One of the talking points of this fair is the fact that on the hour, every hour, there is a three-minute performance created by the artist Eddie Peake, during which a young woman grinds a stone against her crotch in a masturbatory manner (Lorcan O’Neill, A26). Another is an impressive suite of drawings by Carroll Dunham at Barbara Gladstone, which includes in-your-face images of vaginas. But look a little more closely at the stands and it becomes clear that men are not alone in tackling the intimacies of the female form: across the fair, there are explicit works by women of women.
These range from images of masturbation to the cartoonish sexual aggression in Ella Kruglyanskaya’s work on the stand of Glasgow-based gallery Kendall Koppe, which sold out within half an hour of the fair’s opening, at prices ranging from $4,675 to $15,000. Meanwhile, the rough animalistic sex scenes depicted in Camille Henrot’s Tropics of Love, 2014, are available for €24,000 at Berlin’s Johann König.
Of course, female sexuality is not a new subject for women artists. Also on show are earlier works dating from the 1960s and 1970s, including a suite of six photographs by the late artist Ana Mendieta, who distorts notions of desire by pushing a pane of glass against her crotch and breasts in close-up shots in Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), 1972 (priced at $65,000). “She uses glass to fragment her body,” says Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong. “It’s very subversive when a beautiful woman deliberately looks unattractive.”
The increasing preponderance of such images is “the result of developments in art-historical and critical thinking”, says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman. It is also “born of necessity by a market curious for, and in need of, material beyond the drying wells of traditional supply”. This phenomenon is also focusing attention on the work of older artists, some of whom have been toiling for decades in obscurity.
The subject may not be new, but the means of expressing it are evolving. An earlier generation of women artists had to break taboos and set precedents for explicit imagery. But the internet has, to some extent, desensitised viewers. “Artists in the 1970s didn’t live with the porn imagery that’s around us everywhere today,” says Gregor Hose of Johann König. “Now, we live in a state of almost pornographic ennui,” he says—so artists are finding new ways to express age-old preoccupations.
A common strategy among artists today is to playfully subvert initial impressions. For example, a delicately embroidered canvas by the Egyptian-born artist Ghada Amer—The Slightly Smaller Coloured Square Painting, 2001, priced at $200,000 with Cheim & Read—appears to be a coloured abstract, but closer inspection reveals that it is a work about self-stimulation. “I see painting as male,” Amer says. “I wanted to use a medium given to women by art history to challenge that.”
The artist Kara Walker has been “thinking about power, sex, struggle and issues of representation for decades”, says Rachel Taylor of Victoria Miro gallery (C6), which recently began to represent the artist in the UK and is showing a seemingly abstract framed collage by Walker, priced at $95,000. A second look reveals found images of black women masturbating, taken from a 1970s porn magazine.
Taking women seriously
Walker, whose massive new installation A Subtlety opens on Saturday in a former sugar factory in Brooklyn, is just one of many women artists interested in the female form whose work is currently included in major shows in New York. Another is the late Viennese painter Maria Lassnig, who died this week and is the subject of an exhibition at MoMA PS1 (until 25 May). Her unflinching examination of her own body is “absolutely essential to our understanding of this subject”, says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery.
“The perception of female artists has changed; what was once dismissed is now taken more seriously,” says Glenn Scott-Wright of Victoria Miro gallery.
Some concerns go beyond gender, says the New York gallerist Gavin Brown (B38), who recently staged a show that included graphic depictions of female genitalia by Judith Bernstein. “I suppose if a man had done all those paintings of cunts and cocks, it might have been spoken about differently, but the subject was universal—[it was] about the birth of the world,” he says. “Men have been sublimating images of their cocks for millennia, so why can’t women do the same?”
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline 'Women doing it for (and to) themselves '