New York

“The Female Gaze”

The republication this year of Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (in a second edition of Visual and Other Pleasures) is long overdue: In spite of the article’s canonical status, Mulvey’s fine-tuned concepts have too often been rendered vague, gestured to merely as a way of getting at blurry notions of “pleasure” and “the gaze.” Cheim & Read’s summer show, “The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women,” was a case in point. Assembled here was an extensive array of artworks, all of them executed by women, all of them taking the female form as subject. The show’s purview spanned nearly a century and a half, bookended by May Prinsep (Head of St. John), an albumen print from 1866 by Julia Margaret Cameron, and Mickalene Thomas’s A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009, four panels excerpted from a larger, multipanel rhinestone-encrusted painting made this year. That the two have many more differences than similarities comes as no surprise: The first is a not-exactly portrait of a young woman who often played muse for Cameron’s Romantic camera, here posing as no less than St. John, and the second is a pointed play on Pop appropriation, four candy-colored portraits of a fierce, middle-aged black woman in the throes of song.

It is all too obvious to point out the ways in which these images confound any simple compare-and-contrast exercise—their historical parameters are so fully out of sync that even while it is compelling to consider the ways in which both these artists court a play of subjectivity, say, or slippage between sitter and “performance,” there can be nonetheless no real symmetry. So too with comparisons between works such as Marina Abramovic ́’s important 1975 performance piece Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, in which the artist’s beauty regimen turns into self-mutilation, and Tracey Emin’s 2008 Legs IV, a work in blue neon showing schematic, abstracted legs, opened up and out to the viewer. Both pieces ostensibly give up the female body to be seen, to be understood within patriarchal, sexualized contexts. But where Abramovic ́ refuses this condition, Emin appears to revel in it.

One could run through so many of these comparisons, since “The Female Gaze” included artists as diverse in period and ideological position as Vanessa Beecroft, Lynda Benglis, Jenny Holzer, Zoe Leonard, Joan Mitchell, Nan Goldin, Alice Neel, and Kara Walker. Some of these figures can certainly be categorized as making work informed by feminism, but many of them cannot. In and of itself, this is not a problem, but to group them all under a heading so broad and tendentious as “the female gaze” is to ask that they all share something—an impulse, a philosophy, an aesthetic. However, all the artists really appear to share is gender (their own and that of their sitters). This is problematic, even essentializing, and not productively so.

For all the problems inherent in “The Female Gaze” (not least of which is that the press release claims that the exhibition “attempts to debunk the notion of the male gaze by providing a group of works in which the artist and subject do not relate as ‘voyeur’ and ‘object’ but as woman and woman”), it inadvertently points up the impasse some argue feminism is experiencing. But rather than succumbing to vagueness, we might galvanize our own stakes in feminism by insisting on specificities, arguments, and positions: That is to say, we must still insist on differences. In this case, too, a return to Mulvey is apt. Her essay, after all, was a precise response—one that analyzed Hollywood cinema by way of psycho- analysis, feminism, and legacies of the avant-garde—to the conditions and operations of representation in her immediate context. And this is how she was able to imagine alternatives.

Johanna Burton