Pleasure, Pain, and Politics: Ellen Cantor in New York

Ellen Cantor: Circus Lives From Hell, 2004, series of 81 unframed drawings, mixed media on paper. Courtesy 80WSE Gallery, New York. Photo Jeffrey Sturges.


Amid a resurgence of interest in the New York art scene of the 1990s, the recent reappraisal of the work of feminist artist Ellen Cantor feels particularly timely. Born in 1961 in Detroit, Cantor studied at Brandeis University and Skowhegan before becoming immersed in the art worlds of London and New York. She first gained critical attention—and notoriety—in the early ’90s, deftly combining pornography with politics and pop culture with the handmade in her paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, and films. Exhibitions at 80WSE Gallery, Foxy Production, and Participant Inc, along with a restaging at Maccarone of “Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women,” a 1993 group exhibition she organized, and a series of screenings and public programs, coalesce in a sort of city-wide retrospective of Cantor’s work that culminates in the premiere of her film Pinochet Porn at the Museum of Modern Art on October 31.

“Ellen Cantor: Are You Ready For Love?” at 80WSE Gallery (through Nov. 12), the most expansive and museumlike of the current exhibitions, includes work from the early 1990s through Cantor’s death, from lung cancer, in 2013. The show opens with a series of large pencil drawings on canvas, all from 1996, depicting elaborate arrays of nude figures floating and fucking, overlaid with little hearts, birds, and bits of text. They evoke the fairy tales (all three are subtitled Snow White) that served as an abiding influence on Cantor’s practice: archetypal depictions of female sexuality and love, with their obvious shortcomings and persistent allure. Elsewhere, smaller drawings, often sexually explicit and occasionally paired with a handwritten folktale, are displayed in racks of double-sided wooden frames, which viewers can flip through as though reading a book. Even more so than the drawings on canvas, these feel at once offhand and studiously romantic, like sketches penciled in the margins of a school notebook. Cantor employs folkloric narratives, and those we tell about our own lives, for their capacity to represent as well as shape desire. One series, Lovely Girls Emotions (c. 1997), centers around the purity of a young woman who becomes a queen: pages dense with text alternate delicate sketches of the woman—her eyes and hands—and explicit depictions of sex. In Cantor’s rendering, the heroine becomes both an empowered, sexual agent and a cipher for the artist’s own experiences.

The exhibition also includes a selection of film works and a small number of objects and works by other artists intended to elucidate Cantor’s influences. Her video Within Heaven and Hell (1996) adeptly montages scenes from The Sound of Music and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—in one memorable sequence, Leatherface brandishes a chainsaw in an open field as “The Hills are Alive” plays cheerily in the background—with a voiceover of Cantor recounting a failed love affair. The intimate disclosure of Cantor’s narration makes the film’s violence and pastoral beauty oddly personal, even as it seems to situate love along a continuum of cruelty. In the last gallery, each of the five chapters that comprise Cantor’s final, seminal film Pinochet Porn (2008–16) are displayed in individual projections that play sequentially. It’s not an ideal installation to view the entire film, but it contextualizes the work with an exhibition catalogue from Cantor’s collection, Masterpieces from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, which is opened to a reproduction of Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting served as a reference for the film’s depictions of personal tragedy and the unnoticed suffering of others. A series of eighty-one mixed media drawings, entitled “Circus Lives from Hell” (2004), which wrap around three of the gallery walls beneath the video projections, foreground more of Cantor’s delicate pencil sketches. They deploy handwritten text to drive a loose narrative of coming of age under a dictatorship, based on her best friend’s childhood in South America, from which the plot of Pinochet Porn developed.

At Foxy Production, the multichannel installation Be My Baby (1999), on view through October 23, offers another significant example of Cantor’s video work. Like Within Heaven and Hell, Be My Baby comprises montaged film clips and pop music: scenes from classic Hollywood movies—a cowboy kisses a woman in slow motion, a man slaps a woman as they fight in bed—are intercut with footage of an astronaut in space as the R&B standard “Stand by Me” plays. The vast freedom of the universe confronts the focused intensity of affective experiences; scenes and bits of dialogue are sometimes repeated or slowed down, complicating the materials’ emotional pull. Several photo collages (1995-96), also on view, juxtapose stills from popular cinema and pornography in gridded arrangements. They evidence Cantor’s interest in how media representations of intimacy affect our understanding of it. As a whole, these works leave the impression that Cantor was above all interested in love—in sex and desire, but also a love of the world, even in its violence, in its constant admixture of pleasure and pain, personal feeling and political valence. 

“Ellen Cantor, Lovely Girls Emotions,” on view through October 30 at Participant Inc, features Cantor’s early works, primarily paintings and painted sculptural objects made between 1982 and 1994. Motifs recur throughout the show: vicious animals, two women touching tongues, a blonde woman intimately paired with a dark-skinned figure. Some of this imagery reappears in the exhibitions of later work as well, marking Cantor’s continued concerns with female sexuality and the narration of desire. A selection of small paintings is displayed along the gallery’s two long walls, depicting scenes of explicit intimacy, psychosexual violence, and everyday horror (rats on a kitchen stove, for example). Crushed Budweiser cans form a frame around the largest of these works, which suggests a hedonistic game—playing cards, dice, and a roulette wheel intermingle with shadowy nude bodies—in thickly applied pink and gray paint. 

Long, narrow paintings on freestanding wooden boards hang on the far back wall. These totemic works mostly depict bodies; some are decorated with feathers, sequins, pompoms, and, in one instance, Pepsi cans—alluding, perhaps, to the role of PepsiCo in the rise of the US-backed Pinochet regime in Chile, which Cantor later elaborates in Pinochet Porn. Installed together, they evoke a set of queer, craft-bin Brancusi sculptures. 

Cantor’s low-culture references and artful use of cheap or discarded materials link her to a ’90s aesthetic sensibility finding renewed currency today. Likewise, her mobilization of sexual, even pornographic, imagery toward feminist ends feels strikingly relevant in a moment of simplistic visibility politics. Rather than assuming that visibility alone will do the work of liberation, Cantor framed her investigations of desire in their social and, as in the case of Pinochet Porn, geopolitical contexts. This commitment is reinforced by a display of ephemera in the gallery’s back room: photos, invitation cards, and German newspaper articles (accompanied by printed translations) written in response to the 1995 group exhibition “Oh Pain Oh Life” at Helmhaus Zurich, which was censored by the mayor in response to Cantor’s ostensibly pornographic work. Of course, as explicit as Cantor’s work is, its purpose is never solely, or even primarily, to titillate. Her work makes clear that sex and love are always entangled with politics, and vice versa; sex can be many things, but it is never not political.