Comic book images of female vulnerability become symbols of liberated sexual energy at Anton Kern Gallery, New York
With their found images of women’s tears, the works in Anne Collier’s fifth exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery seem, at first glance, to focus on how women are seen by others: emotional, out of control and, yes, seductive. Although the comics, record covers and therapeutic materials Collier draws on show women reduced to tears, the artist reduces them further yet: instead of defining women by their emotional expression, blown-up images of their expressions’ excretion act as a synecdoche for the women. In the series ‘Woman Crying (Comic)’ and ‘Tear (Comic)’ (all works 2018 unless otherwise stated), the isolated, enlarged teardrops no longer suggest mourning or weakness; instead, they signal an erotic allegiance between crying and cumming. In Tear (Comic) #1, the teardrop carves a white gash into the surrounding red grid of the comic panel, enlarged so that the fleshy background starts to look like a torn textile. While Collier has taken these images from comic books that use women’s emotions as a psychosexual reference to vulnerability or helplessness, once enlarged, the sexual energy of the teardrop is freed from that context as it drips across skin.
Recent research on the chemo-signalling function of tears suggests that crying actually offers a certain protection from (at least heterosexual) sex: a 2011 study in Science, somewhat incredibly, had male participants smell vials of women’s tears while looking at photographs of women’s faces; it found that ‘merely sniffing [...] odourless tears’ reduced self-reported, physiological and hormonal indicators of arousal. While this might seem like an absurd tangent from Collier’s engagement with representations of crying, works like What Are the Effects – a poster with six tentative answers (‘Physical?’ ‘Psychological?’) – suggest a clinical distance created by this visual proximity to tears and an interest in the science of weeping.
In the exhibition’s press release, Hilton Als writes that Collier ‘remakes women as they have been photographed by others’, suggesting that her project has a broader focus on women’s lack of control over their representation. But Collier’s conceptual photography is just as concerned with women’s roles on the other side of the camera and central to this exhibition is a work that inverts this question. Comprising 80 collected amateur photographs, the slide-projection piece Women with Cameras (Self-Portrait) shows, every 14 seconds, another example of how a woman sees herself. (In many images, the camera’s flash in the mirror tellingly obscures the face or body.) Dated from the 1970s to the early 2000s, many of these self-portraits read as though their subject took them to see what she looked like from a given angle, in a certain outfit; Collier has chosen images that don’t appear self-consciously framed.
Moving upstairs, the viewer passes a work that resolves this tension between women’s self-image and their representation. How Do You Think Others See You? (2017) centres an open booklet with a woman’s hands positioned over it to fill out the quiz, which asks the titular question in order to measure the woman’s ‘social esteem’. This rubric ironically suggests that Collier’s ‘Woman Crying’ series, alongside her other works focusing on external representation, offers another variety of self-portraiture: to show how others see us is also to show how we see ourselves. It’s an old idea – John Berger’s meta-reflective women. In this photo, though, the pencil hovers over the first question: we don’t get to find out what she thinks.
Anne Collier runs at Anton Kern Gallery, New York until 19 May.
Main image: Anne Collier, Woman Crying (Comic) #4, 2018, (detail), C-Print, 126.24 × 159.59 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York
First published in Issue 196