The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women

New York

at Cheim & Read



It’s odd to call an exhibition with excellent examples of contemporary and historical female artists’ work a failure. But the work in it failed to accomplish its goal, which is anyway dated to say the least, of “reclaim[ing] the traditional dominion of the ‘male gaze,’” as stated in the press release. Even if the appealing images in the show are of and made by women, who’s to say they defy the male—or anyone’s—gaze?

Instead, it proved only that women too can create commonplace—sexy, but not necessarily sexist—images that serve mainly to foreground women’s sexuality and beauty. Witness Tracey Emin’s Legs IV (2008), a blue neon work of crossed bare legs with the crotch central in the composition; Nan Goldin’s Amanda at the Sauna, Hotel Savoy (1994), a lush C-print of a nude, sanguine-lipped waif crouched in a pool, her pressed-together legs not quite concealing her genitalia (why this, of all possible Goldin images of women?); and Anh Duong’s self-portrait, The Lure of Disillusion (2008), a nicely painted rendering of the artist/socialite sitting on a stool wearing fishnet stockings, a Burberry trench and Louboutin boots, and clutching a Fendi handbag.

Another seated female painted in a manner not dissimilar to Duong’s, with a mildly skewed perspective, rich palette and direct, unsmiling gaze, appears in Alice Neel’s portrait of her granddaughter, Olivia (1975). Unlike Duong’s representation of herself festooned in designer finery, however, Olivia looks as though she has grown too tall for her chartreuse high-water pants and would rather be doing something other than be looked at. One may imagine this is the case for other subjects in the show as well, namely Catherine Opie’s Rachel (2003), a C-print of a young woman with sun-bleached hair and wet skin, holding a beat-up surfboard, the sea behind her, and the young girls in a Berlin forest, unkempt and at one with nature, in Rineke Dijkstra’s sumptuous C-prints (2001/2003).

Marina Abramovic’s Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975) consists of a black-and-white photograph of the admirably indefatigable artist, shirtless and combing her hair, and an adjacent small text panel that reads: “I brush my hair with a metal brush in my right hand and simultaneously comb my hair with a metal comb in my left hand. / While doing so, I continuously repeat / ‘Art must be beautiful’ / ‘Artist must be beautiful’ / until I destroy my hair and face.” She doesn’t specify why the imperative to beauty in both her work and person would cause her to want to ruin her appearance. Yet any viewer, not just a woman, may have an idea why.