Jeanne Dunning

Feigen Incorporated

Jeanne Dunning depicts partial objects that are eroticized, but of indeterminate sexual preference and identity: metaphoric equivalents for the appearance of sexuality. With a touch of glamour that injects a dash of perversion into basic fetishism, Dunning, who continues to explore the problematics of the gaze, now photographs anatomical surrogates: fruits and vegetables. In one series of sensational images, moist red globes (tomatoes) almost bulge out of their conventional oval frames to mimic male or female genitalia, and in another Cibachrome, a crimson tomato glistens in the hand of an outstretched arm extended against a dark background like the tip of a nonspecific, but definitely sexual, organ. Dunning’s titles, often beginning with either “Sample” or “Detail,” reinforce the sense of clinical detachment created by these representations of an alienated body.

In this exhibition, two new, gorgeous grotesques, large maroon-and-deep-purple Cibachromes, the color of bruises, resemble close-ups of fleshy craters. The corporeality of these pieces is underscored by their placement: installed only inches from the floor, the oversized openings are at crotch level, positioned to submit to the dominant gaze. And they hold that gaze magnetically, drawing us into their deep centers and inviting us to fill in, or fill them with, fantasies—male, female, homosexual, heterosexual. This time the subjects of Dunning’s double-entendres are ripe plums.

Where earlier, delicate works suggested Edward Weston’s truly erotic photographs of fruits, these, because of their availability, scale, and color, evoke the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe. Yet though these photographs represent the body’s mutability, and indirectly conflate anal and oral allusions, we never receive a recipe for polymorphous pleasure but, rather, an esthetic deferral of the genital. Though Dunning’s Cibachromes presume the fictional strategies of post-Modern photography, they remain disarmingly innocent in the way they seduce with the pretense of sexual revelation, and resist gender stereotyping. Never really pornographic, they simulate the possibility of subversive transgressions, which depend, like desire, on surface appeal and deception. Provocative objects of consumption transformed into parts of unrecognizable bodies, these images atonce play on libidinal energies and are too beautiful to be real.

Alternately revolting and fascinating, Dunning’s work remains determinedly uncommitted to gendered subjectivity. A deadpan photograph, Untitled with hairs, 1992, presents a three-quarter profile of a dark-haired, serious young woman (the artist herself) with a birthmark on her face, and a dozen long hairs sprouting on her cheeks and chin. Signs neither of conflicted sex roles nor of virility, these hairs are unexpected on a woman’s face yet still look completely natural. Ambiguously gendered and cosmetically prohibited, they are hairs one plucks away, not the hip-art-joke kind applied to earlier Dunning female portraits and reminiscent of Duchamp’s L. H. O. O. Q., 1919.

This slightly comic photograph serves as a code for the three new sculptural objects, titled Flaws, 1992, in which translucent 14 1/2-inch squares of neoprene latex skin are spread like diaphanous handkerchiefs across the tops of waist-high pedestals. Sublimating the overt spectacle of sexual role playing or cross-dressing, Dunning fabricates and hand-colors “skins” with barely articulated defects. One sculpture sports hair growing from a mole, the other eruptions, red and slightly protruding from the finely textured surface. No longer privileging the authoritative, albeit slippery, gaze, Dunning intends to frustrate it, calling for a visceral response.

Dunning’s project has traveled from a reliance on misrecognition to an invitation for tactile engagement with her exquisite, however peculiar, handmade membranes of simulated skin. In the unconcealed defects, we touch and feel what Leo Bersani calls the “impenetrable otherness”: the marks of subjectivity and individuality that work against media definitions ofbeauty and sexuality. Seemingly grasping the reality of the photographic subjects, Dunning’s ambiguous representations translate, finally, into undecidability: considerations of multiple combinations of surface appeal and difference—male and female, front and back, entry and exit, top and bottom—which are, after all, only skin deep.

Judith Russi Kirshner