”, “BOMB Magazine”, Summer 1988.

Pinboard #3: Tina Barney

Tina Barney photographs what she knows; born to a wealthy New York family, Barney’s work focuses on elite Northeasterners. Her images are vast, scaled like history paintings, but her subjects are intimate, and feel accessible. Barney shoots with a large format camera, enabling her to precisely record minute details of her subjects’ appearance and environments. These details are critical to her work; even as her subjects turn away from the camera, Barney creates legible portraits from their possessions and postures.

Tina Barney, The Westwater Family, chromagenic print, 1999

The Westwater Family looks like an image captured before the “real” photograph was taken. The loose arrangement of figures, lack of interaction among participants, and seeming ignorance of the photographer’s presence suggest a lack of deliberation. The image is pregnant with possibility. However, this is the final image, and Barney’s relaxed attitude towards her subject is deliberate. This approach strips Barney’s images of voyeurism, because these rooms, persons, and objects are deeply familiar to her, even if they seem exotic to the viewer. Barney’s visual style – specifically, the nearly life-size scale and extraordinary measure of detail in each image – helps the viewer feel present, as if admitted into the spaces and company of her subjects.

In The Westwater Family, Barney captures individual gestures that appear to suggest more complex narratives, complicating the apparent spontaneity of the photograph and hinting that it may not be a fully authentic record. This encourages the viewer to examine the image more closely, trying to make sense of the relationships in the image – between people, between people and objects – and build a story from the gestures and objects Barney has scattered across her visual field. Yet, the viewer is never satisfied; she has been invited into the subject’s space, but is not truly present, not truly part of Barney’s world. Barney’s images simultaneously pulls the viewer into her elite world and keeps her at a distance.

Standing for Attention

 

Vanessa Beecroft, VB 39: U.S. Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, digital chromogenic print, 1999

Vanessa Beecroft’s VB 39 is a photograph made during a performance created at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1999.

Beecroft (b. 1969) is an Italian-born artist working in New York. Her large-scale, voyeuristic performances, which are highly repetitive in their form and content, focus on the importance of the encounters between model, artists, and audience. Scholars have suggested that these performances situate the models as “something between an object and an image.” [1] Beecroft’s work recalls tableaux vivants, the “living pictures” popular among nineteenth century aristocracy. Her performances are created for specific locations; each is informed by and remains entrenched in the social, historical, and political conditions of its setting. She typically uses female models; her earliest works “featured almost identically dressed women in wigs, either standing, sitting or moving in slow formation.” [2] Starting in 1999 with VB 39, Beecroft began to explore androcentric performances. [3]

In VB 39, Beecroft’s first all-male performance, 16 Navy SEALs from Naval Special Warfare Command in San Diego, CA alternately stood at attention or at ease in the Farris Galleries of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. In a photograph taken during the performance, sixteen identically dressed men stand in a choreographed arrangement in a stark white room. The men’s clothes are similarly white. All the men have neatly cropped hair, and most are clean-shaven, although three sport trim moustaches. One participant stands in front of the larger group, which is lined up five across, three rows deep. Each man adopts the same posture: legs spread hip-width, back straight, shoulders back, arms bent at a forty-five degree angle, hands clasped behind back, eyes forward.

We recognize the men as members of the United States Navy by their distinctive uniforms. As the wife and daughter of former naval officers, I look at this photograph and see information that might be lost on viewers unaffiliated with the Navy. At a distance – visual or critical – the soldiers’ outfits appear identical, but those familiar with military semiotics can decode each man’s rank and educational history through the variations in their attire. The men are not wearing their “covers” (hats); covers are worn exclusively outside, never inside. The SEALs wear “summer whites”, not full dress uniforms. This suggests a measure of informality within Beecroft’s rigidly constructed performance. The uniforms are clearly differentiated by a collection of status markers. White or black shoes indicate whether a soldier is, respectively, an officer or enlisted. Similarly, epaulets signify an officer, while a sleeve insignia marks enlisted. Seal pins, jump wings, and war ribbons further differentiate the men by rank.

The number of soldiers – 16 – is also significant; it represents the number of members in a SEAL platoon. Further, the models chosen embody the actual composition of platoon: although this may not be a specific platoon, the correct number of soldiers are present in the right distribution of ranks; thus, the group could be a functioning SEAL platoon. The group comprises non-commissioned officers, including 1st class petty officers, 2nd class petty officers, and chief petty officers, one line officer, and one limited duty officer.

