Power, Pleasure and Pain:
Contemporary Women Artists and The Femnaie Body
at the Fogg Art Museum
The Fogg Art Museum makes a radical break with its genteel reputation in its latest feature exhibit, "Power, Pleasure and Pain: Contemporary Women Artists and the Female Body." Even though the warning sign at its entrance cautions that the exhibit contains material "Which may not be appropriate for everyone," the unsuspecting visitor may not be prepared for this diverse array of agressive feminist expression, which highlights images of female genetalia, lesbian love and even a graphic photograph of a recently performed mastecomy.
Elizabeth Mansfield, a Ph.D. candidate in the Fine Arts Department, designed the show as a general "response" to "the sudden and sustained interest of many American women artists in the female body as a subject."
Explaining that in the past convention had prevented women artists from fully exploring the female body in their work, Mansfield contends that a post-1960 "liberalization" of art allowed women artists to use the female body as "a literal as well as metaphorical site for activism and a redefinition of femininity."
Realizing that her exhibit risks "ghettoizing" women artists by addressing their work as fundamentally separate from that of men, Mansfield firmly asserts that she is not attempting to formulate a single "category of `femininity,'" but rather to celebrate the plurality inherent in the notion of femininity.
Accordingly, "Power, Pleasure and Pain" features as wide variety of approaches to female subjects, Images of empowerment include Nancy Spero's "To the Revolution: VII," which represents vigorous female archetypes and mythic goddesses joining contemporary figures moving toward an unseen goal, as well as Denise Carbone's "Genitalia Print," which is juxtaposed with a print of the artist's face.
The exhibit also contains works which are more ambiguous, such as Amy Wilson's photograph of "Gynecare," in which a woman holds up a mirror to reflect the medical instruments protruding from a patient's vagina. In fact, an explicitly genital theme dominates thee exhibit, as manifested by Leone MacDonald's depiction of sexual organs in "Clitoris," "Vagina," and "Labia" with simple lines made with a branding iron.
The political element of this exhibit reaches full expression in many of these works, which set up the standard women-as-victim-of-male-objectification stereotype and critique it simultaneously. Mary Rhinelander's "Alphabet" challenges what it perceives to be womens' ingrained domestic and cosmetic roles with the sardonic statements "K is for Kitchen; L is for Lipstick." Lorna Simpson's screenprint of two high-healed shoes, entitled "Cure/Heal," and Debra Olin's Good Girl Measure Her Waist" also address this theme.
While many of these works clearly reject the artist perception of what society demands of women, Mansfield interprets more ambiguous works in the same light.
For example, Mansfield maintains that the juxtaposed photographs of Hannah Wilke and her aged mother, who bears the visible scar of a mastecomy, make "the physical and emotional repercussions of patriarchy manifest."
While "Power, Pleasure, and Pain" professes to represent a multiplicity or perspectives on femininity today, this exhibit nevertheless seems one-sided.
In its strident attempt to assert the validity of more "alternative" definitions of feminity, the exhibit certainly lacks a perspective which addresses more "standard" sources of feminity such as motherhood or heterosexual love.
Rather than only featuring works which treat the female in isolation or in the negative terms of what she rejects in society, the exhibit would truly live up to its pluralistic billing if it included perspectives which explore the reconciliation to or integration of "femininity" into contemporary society.