Tag Archives: fetish

Pinboard Entry #7: Desiring the Other

Kent Monkman
Icon for a New Empire
2007

In the interior of this artist’s studio, strange things are afoot. The sculptor has laid down his chisel, for the Native American on horseback he is sculpting has come alive. Outfitted in fringed hide pants and beaded moccasins, the artist stands on his tip toes and plunges his body into the embrace of his subject, who is in living color only from the waist up. Above them a mutant cupid aims his arrow. The lovers are framed by Indian artifacts such as arrows, feathers, a fringed hide shirt and a mask as well as a small scale model of the life-size sculpture that is underway.

This is one of contemporary artist Kent Monkman’s critiques of representations of Native Americans in Western art. An artist of Cree ancestry who is widely exhibited in Canada, Monkman revisits famous images of native North American peoples and landscapes, altering their details to explicitly reveal layers of desire and violence that were previously only implied. In this piece, Monkman is not only playing off of the long tradition of studio scenes that are fraught with unconsummated (at least pictorially) ententes between artists and their models in Western art history (like this and this), he is also referencing a specific work from the American canon: James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail. A sculptor trained in Chicago but born and raised in South Dakota, Fraser began sculpting Native American subjects after the 1893 World’s Colombian exhibition, where he encountered a plethora of Native American imagery.

Monkman’s painting is a critique of white artists like Fraser, who from the second quarter of the mid-19th century onward became increasingly interested in depicting Native Americans in photography, painting and sculpture. Monkman interprets the desire that fueled that process very literally by casting the artist and subject as lovers. While sexuality may have played a role, the attraction to Native American subjects had many other dimensions as well, from the imperialist (see the naturalist expedition art of Titan Ramsay Peale) to the opportunistic (see the Indian Gallery of George Catlin) to the primitivist (see the Amerika series by Marsden Hartley).

Disruption and Consumption: J.P. Ball’s Photographs of William Biggerstaff (Blog Post 2)

J.P. Ball & Son, Portrait of William Biggerstaff seated in a chair with a hand on his face wearing a flower in his lapel; Photograph of the Execution of William Biggerstaff, hanged for the murder of “Dick” Johnson, flanked by Rev. Victor Day and Henry Jurgens, sheriff, 1896; Photograph of William Biggerstaff, former slave, born in Lexington, KY in 1854, 1896.

 

This work is a series of three photographs taken by James Presley Ball of William Biggerstaff in the year in 1896.  Biggerstaff was a former slave from Lexington, Kentucky who had moved out West to Montana after gaining his freedom.  In 1895, Biggerstaff was accused of murdering the African American prizefighter Dick Johnson in a quarrel over a white woman.[1]  Although Biggerstaff claimed the killing was done in self-defense he was nonetheless found guilty and hung.  In this series of images, Biggerstaff is shown in life, just after his execution and in death.

The first image is a posed portrait of Biggerstaff.  His head rests on his right hand and he gazes solemnly in that direction.  He is dressed formally wearing a suit with a flower pinned to the lapel.  The second image is gruesome and depicts Biggerstaff’s hanging body shortly after his execution.  His face is covered in a mask meant to preserve his dignity in death but which only adds to the horrific nature of the image.  Biggerstaff wears the same coat as in the first picture and is flanked by a Reverend, Victor  Day, as well as the sheriff, Henry Jurgens.  A crowd of onlookers is clearly visible in the back indicating the public nature and spectacle of Biggerstaff’s death.  In the final image, Biggerstaff is shown in his casket.  The angle of the image draws attention to his hand on which a wedding ring is clearly visible.

At first glance this troublesome series of images seems no different than the myriad of lynching images from this time period.  Leigh Raiford describes such images as an essential component of the “reinscribing of the black body as commodity” and a mechanism that “helped extend [a unified white identity] far beyond the town, the county, the state, the South, to include whites nationwide and even internationally.”[2]  While this is certainly true of the vast majority of lynching images several features of this image complicate reading it in such a manner.  The first is the presentation of the three images as opposed to a singular image of a lynched body as was the custom.  Rather the photographer’s decision to use three images, including one showing Biggerstaff while he was still, creates a narrative that individualizes the work.  Typical lynching images present bodies that are often unrecognizable, providing an anonymity that allows for a disassociation from the work that for white audiences at the time played into racist fantasies and for contemporary audiences makes it easier to stomach.  Such dissociation is impossible with this series.  By presenting Bigerstaff’s portrait side-by-side with those of his death, the photographer creates a narrative that contextualizes and brings meaning to Biggerstaff’s life as well as death.  The wedding ring in the final image punctuates this narrative and again forces the viewer to think about the consequences of Biggerstaff’s death on those in his life.

