Jemima Stehli

Jemima Stehli seems bent on provocation. Even before her recent show opened, I had already heard several people say that they had no intention of seeing it. What was it that had gotten on their nerves? Apparently they were revulsed by “Strip,” 1999/2000, an earlier group of photographs, which Stehli had made in collaboration with a number of male critics. In those images, the artist is seen from behind, nude or nearly so, in the foreground; in the background of the otherwise empty studio sits the fully clothed male subject holding the camera’s trip wire. Invoking the idea of male control over a woman’s image (but only parodically, since his role is reduced to choosing when to trip the shutter in a situation entirely set up by Stehli), the photographs raise all kinds of hot-button issues about the intersection of gender, power, and aesthetics. More than that, though, the whole process just sounds terribly embarrassing. At least one of the two people involved in each session, one feels, must somehow have been committing a faux pas just by being there, since the ethics of the artist-critic relationship preclude not only having the body of the artist in view instead of the body of work but also any active participation by the critic in the artist’s studio process (the disdain meted out in certain circles to the Color Field painters could be summed up in the charge that they let Clem tell them where to crop their paintings).

No wonder, then, that my friends thought it might be safer not to look, but in the monumentally—one might even say aggressively-scaled photographs shown here, any discomfort is between the viewer and the artist, with no third party to make it messier. Stehli is working with similar themes, but always at the level of the image itself, not that of the social situation it embodies. Here she takes on the feminist critique of the constructed image of the male artist by reworking moments from the history of painting and photography. In Triptych, Grey Green Painting, Red Turning, and Triptych, Headless Orange, all 2000, Stehli takes advantage of the fact that the blurred, distorted effects typical of Francis Bacon’s treatment of the human figure owe as much to photography as to painterly abstraction, replacing Bacon’s anguished, contorted men with women who seem—if only one could see through all the blur—rather glamorous. By contrast, the black-and-white diptych After Helmut Newton’s “Here They Come,” 1999, aspires to the static quality of a statue. In Self-Portrait with Grace, 2000, Stehli turns the tables without citing a particular source but showing herself in the Newton-like role of the working photographer shooting a statuesque model.

All this is familiar up to a point: the usual twist on the work of a mythologized male precursor, in which feminist critique takes the form of a querelle des anciens et des modernes—that is, in which “female” and “male” become ciphers for “new artist” and “old artist,” respectively. What draws such a rancorous reaction is that Stehli undermines the basis of her own critique by displaying the female body as a glamorous object. Is this naïveté or a calculated ploy to have it both ways? In fact, there is a third possibility: the determination, rare enough these days, that the artwork resist any nonnative claim over its substance, even by those sociopolitical principles it recognizes as correct. Her images’ intensity—what lifts them above mere commentary—lies in their fierce identification with the objects of their struggle.

Barry Schwabsky