Every spring the American Craft Council makes its way to down to the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta for its annual craft show. Featuring the work of over 230 artists from all around the country, the council champions this three-day weekend as, “Craft like you’ve never seen before.” With this endorsement, my awareness of the heavily juried application process, and a couple NCECA conferences under my belt, I had high hopes that this would be an encouraging and, dare I say, inspiring experience. I was sorely disappointed.
The conference center was hemorrhaging cute, kitschy, folksy, craft with a capital “C.” Drab monochromatic patchworks of felted ponchos, that looked suspiciously like cat hair, draped over stacks of exhausted coat hangers. Aisle after aisle was dominated by booths of jewelry, twinkling for the attention of all the white-haired attendees. British potter and Turner Prize winner, Grayson Perry’s criticism of the craft world being a place for women in “dangly earrings” rang obnoxiously true. The overall appeal of the show seemed to be toward the creation and maintenance of a Ms. Frizzle aesthetic as a kooky art teacher. But I’m not here to judge the people. I am here to talk about the art. The problem is I had an extremely hard time determining where the art was exactly. Was it in Tara Locklear’s bold graphic necklaces made from recycled skateboards? Maybe it was in James Borden’s spindly wooden clock sculptures? Metal, wood, and fiber all blurred together in designs that felt excessive and elaborate just for the sake of being so. The beloved Bauhaus phrase of “form follows function” was apparently tossed out with the wood chips.
My home turf of ceramics fell into a similar trap, as I walked past the same glazes and forms I have seen a hundred times over. Floating blues splashing into rusty reds on cylindrical bacon cookers were all lined up for your ultimate pork cooking pleasure. Paveen Chunhaswasdikul’s whistle mugs and ringing wine goblets, although spirited and impeccably crafted, felt gimmicky. This bizarre amalgamation of high and low craft was epitomized with an entire booth of dopey eyed stuffed animal puppets and recycled metal lawn art of dogs playing mini-golf. Needless to say, I was grateful for the scotch bar located directly in the middle of the pavilion, where I could sip and take in the visual chaos. I stood there heartbroken and partially embarrassed for craft. Was this truly the world that I had been striving so hard to be a part of? Did I still want to take on the label as an advocate for craft?
Perhaps these weren’t “my people,” but there is no denying the affordability, accessibility, and relatability of craft. In many ways, I believe it is a gateway into the art world. People know what to do with craft. You can wear it, sit in it, and eat off of it. Craft serves us and is forever linked to function, which means there will always be a need for it somewhere in our lives. But art demands more, less complex forms and more complex thought. With art, we ask what does it mean, instead of what does it do? Above all else, my time at the American Craft Council Show made me confront my own artistic pedigree and biases. It all felt like a wholesome distraction from what is really happening in the world. But what did I expect from heartfelt little sculptures of cats tucking in their kittens goodnight?
This week's writing is dedicated to my sister, Katie. Happy 27th Birthday!
Writing about Dana Schutz's "Frank from Observation" series last week got me curious about other female artists who work with men as the subject of their art. More specifically, I wanted to find a female artist who, instead of inventing a man, worked with a real man to create an entire body of work. I was immediately reminded of the sensuous paintings by Sylvia Sleigh that depict a tan, afro donned man. Sleigh, a pioneer of the feminist art movement, was known for her unconventional portraits of male nudes and her involvement in women-run art spaces like Soho 20 and A.I.R. Gallery. After marrying famed art critic, Lawrence Alloway in 1954, the English couple moved to New York where they immersed themselves in the 60's bohemian art scene of Soho. They were quickly embraced by the community and made friends with artists and critics alike. It wasn't until the 1970s that Sleigh started painting a young musician named, Paul Rosano, who would serve as her male muse for the next eight years. But who was this man and what was the nature of their relationship?
