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