Some things I learned about women from “SHE: Picturing Women at the Turn of the 21st Century,” the exhibition on view at Brown University’s Bell Gallery (64 College St, Providence, through Dec 21): Women have big breasts, big butts and they like to lie around. Also a lot of big shot, blue-chip artists are way into porn.
It’s sad that this can pretty accurately represent the cockeyed view from the top of the art world, or at least a major slice of the New York art market, of the past two decades — and that Brown curator Jo-Ann Conklin calls this feminism and “critiques of gender norms and ideals of beauty.” The show’s worth checking out for what it reveals — in a discomforting, Freudian unconscious sort of way.
The artists represented here — all drawn from a private collection — are genuinely among the premiere New York and British artists of the past couple decades. And the art here (mainly) shows them in peak form. In other words, you’re not seeing outliers; it’s a representative sampling.
One by one you might not notice what’s on everyone’s mind. But all together, it’s obvious that top Western artists (including many women) have screwed-up views of women.
Rebecca Warren’s 2009 sculpture “L” is a woman as just butt, striding legs and high heels. Formed out of rough lumps of rough white clay, it’s inspired by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s curvy sex objects, but, a sign stipulates, transformed into something “joyous.”
Lisa Yuskavage’s 2000 painting “Night” depicts a sleepy-eyed, cartoony pinup, showing a lot of side boob and hiking her dress up to reveal tan lines along her butt. John Currin’s cartoony 1995 painting “Entertaining Mr. Acker Bilk” shows a bearded twit with a busty, big-eyed blonde clinging to his side.
“Both work with images from pornography,” a sign explains, but “while Currin is content to continue the historical objectification of women, Yuskavage attempts to take possession of this previously male venue.” To me, Yuskavage and Currin are pretty much up to the same thing. There’s a lot of post-modern “borrowing” of pop culture images here, but just copying one more big-breasted, pouty-lipped pinup gal ain’t a critique.
Another career option for women presented here is the passive, reclining lady. There’s Jeff Koons’s 2013 “Gazing Ball (Ariadne),” a white plaster copy of an ancient Roman marble of a sleeping woman in a clingy classical gown. Koons has balanced a blue gazing ball on her belly like an absurd non sequitur gag about contemplative art. Cindy Sherman’s 1989 photo “Untitled #193” is a portrait of herself reclining, costumed in a silvery wig and low-cut dress as she waves a fan — basically aping the hedonistic Rococo style that peaked in France on the eve of their 18th century revolution. Some describe Sherman’s photo as a feminist parody of historical stereotypes, but if it’s a critique, it’s so mild that it might as well be a shrug.
Some top artists over the past two decades have depicted ordinary women, women not content to just lie there, women doing stuff, confrontational women, women with brains. But you’ll have to look elsewhere to find the art of Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Kerry James Marshall, Laurel Nakadate, Nancy Spero, Carrie Mae Weems, or Dana Schutz.
The closest this show gets is Jenny Saville’s 1997 painting “Hybrid.” Yes, it’s another lady naked from bust to crotch. She’s depicted head-on, with a realistically doughy body, and (maybe) 10 feet tall. Which sounds like more of the same. But she’s not a bimbo, not (just) a male sex fantasy. She seems to maybe, actually be someone.