According to a Linkedin profile of the same name, Paul Rosano is a New York based sports writer and editor. He studied at The Berklee College of Music, where he majored in contra basse and music composition. He was part of a Connecticut rock group of the 1960s called Island, that later moved to New York to try and land a record deal. It was during this time that Rosano first met Sleigh while modeling at The School of Visual Arts. If the dates are accurate, Rosano would have been in his twenties and Sleigh in her mid-fifties, happily married to Alloway. Typically, when we think of an artist's muse, like Dora Maar to Picasso or Gala Diakonava to Dali, there is a sexual component at play in the relationship. However, I have found little to no evidence of this with Rosano and Sleigh. In fact, I have found almost nothing at all. With the exception to a 40 second video clip on YouTube with Rosano discussing his experience with Sleigh and his personal music blog, there is no substantial material that documents their time together with the same kind of attention and interest as other artists' muses. What was their relationship? How long did they work together and how many works did Sleigh complete of him? Andrew Wyeth has an entire book dedicated to the paintings he made of his neighbor, Helga Testorf. What gives?
Despite this lack of information, the works themselves are truly revolutionary. In works like Paul Rosano Reclining, Imperial Nude, and most famously Turkish Bath, Sleigh successfully and unabashedly flips the classic objectifying gaze of the female nude on its head. Through these intimate male portraits Sleigh sought to portray equality, humanity, and individuality. She writes, "I made a point of finding male models and I painted them as portraits, not as sex objects, but sympathetically as intelligent and admired people." There is a tenderness and sentimental weight to the works because she clearly had a personal relationship with, not only Rosano, but with everyone she painted. Her meticulous and obsessive attention to detail highlights her subjects individuality. Sleigh's interpretation of Rosano swirling lion's mane of curls is a personal favorite.
Sleigh's work gives female viewers permission to look and gives male viewers the opportunity to be vulnerable. As a culture, we are still not accustomed to seeing such stimulating images of men that spark female heterosexual desire. Sophia Robb's physical response of clenching her jaws to the point of breaking her retainer when seeing actor Michael B. Jordan shirtless in Black Panther is a hilarious, if not extreme, recent example of this. In Katie Geha's Love Letter to Paul Rosano, she explains how her entire art history class audibly gasps when she introduces Paul Rosano Reclining. I encourage you all to look and to embrace the initial shock of these paintings. After a while, you may find it is the lack of exposure to such images that make them more shocking than they really are.
Thanks for reading! Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.
Meredith Mendelson's Article, The Feminist Artist Who Turned her Gaze on the Male Nude
YouTube Clip: Who Was Sylvia Sleigh? (Paul Rosano interview 1:52)
Paul Rosano's site: The Trick is to Keep Going
I've established the difference between the male and female gaze and the ways in which female artists, like Maya Deren and Cindy Sherman, have either embraced or subverted the dominate male gaze of our culture. Within this patriarchal structure, women have long been held as the ultimate object of desire. But what if the roles are reversed? What if man becomes the subject of a female gaze? How is it different? Is it still a desiring and possessive look? This is the crux of my research. I want to know what happens, psychologically and artistically, when women look at men. In order to unravel these questions, I will focus on female artists who use the male body as the subject of their work. The first artist in this investigative series is Dana Schutz.
Schutz is best known for her vibrant gestural oil paintings that often depict abstracted figures in imaginative, if not impossible, situations that skew everyday life. Most recently, Schutz has been under scrutiny for her painting Open Casket, which is based off of the notorious death photograph of Emmett Till and was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. My interest, however, lies with her "Frank from Observation" exhibition that debuted at the LFL Gallery in the fall of 2002. The exhibition consisted of approximately twelve paintings of fictional man named, Frank. In Schutz's description, "The paintings are premised on the imaginary situation that the man and I are the last people on earth. The man is the last subject and the last audience and, because the man isn't making any paintings, I am the last painter."
Frank, who is best described by art critic, Jerry Saltz as a "puppy-eyed, balding cross between the comedians Chris Elliot and Tom Green," is far removed from the idealized American man. The paintings fluctuate between quiet depictions of Frank posing for Schutz in a variety of colorful landscapes to frantically explosive events that sport narratively charged titles like The Gathering, Suicide, and The Breeders. I cannot resist wanting to put some sort of dark story together, especially when critic interpretations range from sadomasochistic undertones to Frank's eventual barbaric mutilation and murder.
