New York

Anna Gaskell

We’re postmillennial and allegedly postfeminist, but as a culture we remain ardently interested in that phenomenon of twentieth-century gender studies, the gaze. Anna Gaskell’s photographs effect a realm of scopophilia—we look, and are uncomfortably caught looking. If her work is both seductive and alienating, unique and derivative, it is because she wants to analyze voyeuristic desire while reveling in it, to participate in its omnivorous processes of objectification while commenting on them.

Gaskell has received so much attention that it’s hard to believe her recent outing was only her second solo show in New York. A series of fifteen color prints collectively titled “by proxy” (all works 1999), the exhibition echoed her 1996–97 “Wonder” series, in which a pair of adolescent girls appeared as carnal Alices in a chilly Wonderland. Similar ingredients were on display here: cool, glossy surfaces and saturated color; impressive use of cropping and close-up; hyperrealist natural settings; girls with long silky hair. But “by proxy” involves a larger group of models than the earlier show did. Varying in age from prepubescent to almost woman, they’re dressed as nurses: little caps, white shirtwaist dresses, white stockings, sensible shoes. The alpine forest in which they cavort is filled with weird sunlight and carpeted with cotton-batting snow.

According to press materials, the fragmented heroine is Sally Salt from Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785), imagined here as Genene Jones, a pediatric nurse convicted in 1984 of murdering her charges. None of this detail was apparent from looking at the images, but the narrative frame didn’t matter. Clearly some fever dream was being enacted, a sinister fantasy in which identities merged and doubled as the nymphet nurses ministered to each other. Intentionally overdetermined, Gaskell’s scenes are quasi-Freudian hothouses in which every symbol is loaded, every attachment perverse. Such emphasis on the psychic power of role-playing ends up signaling its inverse; the elaborate symbolic structure fatigues coherence and suggests an inability—or a refusal—to believe in the organizing principles of character and plot.

Sexy, somnambulant, menacing, and menaced, the “by proxy” girls derive from a very long line of female adolescents, from the ravished maidens of Edvard Munch to the naughty dolls of Henry Darger. Gaskell’s contribution to this compelling, if somewhat tiresome, coming-of-age picture is twofold. First, she is consummately literate in the vocabulary of contemporary photography. Sandwiched in Plexiglas, lit with the syrupy, flat light of advertising, every image is compositionally nervy and surprising. Second, she’s a woman. Though Gaskell accepts the role of artist as unseen creator and voyeur, our knowledge of her gender infuses our looking. Over and over, she stages the spectacle of female subjectivity struggling to emerge, emphasizing not the subjectivity—which, she suggests, may not exist—but the spectacle. Like Vanessa Beecroft with her chic/porn replicants, Gaskell tries to feminize the male gaze while keeping it phallic—that is, distanced, potent, supremely confident. The godmother of all this is certainly Cindy Sherman, but Sherman’s women are protean in a way Gaskell’s girls are not. Because Sherman’s personae collapse object into subject, her images have a fundamental brutality, a messiness born of self-scrutiny. So far, Gaskell has backpedaled on this—in spite of their uncanny range, her pictures have a smooth consumability. If she learns to burn away the sugar coating, their narcotic lyricism will really seduce.

Frances Richard