‘The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women’ attempted a tricky double manoeuvre, aiming to interrogate both the phenomenon of the male gaze, and the theoretical discourse that has identified and surrounded it. In the years since Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), the notion of the male gaze has become an integral part of cultural theory and art practice. This exhibition at Cheim & Read performed a simple inversion by presenting works depicting women by more than 40 female artists.
The resulting exhibition was, however, defiantly complex rather than simply celebratory. The works included suggested that the representation of women by other women is as fraught with the dynamics of power as the representation of women by men. If the exhibition began with Mulvey’s premise that ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’, it went on to draw from cultural critic Wendy Steiner to question the degree to which the viewed object is always already identified as essentially female, and the subject (viewer) as essentially male.
In this sense, whether the male gaze is present or not, the phallocentric mindset was everywhere in the work. Pieces such as Maria Lassnig’s Girl With Wine Glass (1971) or Lisa Yuskavage’s Heart (1996–7) depict the female nude in various positions of repose, erotic pleasure and vulnerability. The works refer to a long art historical tradition and tread upon the territory traditionally prescribed by the male gaze. As a result, although these are works that have been produced by women, the male gaze in many ways continues to haunt the images.
In other works, this haunting is presented in a more overt and politicized manner, and is more clearly exploited by the artist. Lynda Benglis’ video Female Sensibility (1973) offers clear comment on male sociopolitical power. In the work, two women are locked in an erotic embrace, while a soundtrack of male voices chatters over and across the images, colonizing the domain of female pleasure. (Coincidentally, Benglis’ controversial 1974 Artforum ad – in which she poses naked with one half of a double dildo visible, and which famously led to the schism in the Artforum editorial board that resulted in the eventual formation of October – was the focus of a concurrent exhibition at the nearby Susan Inglett Gallery.)
Other works explored the question of whether (and to what extent) the perceived object can move into a more active position. This endeavour was captured in its most literal sense in the first gallery, which offered a collection of photographic portraits, each of which returned to the viewer a gaze that is less easily identified as passive and is instead cagey, challenging and opaque. These works date from the early 20th century (Berenice Abbott’s Mme. Theodore van Rysselberghe, 1926–30) to the contemporary, such as Roni Horn’s Untitled (Isabelle Huppert) (2005).
In a separate gallery, Rineke Dijkstra’s Tiergarten, Berlin, July 1 (2000) elaborated upon the notion of the resistant photographic subject. The image depicts a pre-adolescent girl in the natural backdrop of the Tiergarten. Essentially pre-sexual, the girl is also not yet socially subjugated; this sense of being resistant to sociological context and pressure is literally emphasized by the backdrop of wilderness. The correlation Dijkstra forms between sexual and social subjugation is both subtle and convincing. Fiercely resistant to the sexualizing gaze, the girl is – for the moment – more subject than object.
An equally striking Marilyn Minter photograph completed the transformation from the object in the conventional sense – passive and subject to the gaze of the viewer – to the object in the Lacanian sense. As Lacan formulates it in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), the gaze belongs not to the subject, but to the object that is perceived; these objects effectively return the gaze to the viewer. The gaping mouth of Minter’s large-format photograph Wangechi Gold 3 (2009) is a classic embodiment of this idea – the mouth looks as much as it is looked at, and makes demands as much as it is sexualized. Whether this work could have been produced by a man seems almost irrelevant; the image subverts the traditional notion of the power relationship prescribed by the gaze, of the subject versus the object, in a manner that is neatly severed from gender.
First published in Issue 126