Regardless of whatever horrific conclusions you may deduce from the work, the premise of the "Frank from Observation" series is endlessly fascinating. Instead of choosing to paint a man from reality, Schutz has chosen to invent a man in an isolated and inauspicious scenario with herself. A million questions arise as to the nature of their imaginary relationship as the last man and woman on earth. Schutz writes that, "The psychological and representational implications of painting in a world where reality is relational between two people, or, in a world without anyone to check reality against, is a starting point for these paintings." In the works where Frank is the more realistically rendered like Reclining Nude, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey, and Frank on a Rock, the entire scene feels grounded and emits a sense of gentle serenity. In these three works, Frank appears calm and complicit. If he is threatened by the artist, it is not happening in these particular works.
The notion of Schutz being a threat to Frank is interesting in both a "woman versus man" and "creator versus creation" mentality. Men are physically stronger than woman and will inherently pose more of a threat to them. Freud argued of a literal and metaphorical "castration anxiety" toward women as the "other." I argue of a literal and metaphorical "rape anxiety" toward men when women dare look. It is the threat of rape that inherently complicates the female gaze. As his creator, Schutz possesses a particular maternal power over Frank's image. She has birthed him, in a sense, and may alter him in any way she deems necessary for the sake of the art. In paintings like The Breeders, her destruction and control over his image is no different than the exaggeration and manipulation of the female body by artists like John Currin. Perhaps it is Frank's threat to the artist as a woman that leads, ultimately, to his demise.
In the coming year, Frank does return to Schutz's work, but this time as a maker. In Chicken and Egg we see the invented man is inventing something for himself, curiously intact and tranquil against a starry night sky. Overall, I think Schutz's "Frank from Observation" series becomes more of an exploration of man as material than subject. He is not an object to be desired, but a material to be used and divided within her own two-dimensional abattoir. Therefore, Schutz may not be the best example of an artist who uses the female gaze as a way to express heterosexual desire for men. These works do however align more with Dr. Athena Bellas's description of the gaze being a searching look for the women trying to come into a position of agency in relation to the male body, even if that newfound agency leads to the complete obliteration of the other. Unfortunately for Frank, Schutz has given us no reason to suspect a Pygmalion scenario here.
What do you think? Can you truly desire someone that does not exist? Let me know by commenting below and thanks for reading!
Press Release for "Frank from Observation"
Jerry Saltz's Review, Wild Card
Schutz's comments on The Breeders
Women have occupied the role of the objet petit a within the gaze of America’s patriarchal culture for decades. French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan explains that there is an intimate relationship between the objet petit a, which coordinates our desire, and the gaze, which threatens to undo it through the interruption of reality (Lacan 9). At the heart of desire is an ever-widening void that we incessantly and unsuccessfully try to fill. Forever unattainable, the object of desire is ultimately nothing more than a screen for our own narcissistic projections. The gaze, as Lacan writes, is dismantled through the realization that behind our desire is nothing but what we lack.
Female artists since the 1980s have attempted to overthrow this gaze by appropriating from and reinterpreting the very tropes of popular culture that have been used to oppress them. Artist, Cindy Sherman uses photography to generate an unpredictability in her image and to challenge the dominant ideologies about female identity. Sherman’s Untitled black and white studies for film stills use photography as it relates to pop culture. Made during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Sherman costumes herself to resemble female leads of Hollywood B movies of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (Owens 73). She does not reference specific movies as much as she references mid-century female looks of cinema.
In his essay “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” Craig Owens equates Sherman’s play-acting as an acting out of the psychoanalytic notion of femininity as masquerade and as a representation of male desire (Owens 75). “One is always in representation, and when a woman is asked to take place in this representation, she is, of course, asked to represent man’s desire (Owens 75).” If men are in visual possession of women, is Cindy Sherman simply acknowledging the inevitable objectification of her image and exploiting this possession for her own gain?
The power in this series lies in the instability of her identity. Although her photographs are always self-portraits, Sherman is able to transform her appearance to such a degree that she never appears to be the same woman or model. Kofman writes, “Because with ‘woman’ men never know for sure with whom they are dealing, they try to overcome her lack of ‘proper’ nature and propriety by making her their property (Modleski 95).” In this regard, perhaps photography is the perfect medium for the gaze to nourish and consume its desire to control the female image. After all, Sherman has been able to sustain an extremely successful career by producing work that clearly satisfies this hunger.
Thanks for reading! Please share and comment below to let me know your thoughts.
Jacques Lacan, “IV: on the gaze”
Tania Modleski, “Femininity by Design” 2005.
Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” 1983.
Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills"