PRINT October 1994


She threw a leg across him and he touched her face.
Unexpected hardness of the implanted lenses. “Don’t,”
she said, “fingerprints.”
—William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984

ABOUT EIGHT YEARS AG0 I lived for a while with Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, 1983. The photograph was outfitted with a brass masterpiece lamp, so that a sheet of light ran down the center of Brooke Shields’ glazed body; until the bulb blew, I used it as a night-light, so whenever I woke up I saw Brooke glistening in the tub, beckoning me with her huge painted face and baby’s body. The image, which had been the subject of a pornography lawsuit, made me nauseous and guilty: seduced by the artificial sexiness hatched by a makeup artist, I had been roped into a pedophilic fantasy.

I got the same queasy feeling when I first saw Dutch photographer Inez van Lamsweerde’s “Final Fantasy,” 1993. In this series of portraits, named after a video game, Van Lamsweerde muses on the innocent as artifact, and, like Prince, delivers an image that is too suggestive to pass. Here, though, the erotic manufactures repulsion instead of guilt. Van Lamsweerde has hired three-year-old models and posed them as kittenesque adults. The carefully constructed allusion to kiddie porn is punctured by a computer-image manipulation that replaces the girls’ lips (pout) with the mouths (leer) of men. These toddlers, with their enormous teeth and coy poses, catch us between our need to recognize children’s sexuality and our fear of getting too close to it.

The flip side to these images appeared in a fashion spread in the September 1994 issue of the British magazine The Face. In a pictorial titled “Global Warming,” a heavily rouged woman wearing a “two-tone stretch satin-and-lace pantsuit” is transported via Paintbox to a pediatrician’s examining room. The model lifts up a young boy’s T-shirt and touches his chest as if she were listening with a stethoscope. He is smiling and her head is bent back, the whites of her eyes catch the light, and her mouth forms a frozen pleasured Oh. She is not really there, and he is not really smiling at her; but he is, and the temptation to accept this fantasy approaches a messy motherlode of ties that bind. More important, it contests the limitations put on female sexuality. While contemporary art and literature have sanctioned the milder forms of homoerotic relationship, fantasy, or perusal involving boys and men (Larry Clark, James Purdy), such scenarios featuring women are rare; they are altogether too threatening to be eroticized.

In her fashion photography, Van Lamsweerde directs her models back and forth between Cosmo-cover and Helmut Newton pastiches and the neutered inanimateness of low-glamour clothing catalogues. Rather than critiquing fashion images’ representation of women’s bodies, she plays within the system, publishing pictures that may or may not have a hidden agenda, may or may not have a subversive edge. Whether synthetically made-up or pared down, her models exude the Pop sexuality found in the paintings of Mel Ramos. Because they never leave the studio, only appearing to be on location, they often stand as though propped against an object that has been pulled out from under them; the ketchup bottle or rhinoceros that Ramos’ women hugged or straddled is missing, and the woman in Van Lamsweerde’s “Thank You Thighmaster” series, 1993, partners its absence. Other things are missing too: her face, her vagina, her anus, and her nipples. In this restaging of the Frankenstein mythos, Van Lamsweerde masks the model’s face with a doll’s, grafts over her holes, then rewraps the body in its own skin.

“Thank You Thighmaster” is easily read as a kind of biblical penalty for vanity, but one could also view its plasticized woman as a new species, freed of the burden of a female body. Her capacity for pleasure is traded for safety and lack of restraint. No rape, no pregnancy; she is svelte and built for speed. She might be a cyber-comic-book hero were she not so unheroic. Purged of hooked noses, curly hair, or colored skin, Van Lamsweerde’s women are as ’70s and sexless as Stepford wives. Their aura of libertinism and sexuality is all computer sleight-of-hand. While this new breed of woman is a relatively simplistic illustration of our society’s pursuit of beauty, it also functions as a retort to Van Lamsweerde’s own commercial work. In one arena she weaves a Charlie’s Angels fairy tale, in the other she breaks it down.

The pictures propose the female as a locus of gentrification. Sanded, buffed, implanted, stripped, and reassembled, she is a moving construction site. Using the computer to quote plastic surgery, Van Lamsweerde one-ups the practices of beautification, suggesting that our preoccupation with perfection brings us close to science fiction. She also mimics the male desire to mother by producing a race technologically rather than physically.

It cannot be coincidence that all of Van Lamsweerde’s models appear “Aryan.” How permissible is it for white artists to comment on the oppressiveness of the white esthetic? Unfortunately, not very. Thus ethnicity and color are cast out. Van Lamsweerde deals only in “flesh”-colored flesh, the most basic marker of Western European beauty. She has inherited a quintessential artist’s model, a body that has been passed around for centuries—which might be why, despite their perfect dimensions, her figures’ nudity is blank, spongy, their Philip Pearlstein Caucasian flesh humming like a human dooms-day machine.