VB 39 explores individual and collective identities. The soldiers’ uniforms signify the organizational norms established by the Navy and the subsumption of the individual to the institution. The uniform also suggests adherence to traditional norms masculinity, which require conformity from individual men. However, the soldiers’ status markers and physical attributes – age, hair color, skin color, facial hair, musculature, tattoos – are also a set of coded, legible signs. Despite the homogeneity imposed by the Navy uniform and Beecroft’s performance, each man has a personal narrative, an individual history. The standardization of their dress and behavior in formation reinscribe the importance of homogeneity in the collective identity, while the unique visual attributes of each soldier remind the viewer of each man’s suppressed individuality.

Christine Ross suggests that VB 39 is “masculinizing the female role of to-be-looked-at-ness.” [5] As in her earlier works, VB 39 objectifies its participants. Like the lithe fashion models populating most of Beecroft’s performances, Navy SEALs are popular sex symbols. [6] In VB 39, as in all of her works, Beecroft plays on the disjuncture of collective identity (from which sexual appeal is born) and the individual identity (which might actually spoil desire) and the effects of this rupture on the viewer’s attraction to the performers. Thus, despite a shift from female to male performers, Beecroft’s choice of subject falls neatly in line with her prior works.

[1] Francis Summers, “Vanessa Beecroft”, Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, November 16, 2007, http://www.groveart.com/

[2] Summers

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanessa_Beecroft

[4] Summers

[5] Christine Ross, The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (University Of Minnesota Press, 2006) 213, n14.

[6] Annys Shin, “SEALs go from superhero to sex symbol”, Washington Post, May 8, 2011.

 

Images for Willis, “Exposure”

Charles Moore. Martin Luther King, Jr Arrested on a Loitering Charge. 1958

Danny Lyon. Albany, Georgia, Segregated water fountain. 1962.

Psychoanalysis, Fetish, and the Nude

A set of widely varied readings from Gender and Art provided us with fodder for a lively discussion. We asked whether and when images can be seen as gendered, analyzed several modernist nudes, and explored the utility of psychoanalysis as an art historical methodology. By addressing a mixed series of images the early modern, modern, and contemporary eras, we delved into Perry’s assertion that “identity – or subjectivity – is not fixed or given [but] is socially and psychically constructed.” [2]

We reviewed several nudes by Edgar Degas, Suzanne Valadon and Emilie Charmy, and discussed the role of distortion in the construction of a “male gaze” and the existence of a female gaze. [1] Katie reminded us that distortion is always a value judgment, especially in modernist painting, wherein naturalism is not what an artist strives for.

Along with these examples from Perry, we reviewed Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude (1964) [right] in depth.Jade noted the resemblances to Manet’s Olympia (1863), while Jess remarked on the humorous contrast to be made with the removable features of Mr. Potato Head. Both comments suggested that Wesselmann’s gaze was historically grounded, informed by popular culture, and confident in its ability to construct its object. Dr. Powell reminded us that elements of Great American Nude suggested fetishism: the artist’s emphasis on a collection of items (including the choker, the leopard throw, and the breast-like ice cream scoops) rather than a coherent totality resulted in a flattened, collage-like composition that suggested psychological fixation.

We ended the session with a series of objects that have been interpreted as motivated by fantasy or fetish, including Eva Hesse’s Accession II (1967), Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Breakfast (1936) and Alexander McQueen’s “bumster” skirt (1998). We concluded that the role played by gender in the development of images and objects is sometimes obscure, and that psychoanalysis can prove helpful to interpreting embedded constructions of masculinity and femininity.

[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 265.

[2] For discussions of the female gaze (or lack thereof), see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (3): 6-18, 9 and John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin Group, 1972), 46-47.

 

An Indeterminate Gaze

 

Emilie Charmy, La Loge, 1902, oil on board

Everything about Emilie Charmy’s La Loge  is indeterminate.

Charmy’s loose brushwork suggests rather than depicts. The composition is representational, but abstract. Objects and figures are not easily distinguished in the haze. In the foreground, a powdery blue carpet with a pastel pattern draws the viewer’s eye into the frame. The walls are salmon pink, and are lined with barely recognizable domestic objects, including a cabinet, a vase, paintings, and a blue folding screen. On the right, a nude female is seated in a chair, arms outstretched over a table laid with a green cloth, her attention directed towards a vase of flowers. To the left of this figure, a cluster of women circle an obscure black shape. One sits on the floor, another stands, and a third pitches forward over her crossed legs. Light reflects off of the standing figure’s back, drawing the viewer’s eye and anchoring the composition. She is further distinguished from the others by the green ribbon tied around her stocking. In the background, another group of undressed women are gathered around a table.

