Deborah Samuel

The photographs in Deborah Samuel’s show “Venus Passage” bear witness to ritual violence: she paints her models in thick black strokes that evoke bodily alterations ranging from decorative scarification to sex change. Some of the “surgery” has been drastic, as though to introduce some missing organs or otherwise to mediate between the unprotected body and the cruel environment in which it must function. A rope of stitches up a male back suggests either the removal or the implantation of a spine—though the latter seems more likely, since for Samuel masculinity is severely in crisis: her male bodies are not simply decorated but radically altered. Autobody, 1992, presents a frontal view of a male torso, the genitals hidden from sight, with black stitchlike tucks below the belly and breasts that suggest the subject of the photograph has had a sex change or that his sexuality has been excised altogether. In HEART-PLATE, 1991, a man standing sideways raises his arms modestly to obscure his face, the painted marks on his torso suggesting lingerie. Samuel subtly “feminizes” the male figure, an effect more crudely achieved in SKELETON, 1991, in which the cartoonlike outlines of a bra and bikini underwear transform the male body into an object of ridicule.

The point is not simply to emasculate these figures; rather, Samuel uses the male body to demonstrate the harsh modifications to which women routinely submit. As we know from drag, reversing gendered roles permits exploration of different possibilities for constructing sexual identity. Samuel continues this exploration in little man, 1992, in which a crude upside-down figure in a circle decorates a man’s belly like a logo. A signifier neither for womb envy nor for the “inner man,” the little man seems to function like one of those “you are here” indicators on a map.

What of Samuel’s women? Alteration reads differently on women’s bodies: women are altered to begin with, their brassieres are their skeletons. If one maintains the somewhat arbitrary distinction between bodily alterations that are supposed to be invisible, like plastic surgery, and those that draw attention to themselves, like tattooing, Samuel’s imagery recalls the latter, with its implications of willfulness and display. In BL. BRA, 1992, the sides of a female torso are blacked out and highly lit to create what looks like a tiny, corset-deformed waist—what was once a normative practice is now self-conscious artifice. In general these decorations, like the abstracted rib cage drawn on a woman’s back or the fine black brush marks standing in for pubic hair, are gentler than the changes wrought on the male bodies. In some cases, in fact, they slip into the same estheticization of the female body that Samuel’s other pieces put in question.

Samuel’s prints in gradations of gray have an eggshell-like porousness, the result of a process that removes emulsion from the film. Their exquisite surfaces react interestingly with the images’ stylized violence. Where the images are already alluring, the surfaces give them a cold elegance. Where there is pain, the photograph’s beauty is a mitigating and forgiving element.

Laura U. Marks