New York

Ellen Altfest, Leg, 2010, oil on linen, 8 × 11". From “The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men.”

Ellen Altfest, Leg, 2010, oil on linen, 8 × 11". From “The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men.”

“The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men”

Cheim & Read

Ellen Altfest, Leg, 2010, oil on linen, 8 × 11". From “The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men.”

In the all-women group show “The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men,” the topic is a great maw into which much (good) art is forked: figurative and gestural painting, photographs, sculpture, and embroidery, all spanning 1927 to 2016. Excellent are the aesthetically pleasing portraits of sweetly somber men, all nudes with trusting eyes: Catherine Opie’s photograph of a shirtless Ryan McGinley, posed against a dramatic dark curtain, as if a school photo for a lover; Sylvia Sleigh’s Paul Rosano in Jacobsen Chair, 1971, a pinkish nude self-conscious of his role as gazee, a fitting companion to the weathered assurance of Joan Semmel’s David, 1982, blowing smoke out of his mouth, hand on his hip as if posing patiently. These men exude a quiet confidence; they do not preen or front. When they do connote a “to-be-looked-at-ness,” it’s docile. Alice Neel’s David Sokola, 1973, a handsome manspreader, reminds one of the lax intimacies that aura Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits.

I do think it was a mistake to collapse the difference between women “looking” at men and women “gazing” at men in the title of the show—it’s the difference between the naked and the nude, which “the English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between,” as Kenneth Clark stated. The artists themselves do not seem to conflate the two. Certainly the sculptresses, for whom the gaze’s impetus to chop up an image for bite-size consumption is often quite literal, are natural castrators. (Who’s afraid of the female gaze?) Louise Bourgeois’s icky, preposterous meat-slab dick Fillette (Sweeter Version), 1968–99, is hung, literally; she also has a headless drawing in gouache and red pencil—all the blood pools darkly in his priapus, drawing our eye away from his rather girthy, perhaps effeminate figure. Sarah Lucas’s White Nob, 2013, jagged and boring like a tree trunk, is more than forty inches tall. Linda Bengalis’s double-headed penis—a bronze that reminds me only of the tannest bodybuilders of Florida—tells us what to do: Smile, 1974. And I do! It’s very funny, I think, that all but two of the sculptures in the show are dicks—grossly big and disproportionate.

These works don’t bother to reverse the male gaze; in fact they double down—it’s active/female gazing at active/male. There’s no fear of idolatry here; these dicks don’t work. Like the best jokes, they might not even be jokes at all. (Tracey Emin’s embroidered blanket shows a man collapsed on a prostrate woman, her mouth agape, perhaps from penetration, perhaps from sheer annoyance, perhaps to roll her eyes and let out her stitched dialogue: IS THIS A JOKE. I think it is.) Even with my overactive moral imagination, I still find the attention to detail revealing something “sweet” in all the disembodied limbs (a vein running through this show, so to speak). The artists’ general refusal to have any body parts code other than masculine male signals that we’re to remind ourselves that we’re gazing, but fondly, like a scientist unearthing a rare specimen. I prefer the truly ugly ones: the pecs and undulating abs softly bathed in a blue LCD glow in Gina Beavers’s Tag Yourself, 2016; the hairy appendage in Ellen Altfest’s Leg, 2010, about to decompose in the wild.

Mary McCarthy once complained that “there was a disappointing lack of evil in Greek mythology.” In looking at this show, I was reminded of all the terribly dark, terribly amusing art that could have gone in it, such as a painting Kathe Burkhart did as a teen, which she is rumored to keep in her studio, of “a surrealistic scene of a nude woman with penises chained to her back levitating above fire.” I sat on Jenny Holzer’s marble MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE footstool before I left, feeling a touch too civilized.

Kaitlin Phillips