The second characteristic of the photograph that disrupts a conventional reading, is not a feature inherent to the work itself but is in fact the photographer, James Presley (J.P.) Ball.  Ball was born a free man in 1825 in Virginia.  He learned the art of daguerreotype and quickly became extremely successful as a photographer.  As one of the most successful and famous photographers of the latter half of the 20th century, Ball photographed a number of notable people including Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass.[3]  However, in addition to his famous portraits, Ball also documented the horrors of slavery as well as lynchings, publishing a pamphlet addressing the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through the Middle Passage, ” and serving as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. [4]  In addition, Ball was one of the leaders of the movement for William Biggerstaff’s clemency.[5]

Thus, when viewed in this light, these images necessarily take on a different meaning.  If lynching images were commodify the black body for white consumption, as Raiford argues, then what does it mean that this particular set of images was taken by a photographer such as Ball?  To some degree the images of Biggerstaff highlight the relevance of authorship and purpose when it comes to lynching images.  Had the same set of images been taken by a white photographer for purposes more in keeping with most lynching images, they would remain part of the processes described by Raiford, lacking any notion of emancipation.  At the same time, the mere fact that Ball may have intended the images to serve as a call to arms, or at the very least a powerful memorial to Biggerstaff, does not control how they would have been and continue to be interpreted.  Thus, although the typical mechanisms of lynching images are unquestionably disrupted, Ball’s role and the photograph itself cannot be neatly summarized.  The question then, becomes what the role of the art historian ought to be with regards to this image.  Is it enough to merely draw attention to the ways in which interpretations of images are complicated by concepts of authorship, viewership, subject and object?  Such an exercise seems to fall short.


[1] The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

[2] Leigh Raiford, “The Consumption of Lynching Images,” p. 270.  From Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis.

[3] http://www.lonniedawkins.com/JamesPresleyBall.htm#_edn5; (The San Francisco Call, 1896)

The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[4] http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[5] P. 246, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature by Jacqueline Goldsby. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Also: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ball-james-presley-1825-1904, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/amacker/photo/death.html

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.

 

Juxtapositions and Absences (Pinboard #1)

Sarah Charlesworth, Figures (from Objects of Desire I), 1982-83, Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame

Sarah Charlesworth (b. 1947) is a New York-based conceptual artist. She is frequently referred to as a photographer, but she claims that “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I’ve engaged questions regarding photography’s role in culture…but it is an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.” [1] Her work frequently isolates, highlights, and explores subordinated messages and themes in popular culture, media, and art. Often, these messages and themes are related to feminine experience.

Charlesworth’s Figures (1983-1984), from her series Objects of Desire, is a photographic diptych. In the left panel, a dramatic silver dress is suspended against a black background. The figure’s truncated appearance, reminiscent of a fragment of classical sculpture, provokes the viewer’s imagination. The garment appears to be supported by a human body – the curves of breasts, hips, a navel, and a poised thigh are clearly visible – but the figure lacks a head, arms, and feet. On the opposite side of the diptych, a prone figure bound in silver fabric hovers against a red background. The bindings and dress fabric appear to be identical.

In Objects of Desire, Charlesworth engages questions about the roots of attraction. By appropriating and intensifying the products and strategies of advertising, Charlesworth questions the origins of desire as well as its objects. Images in the series – taken from magazines, altered, re-photographed, saturated, and blown up larger than life (here, 42” x 62”) – appear iconic due to their scale and intensity. However, the uncomfortable juxtapositions and absences employed by Charlesworth ask us to question the relationship between the desirous and the desired, suggesting that our longings may be motivated by perceived lacks, unacknowledged perversions, or deeply embedded cultural messages.

[1] Betsy Sussler, interview with Sarah Charlesworth, Bomb (Winter 1989/1990), 32-33.