New York

Dotty Attie

Dotty Attie continues to make antipatriarchal work, using a combination of image fragments drawn from the works of well-known male artists and texts she has invented. Attie’s work has a contrived, sinister look, the latter deriving more from the texts than the image fragments, although the subtle incoherence generated by each work’s sequence of panels helps it along. Masters, 1988, epitomizes Attie’s ambition. We see George Stubbs, Ingres, Eakins, Caravaggio, and Vermeer, each in a small, cropped facial portrait that forces the boundaries of the six-by-six-inch format. Scale is effectively used to convey the artist’s self-inflation. In general, one can regard these works as part of the increasingly common practice of demythologization of artists by other artists, the corrosive “deconstruction” of the work of one by another.

What strikes me about Attie’s work is its destructiveness, which suggests an older feminist militancy. Violence is pervasive—in the fragmentation, in the narrative themes, sometimes in particular details. Barred from the Studio, 1987, offers macabre details from Eakins’ famous painting The Gross Clinic, 1875. The doctor’s hand with the scalpel becomes suggestive of the male painter’s destructive brush, which implicitly “operates on” the female model. (Did Attie decide to murder and dissect this work because of the “grossness” of the scene?) The text deals with Eakins’ censure by the directors of the Pennsylvania Academy for letting female students know the facts of the male body. By way of this association—and Attie’s narratives are richly layered connotational chains of visual/textural associations—The Gross Clinic ties to Eakins’ William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, 1877, depicting the sculptor William Rush using a young Philadelphia girl as a model, with a chaperone standing by prudishly.

Indeed, many of Attie’s works are about a male artist “using” a female model, including Vermeer’s Wife, 1988, and Stranded in Italy, 1987, which alludes to an Ingres odalisque. Just as these male artists victimize the female, largely by making her into the passive object of their gaze, so Attie in effect attacks these male artists by treating their works with theatrical violence. She uses the same basic tactics of domination as patriarchal painting, if “unmaking” rather than making a picture in the process. Aiding her attempt to create a “disturbing experience,” as she calls it, is the deliberately poor handling of paint, which compels the viewer’s eye to speed along the image. This antipainting aspect to her work is no doubt part of its murderous intention. The implied themes of murder, incest, child abuse, and dismemberment—all presumably perpetrated by men—seem less to the point than the forced vulgarity and violent fragmentation of her work.

Where does Attie leave us? In the belabored nihilistic mode of much appropriation art—for her art is yet another version of predatory appropriation. Once again, the past is calculatedly misunderstood or ruthlessly categorized. Once again, we find an artist looking at past art from the outside, or from a limited perspective, with superficial comprehension, rather than from the inside, with awareness of complexity. Once again, art is broadly reduced to ideology. Still, I respect Attie’s pictures for their particular confirmation of the death of art—for the distinctive smell of death her art gives off.

Donald Kuspit