Los Angeles

Judie Bamber

Richard Telles Fine Art

Meticulously rendered in a hyperrealist mode, each of Judie Bamber’s miniscule paintings depict, in the most explicit way possible, what should not be a subject for high art: the female sex. While the academic nude functions fetishistically, displacing masculine anxiety over the fullness (not the “lack”) of female genitalia, Bamber’s is the ultimate feminist gesture, representing as art what is normally relegated to the realm of pornography.

Building on the interest in relating female experience through “central core” imagery, which characterized one strand of feminist art theory in the ’70s, Bamber brilliantly refutes the subsequently articulated critique that such a notion necessarily “essentializes” femininity. Here, the three renderings of vulvas make differences among female anatomical organs explicit. Thus one picture shows a female sex that is unutterably pink and fleshy, with no discernible hair and a tiny aperture snuggled under the hood of the clitoris; the second, adorned with blond hair, has thick lips and an enticing vaginal hole nestled above a visible anus; the third is formed in a shell-like shape, its hole hidden from view, tucked behind folds of flesh and dark pubic hair.

We may all be “women” because we have female genitalia, but we are definitely not all “the same.” Although all of these genitals are seemingly those of white women, raising questions about the ethnic specificity of Bamber’s point of view (African-American genitals would certainly read problematically in this context, objectified à la Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, 1986), each is dramatically individual.

Since the paintings were hung at the eye-level of a woman of average height, they read as offerings to a specifically female rather than a male viewer. For Bamber, it is in the multifariousness of the female sex that a site of identity and desire, the locus of a potentially nonmasculine and nonheterosexual desire, becomes possible. Each tiny painting, however, also beckons and repels, establishing an intense bond with the prurient—male or female—viewer who wants to see all yet doesn’t know how to see this.

While they occupy only a tiny surface, the paintings are as thick as they are wide and thus also function as objects, thereby becoming fetishes, but of a feminist sort. In this way, they act as revisions of Freudian models of subjectivity and sexual difference: it is the vagina that is “there” in its fleshy magnificence, unhinging Freud’s notion of female lack. If women don’t lack, then perhaps what men are anxious about is what is there, not what is putatively absent.

Amelia Jones