Visual Art 12-30-2005

I Want My Feminist Blockbuster

Suzanne Szucs went to see the big Chuck Close show and wondered why most of the big shows lately have one thing in common.

Suzanne Szucs

I went to see the Chuck Close exhibition at the Walker Art Center a while back and it’s been gnawing at me ever since. Walking around the galleries, asking myself what I was learning and whether I was being moved by the work, I wondered when we would get the next show devoted to the artwork of a woman. Briefly scanning the Walker’s website, I see it won’t be anytime soon. It seems strange. I mean, fifty percent of us are female. What’s going on here? Feminism (waves 2 through 3), Guerilla Girls, reproductive freedom (hmm?), all this talk for three decades about “the male gaze,” you would think women artists would finally be better represented in the museums. Think again.

I decided to do a brief web survey of upcoming exhibitions at our nation’s top MOMA’s (museums of modern art). First stop: the mother of them all, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hey, cool, they are showing Elizabeth Murray. Oh, gee, she is the only woman getting a solo show THIS YEAR. Against her is Odilon Redon. What’s been showing? Frank Gohlke, Lee Friedlander, Thomas Demand, and our favorite art school icons, Cezanne and Pissarro. Coming up, Edvard Munch. Geez, I don’t know if I can take much more. SFMOMA: Kiki Smith opens right after my buddy Chuck Close closes. Excellent. Let’s look a little closer… over the past year 2 women have had solo shows versus 8 men. Uh huh, feminism rocks! LAMOCA, hey Cezanne and Pissarro and… King Tut?? Oh, sorry, that’s LACMA (LA County Museum of Art).

That little jaunt whooped me; the results are pretty sad. Yes, I am sure that there are lots of women represented in the various group shows organized, but if it follows the general tendencies I’ve charted above, there’ll be one woman represented for every 4-6 men. Unfortunately, I think I’m being pretty generous with that tally.

This whole line of thought started for me recently when I had an exhibition with a good friend of mine, Robb Quisling, who also happens to be male. Our exhibition, called Volatile Bodies (see Julia Durst’s lovely review for more detail), came about because we were each exploring gender issues so we thought putting the work together would make an interesting contrast. I’ve been around a while, had a lot of shows, pushed a lot of people’s buttons, so I thought I had seen just about everything, but this show was different. This one got to such a fundamental issue of how women and men express themselves, that it surprised even me. Robb’s work of objects adorning men’s scrotums were big, bold, anonymous and cold. My self-portraits were small, intimate and challenging. Not to say that one result was better than the other – I happen to think that we both make fabulous work – but it does bring up issues of gender difference and the hierarchy we have attached to them. (I don’t quite believe in the simplicity of two genders, but that’s another discussion.)

When I was in grad school, I stopped making specifically feminist work because I did not want to be ghettoized as a maker of “women’s” art. I avoided gender or gender-preference art shows, or any shows that would plant a label on me, not because I didn’t believe in the necessity of those types of venues, but because I didn’t want my work to be marginalized and my audience limited. I saw how feminist art was often ignored by a huge segment of the population; discounted as not being relevant to their lives. My strategy was to make work that incorporated and challenged gender issues, but that couldn’t be pinned down; that spoke to issues we all carry, because in reality feminism affects us all.

That was a decade ago and my work has been broad and reactionary and bothered folks for being too tough, inscrutable, self-absorbed, tame, distant, beautiful… it has incorporated feminist and humanist attitudes, posing questions about our relationships to our bodies, to death, to the environment…. However, it still amazes me that I should receive comments such as, “Why are women’s issues so important to you?” When I last checked in women still comprise approximately 52% of the world’s population; everyone has a mother and most of them remain primary caretakers regardless of whether they work outside the home; women still make on average only 75% of male wages; most persons serving food either at home or in restaurants are women so statistically, that person who served you coffee this morning was most likely a woman. That’s pretty basic, I would say. It’s not like men live in a womanless vacuum…. In actuality, they rely upon women in pretty much every aspect of their day, so why wouldn’t “women’s” issues be important to them? Why would you even need to ask?

But just as Red State folks vote against their best interests, so too do women sabotage their own rights to equal treatment in society. Both New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in her book Are Men Necessary? and Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture argue that contemporary women have abandoned feminism for the lure of men and marriage, choosing anti-feminist ways to win the hearts of men who need to be petted and preened by their girlfriends and wives. The balance between sexuality and objectification is still a hard line to walk for women. Within contemporary society their feminine difference – one that allows for emotions, sensuality, expression, intuition – is marginalized in favor of a masculine distance that disenfranchises the body (aside from the penis) and glorifies analytical thought.

