Los Angeles

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #52, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 60 × 84". From the series “Fuck,” 1969–.

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #52, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 60 × 84". From the series “Fuck,” 1969–.

Betty Tompkins

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #52, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 60 × 84". From the series “Fuck,” 1969–.

It is at the very least unfortunate—other less anodyne adjectives spring to mind—that it has taken so many years for Betty Tompkins’s paintings to garner the visibility they presently enjoy. Deservedly, much press accompanied the septuagenarian artist’s recent shows in New York—in 2015 at Bruce High Quality Foundation University’s project space FUG, and in 2016 at FLAG Art Foundation. Many writers have offered guesses as to what caused the delay, with the majority citing the sexually explicit nature of her seminal (as it were) “Fuck” paintings and the gender of their maker. Tompkins began the “Fuck” series in 1969 using then-vintage straight-male-porn clippings as source materials for her softened, if otherwise almost photorealistic, grayscale paintings of all kinds of sexual contact, including penetration. In 2002, the Mitchell Algus Gallery showed these paintings for the first time since 1975 and generated renewed interest in them, motivating Tompkins to return to the series. This time, however, she culled materials from online as well as from print pornography. She also introduced color—notably brick and blood reds and phosphorescent pinks—to her grisaille palette, in deference to the distorting effects of image compression on her grayscale JPEG sources.

At Gavlak, Tompkins’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, she showed a range of recent large and midsize “Cunt,” 2003–; “Fuck”; and “Pussy,” 2011–, paintings as well as some carefully chosen early works on paper. Like her earlier compositions, these new paintings forthrightly place Tompkin’s genital- and orifice-themed subject matter front and center. The signature look of 1960s girlie mags—diffuse lighting, lenses smeared in Vaseline—is somehow retained and made further unreal in the smoothness of the enlarged and tightly cropped images that were the templates for these paintings. In this way, the works are as much about modes of seeing as they are about the things seen—and about the representational status of their subject matter. The velvety, hairless Pussy Painting #24, 2013, and the swollen forms of Cunt Painting #23, 2015, appear totally different at close range, where their surfaces seem to undulate. Although Fuck Painting #52, 2014, shows a penis midthrust, and Kiss Painting #7, 2014, centers on two mouths agape with tongues arched, such works also forgo intimacy for a kind of abstraction predicated upon lighting, skewed orientation of the image, and paint handling. Adjacent and interspersed drawings from the 1970s show Tompkins’s iterative process, which includes the testing of angles, contrasts of light and dark, and other formal aspects of imagemaking.

Lest the subject seem solely a pretext for painterly experimentation, however, the venue’s back room confirms the urgency of Tompkins’s conceptual imperative. In sharp contrast to the quiet, even elegiac quality of the paintings in the front rooms, the rear gallery presents WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories, 2013–, an ever-expanding compendium of miniature paintings—one thousand and counting, here wrapped around three gallery walls, nestling together in tapestry-like strips—that feature words describing women, which the artist received from male and female friends and associates. “I am considering doing another series of pieces using images of women comprised of words,” she wrote in an e-mail circulated in 2013. “I would appreciate your help in developing the vocabulary. Please send me a list of words that describe women. They can be affectionate (honey), pejorative (bitch), slang, descriptive, etc. The words don’t have to be in English, but I need as accurate a translation as possible.” She has said in interviews that the most common submissions are cunt, bitch, slut, and mother, although others, if less ubiquitous, are no more generous.

In the resulting compositions, such denigrations might be overlain or set below abstract fields painted in the styles of modernist forebears (Pollock’s ejaculations of splattered paint behind FAKING IT, Morris Louis’s stains behind BALLBREAKER, etc.). The cumulative work is a furious chorus. Tompkins left blank note cards on a side table for drafting new contributions, as well as the tacks with which to hang them. That SAUSAGE WALLET and TACO (written under a line drawing recalling Courbet’s The Origin of the World) are recent additions to the ongoing compendium serves as a potent, shameful reminder of the work still to be done.

Suzanne Hudson