Black Sheep Feminism

Dallas Contemporary, USA

Anita Steckel, New York Landscape (Woman pressing finger down), c.1970–80, silkscreen print, oil paint and collage on canvas, 1.6 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: Courtesy the Anita Steckel Estate and Suzanne Geiss, New York; photograph: Jason Mandella

Anita Steckel, New York Landscape (Woman pressing finger down), c.1970–80, silkscreen print, oil paint and collage on canvas, 1.6 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: Courtesy the Anita Steckel Estate and Suzanne Geiss, New York; photograph: Jason Mandella

With a spate of recent institutional shows, feminist art finally seems to have entered the canon. This would appear to confirm the Guerrilla Girls’ claim, in 1988, that female artists only get recognized late in life. In 1971, when Linda Nochlin asked in the title of her now-famous ArtNews article: ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, the question was not why there were none, but why so few had been acknowledged as great. But for Cosey Fanni Tutti, Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel and Betty Tompkins – the four artists in ‘Black Sheep Feminism: the Art of Sexual Politics’ at Dallas Contemporary – recognition was a burden rather than a boon. In the 1970s, during the height of their careers, they were marginalized on multiple fronts for depicting sexually explicit imagery from a woman’s perspective, reversing the monopoly of the male gaze. 

Eschewing bodily metaphors, like Georgia O’Keefe’s or Judy Chicago’s vaginal flowers, these four artists unambiguously displayed their desires without shame or sentimentality. They were rejected not only by prudish institutions but also by the mainstream feminist movement, which regarded pornography as a vulgar extension of patriarchy. Their unorthodox practices might rehearse what Jack Halberstam called a ‘queer art of failure’, willfully disavowing traditional feminist models and, in the process, distancing them from the movement that should have supported them. They partly foregrounded the late-1980s pro-sex movement and later post-porn artists, writers and activists such as Judith Butler, Virginie Despentes, Griselidis Real and Annie Sprinkle. 

To today’s desensitized viewer, the works in ‘Black Sheep Feminism’ might appear conventional, both in content (mainly heterosexual sex between biologically male and female bodies) and in form (paintings, drawings and a few photographs). But when they were completed, Tompkins’s photorealistic black and white ‘Fuck Paintings’ (1969–74) – scenes from pornographic magazines cropped and enlarged in oil on canvas – were deeply shocking for their portrayal of sex acts and organs, rather than simply objectified female bodies. The same can be said of Steckel’s drawings, which mock the phallogocentrism of Manhattan architecture in the crude aesthetic of bathroom-stall graffiti or the jarring colours of nude fornicating couples that Semmel painted au naturel in her studio. Even more strikingly contemporary is the conceptual work by British artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, whose pseudonym was inspired by the title of a Mozart opera, often translated as ‘Women Are like That’. Working undercover as a sex worker, Tutti appropriated and framed published porn magazine photographs of her own highly feminized body. 

All four artists were heavily censored throughout their careers and, 40 years later, their work still offends patriarchal mores that tend to regard women as either mothers or whores. The show’s success, though, lies in its rather modest format: an antechamber introduces the four artists by displaying one work by each, and the following gallery explores full series on its much longer walls. Wall-mounted quotes stimulate fruitful dialogue between figures who often disagreed with one another: Semmel, for instance, notably criticized Tompkins for her use of pornographic images. 

If attitudes toward sexually explicit imagery have changed since these works were first exhibited, we might wonder why ‘Black Sheep Feminism’ isn’t traveling elsewhere. Dallas Contemporary, located in arguably one of the most politically conservative cities in the US, should be applauded for its boldness, but the discussion should not end there. As the show’s subtitle makes clear, sex is inherently political. 

Issue 179

First published in Issue 179

May 2016

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