If we look closely, we realize that the women’s bodies are composed of a riot of natural and unnatural colors: peach, umber, lavender, white, aqua and acid green. The figures wear black stockings and little else; some are fully nude. The painting suggests a familiarity with the techniques of Post-Impressionism, including abstractions of real-life subjects, thick application of paint, visible brushstrokes, and unnatural coloration. We can also discern similarities between Charmy and the Fauves, but her coloration is not as brutal; her hues seem muted by comparison. Charmy’s loose brushwork renders the image hazy and difficult to parse, merely suggesting the shapes of people and objects. Nothing is explicit. Everything is open to interpretation. La Loge is suggestive. Flesh is suggested by the texture of the paint. Intimacy is suggested by the tight groupings of figures. Secrecy is suggested by room’s lack of visible doors and windows. These suggestions inspire more questions than they answer, leaving us to wonder: in what kind of environment do women sit around wearing nothing but black stockings? And what kind of lady painter frequents such an environment?

Emilie Charmy was born in 1878. She is known as a female Fauve painter, and was friends with Matisse and other Fauves, but the exact nature of her relationships with these painters remains unclear. She enjoyed an unusually high level of commercial success for a woman painter in her period, and saw her popularity peak in the 1920s. La Loge was painted before Charmy’s period of commercial success, when she was approximately 24 years old. Gill Perry suggests that the title is best translated as “artist’s dressing room”. [1] However, comparisons with contemporary paintings suggest that Charmy has painted a brothel scene: her figures wear the trademark black stockings that feature prominently in the works of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Perry asserts that a “respectable middle class” woman like Charmy would not have visited a brothel, suggesting that La Loge was not drawn from life. Perry claims that the representation of a space to which a woman would not have had access necessarily implies a male spectator, and that Charmy’s appropriates and reinterprets the male gaze. [2]

Alternatively, La Loge may not be an appropriation of the male gaze. Instead, we might read it as a thoroughly feminine expression of desire. Elsewhere, Perry has suggested that Charmy was bisexual. Many of Charmy’s portraits of women and female nudes are sensually charged. There is a furtive quality to the image, which implies an illicit experience, a project accomplished in secret or haste. Loge also means “theater box.” During the nineteenth century, a loge was a charged space where theatre spectators went to see and be seen. The performances taking place offstage were as important as the drama on the night’s bill. Theatre boxes were acceptable public space for women to be display themselves and be observed by others. The loge promoted a voyeuristic experience for both the inhabitant of the box and the audience below, wherein those in the box viewed and were viewed simultaneously. The architecture of the box promoted this interaction, framing the box’s inhabitants for display. Similarly, Charmy’s treatment of the brothel room suggests a performance by the women, for an unseen audience, in a space that frames them for viewing. Charmy’s title, which links the painting to a space where women and men could gaze freely, suggests that the gaze in play may belong to woman or a man.

[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 207.
[2] Perry, 209.

Women’s Work / Artist’s Work (Pinboard #2)

Mary Kelly (b. 1941) is an American conceptual artist. Her work is frequently text-based, or text-heavy, with what she describes as “a specific relation between the meaning of the text, its materiality, and the site.” [1] It is also highly theoretical, reflecting her second occupation: Professor of Art and Critical Theory at UCLA.

Detail from Post Partum Document, 1974, Perspex unit, white card, diaper linings, plastic sheeting, paper, ink

The image to the right is a detail from Post Partum Document, a six-part installation that documented Kelly’s relationship with her son from birth to age 6. Post-Partum Document became a seminal work of “feminist art” – although Kelly herself prefers to think of it as “art informed by feminism.” [2] Post Partum Document is seen as a physical testament to the feminist slogan “the personal is the political”; the work has been perceived as a political statement because it brought “private” elements of female experience – aspects of womanhood that have historically been marginalized – into a public space. When the installation was first shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) in 1976, Post Partum Document was considered highly controversial. Viewers were shocked by the display of dirty diapers, obsessive diary notes, and other material artifacts of motherhood.

Here, a soiled diaper on which Kelly has neatly typed the date, information about her son’s nutritional intake, and details of his bowel movements. Kelly’s obsessive documentation suggests maternal fetishization of the child, but Kelly ultimately investigates herself more thoroughly than her child. Her exploration of the everyday rises to the level of art precisely because of, rather than in spite of, its banality. Kelly’s compulsive, comprehensive attention to minutiae recharacterizes the value of “women’s work” by transforming it into “artist’s work.”

[1] Mary Kelly, interview with Klaus Ottmann, Journal of Contemporary Art Online
[2] Mary Kelly, in Chloe Wyma, “23 Questions for Mary Kelly”, Artinfo.com