Just check in on Harvard president Lawrence Summer’s remarks about women’s inability at the hard sciences. (see the link below for commentary on this subject) The issue is not really that he said women are bad at science – only a fool (or misogynist) would take that kind of commentary seriously – but that he expressed a hierarchy still so profoundly present in our society: that the hard sciences are more important than say, “soft” objectives, like, hmm, art. What he is doing is setting up what we all know to be true, but just don’t talk about enough: that we have created a hierarchy of difference, masculine vs. feminine. We see this in the museum all the time… whose work and what type of work is most important; who deserves those blockbuster shows? It certainly accounts for the 1 to 5 ratio I found during my museum scan.

So I am at the Chuck Close show at the Walker Art Center, wandering around wondering what I am doing there. How is it that when a man photographs himself it is revolutionary, theoretical, and that Close can get away with photographing himself without giving anything away? Immediately I think of an artist who was extremely important to my education, but whose work I rarely see exhibited, her work functioning rather as the antithesis to Close’s, British photographer Jo Spence. The fundamental differences in their bodies of work highlight the stereotypical difference in masculine and feminine approaches to self-portraiture.

Spence died of breast cancer in 1992 photographically documenting and making art of her ordeal. Through the process she bares all, confronting us with her “out of control” female body. Close’s portraits, on the other hand, are all about control and exacting precision. The body is not even present, rather all focuses on the head, in an exaggeration of the masculine preference for mental intellect over physical intelligence. Even more interesting is that Close also suffers from a physical affliction; however, his approach has been to cut off the body, whereas Spence confronted it, and in so doing, forced her viewers to take the painful journey with her. Indeed, her photographs are very difficult to look at. Her body images present an extreme example of women’s experiences in general – we bloat, we bleed, we blow up in pregnancy. Men spend a lot of their lives ignoring their corporeal selves. Women, quite frankly, aren’t allowed that option. Even if some choose to spend some time in denial about it, they still gotta buy tampons, ply their bodies with birth control and navigate a medical establishment that marginalizes their issues.

Close doesn’t even show expression on his face, unless you consider a cold calculated stare an expression. One image, a daguerreotype, clearly a test shot, sports an infectious smile. It stands alone in the entirety of the exhibition – was it put in to let us know that Close is, indeed, human, not machine? One can get lost in technique and Close, as interesting as his work can be on a technical level, loses me pretty quickly precisely because he explores surface, not soul. Interestingly, Linda Weintraub, in her volume of essays, Art on the Edge and Over, compares Close’s work to data collection or images made through computer processing. Close himself states that he wants to strip the images of any emotion or of “a checklist of ingredients a portrait painting is supposed to contain…” Then why make self-portraits and why an exhibition of self-portraits? Why not a landscape or a hand, or an ankle? There seems to be a bit of a contradiction presented – the face is the most powerful communication device that we have; why strip it of its ability to express? Cannot expression and analysis co-exist?

The raw physicality of Spence’s work challenges the viewer. She uses skin, sickness to probe right into our guts. Her photo therapy work with Rosy Martin also probed beneath the surface. The two of them would use photography as a forum to act out scenes from their youth, using the physical self to uncover the unconscious. Indeed, therapy is a “soft” science. Is showing this degree of personal experience too much for the viewer? If so, why? It seems as though at this particular time in our history, we are having a very difficult time expressing our emotions and it’s getting us into all kinds of trouble. Because of it, we are a stunted society. Artists like Jo Spence have always recognized this problem and put themselves on the front lines of expression. She documented, without apology, her physical and emotional struggle to live. She allowed us to look. Out of respect, we should keep looking and use the experience to confront our own terrors.

I’m not prepared to dictate if Close and Spence represent the perfect masculine and feminine models of self-portraiture. My point is to remind us that we need both models, and for too long we have given extreme prejudice to just one way. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to create an overall equitable society. Art should pave the way, not with quotas, but with sincere appreciation for difference. A Jo Spence blockbuster wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Suzanne Szucs

Suzanne E. Szucs is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Rochester, MN. A recipient of numerous grants and awards, including an Illinois Arts Council Individual Fellowship and two Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist Grants, she has shown her work widely. Szucs has a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes critical articles for Afterimage and has recently lectured about her work at SPE, College Art …   read more