PRINT January 1993


Does a woman’s sexuality correspond to what she looks like?. . . Does it bear any relation to the way in which commercial images represent it? Is it something women need to buy like a product? . . . Does all this mean we can’t wear lipstick without feeling guilty anymore?
—Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 1990

CAMILLE PAGLIA MAY DENY it, but most intelligent adults acknowledge that a backlash against feminism has taken place over the last decade, making its presence felt in a variety of unfortunate ways. Media manipulation of everything from statistics to photographs has led many women born in the ’60s and ’70s—the so-called Third Wave, too young to remember the fights to legalize abortion and the Pill—to identify feminism with ugliness, man-hating, and strident behavior. Still, history has a way of advancing where it has retreated (if only eventually to retreat again). It comes as no surprise that one of the more interesting critiques of gender issues around has come from someone under 30.

Through astute choices of materials, combined with a strategy of appropriation that moves, at times, into hilarious parody, Rachel Lachowicz confronts viewers with some of the truths and consequences of the Beauty Myth. This fiction, delivered to us by the media in a constant barrage of seductively framed image-and-text, pretends that beauty can be objectively measured by a single universal standard. To be successful—whether sexually, intellectually, or in any other way—all women must attain a Barbie-like level of glamour.

Attaining (and then maintaining) such beauty, of course, is a full-time job, the consuming requirements of which can prevent women from accomplishing much of anything else. In High Heels, 1991, a pair of leopard-print pumps with five-foot-long spikes, Lachowicz comments sardonically on this crippling form of social control. In Affected, 1991, she reflects on the dictum that one can never be too thin by juxtaposing a normal mirror with one that creates, through distortion, the skeletally thin image an anorexic never sees—even when she has starved herself almost to death.

It is in her works made from lipstick, however, that Lachowicz’s critique is most compelling. By recasting some of the Monuments of Minimalism in this undeniably female material, she foregrounds the absence of women from art history in any significant numbers. Her tarting-up of two pieces in particular—a leaning group of scarlet slabs à la Richard Serra, and a two-tone floor-tile homage to Carl Andre, in vivid shades of pouty, kissable red—reminds us that the kind of power and position these men have acquired through their work has been available to women almost exclusively through more cosmetic channels.

Both formally and spiritually, Lachowicz’s lipstick slapstick relates to the work of a number of younger artists who use tropes identified with Minimalism and Conceptualism as vehicles for the discussion of social issues. Like many of her contemporaries, for instance, Lachowicz has “done” Marcel Duchamp: in her case, in the form of lipstick urinals, images on glass, and various chessboards. Not surprisingly, her sardonic postfeminist penchant for Heroic Male Art has led her to cast her appropriative eye farther afield, in particular to the work of Yves Klein.

Remembered more for his larger-than-life personality than for the intellectual rigor of his work, Klein contributed substantially to the myth of art as phallic inspiration. In Leap into the Void, 1991, Lachowicz recreates, in gold lipstick, the ledge from which Klein flung himself theatrically for the camera in 1960. Red David, 1991, a lipstick-coated, truncated version of Michelangelo’s famous statue, is her reply to Klein’s Blue Venus of 1961. Lachowicz’s most ambitious effort to date, though, is Red Not Blue, a performance of 1992 that spoofs the famous sequence in Mondo Cane in which, dressed in a tuxedo, Klein applies International Klein Blue paint to naked women, then women to canvas, all to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

In Lachowicz’s version, some attempt is made to recreate the atmosphere of the original event. Looking as though she’d be more comfortable in less impractical clothes, the artist lumbers out, in front of a formally dressed audience, in high heels and a short black cocktail dress, carrying her purse like a blunt instrument. She is accompanied by two hunky young men wearing only calm expressions and perfect tan lines, one of whom immediately sits down. To the classical strains of a single female cellist (a musical allusion, perhaps, to Charlotte Moorman, and, by association, to Duchamp’s chess game with a naked woman), Lachowicz extracts a lipstick from her bag and draws two curved lines on this man’s back, mimicking the holes on a violin, in imitation of Man Ray’s famous photograph. She then proceeds to don latex gloves and plaster sticky-looking handfuls of lipstick on various parts of the other young man’s body, guiding him intermittently in carefully lowering his painted parts onto large sheets of paper. As a finale, Lachowicz holds an immense lipstick dildo in front of her collaborator’s body, in the anatomically correct location, and uses it to draw a long vertical line on a piece of paper pinned to the wall—simultaneously invoking Barnett Newman’s zips, Piero Manzoni’s long lines, and Jackson Pollock pissing in the fireplace.

As Rosemarie Trockel has said, “Art about women’s art is just as tedious as the art of men about men’s art.” By making women’s art about male forms—whether literal (lipstick penises, BVDs, and wingtip shoes) or figurative ones (as postfeminist Primary Objects)—Lachowicz has hit on a material metaphor with considerable punch.

I conclude that the enemy is not lipstick, but guilt itself: that we deserve lipstick, if we want it, and free speech; we deserve to be sexual and serious—or whatever we please; we are entitled to wear cowboy boots to our own revolution.
—Wolf, The Beauty Myth

Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives in Oakland, California.