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Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics, a group exhibition curated by Alison Gingeras for the Dallas Contemporary that consists of works made mostly in the 1970s by Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel, Betty Tompkins, and Cosey Fanni Tutti, is prefaced by stanchion signs warning that the show “contains strong adult content” and that “parental guidance + viewer discretion is advised.” After checking in at the front desk, I was told that due to the sexually graphic nature of the show none of the works on exhibit could be photographed. This is proof enough that the artworks on display in Black Sheep Feminism, which unapologetically centralize representations of the embodied experiences of (heterosexual) sex and eroticism, continue to address a profoundly sex-negative culture. Warnings like the ones at the Dallas Contemporary, which are now ubiquitous for any show deemed likely to upset propriety, simultaneously perform the institution’s insecurities (and the over-careful outlines of its legal counsel) while prepping a viewer for that paradoxical yet structurally complimentary admixture of moral outrage and sexual titillation.
But if there is anything to be concerned about, it is the institutional context in which Black Sheep Feminism appears. During the exhibition, Richard Phillips’s Playboy Marfa (2013) stood sentinel near the entrance to the museum. Commissioned by the special projects division of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., the work consists of a large neon Playboy logo illuminating a customized Dodge Charger precariously resting atop what seems to be a fake Donald Judd concrete sculpture sinking into the ground. Initially placed along U.S. 90 in west Texas, it was removed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) at the behest of Marfa residents for being too much advertisement and not enough art. Considering that the work is basically a corporate commission purpose-built to enliven the brand to younger audiences, Marfa residents and TxDOT were not wrong in their assessment. Apparently, though, the Dallas Contemporary disagreed, and the sculpture was relocated to Dallas in time for Phillips’s solo exhibition last year. Phillips also currently serves on the Dallas Contemporary’s board of directors.
I bring this up because I think it illuminates something about the climate in which the work contained within Black Sheep Feminism might be understood. Not the still-extant and pervasive climate of sex negativity that Gayle Rubin so thoughtfully countered in her 1984 essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” but rather the climate of a certain kind of sanctioned misogyny, with its cool, low-level neo-conceptualist, libertarian figuration (Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole Vance, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984, 267–319). If there is a gripe to be had about the exhibition, it is that it diverts the political force of the works’ critique toward culture in general, allowing the Dallas Contemporary to conflate and confuse their various forms of programmatic “edginess,” thereby neutralizing the critique implicit within this truly radical show. For example, like many exhibitions tackling thorny or academic topics, there is a book/resource shelf at the beginning of the exhibition—a potentially self-empowering collection of reading material. Resting alongside Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014) and Linda Williams’s signal collection Porn Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) is a monograph devoted to Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven series (Gingeras wrote the essay), in which the artist is photographed (and sculpted) having sex with his then-wife Ilona Staller (Jeff Koons: Made in Heaven Paintings, New York: Luxembourg and Dayan, 2010). The problem with Koons’s inclusion on the bookshelf is similar to that of Phillips’s Playboy Marfa—that overt politics take a back seat to Koons’s own myth-making, proving that not all sex-positive representations are created equal. Or are even sex-positive to begin with.
Gingeras treats Dallas Contemporary’s open warehouse space smartly—the work of the four artists featured in Black Sheep Feminism hang in small groupings, with enough interrelation to suggest dialogue between wildly disparate projects. Betty Tompkins’s Cow/Cunt Painting #2 (1976) shares wallspace with Joan Semmel’s Touch (1975). It is a striking pairing given that Semmel objected to Tompkins’s use of images sourced from pornographic magazines, even though Semmel was attempting to reformulate the perspective from which representations of sex could, and should, be seen. Tompkins paints a little plastic cow triumphantly standing atop a mons pubis; in another work in the series (not included in Black Sheep Feminism), the cow is actually bending down, as if grazing on a thatch of public hair. Semmel’s Touch, a representation of a man and woman in bed as seen from the viewpoint of the woman, is earnestly egalitarian and still (sadly) groundshakingly original.
The exhibition is a near-incarnation of Richard Meyer’s essay for the catalogue of WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, a large-scale feminist survey exhibition that toured the United States and Canada between 2007 and 2009 (click here for review). Three out of the four artists in Gingeras’s show are central figures in Meyer’s essay, “Hard Targets: Male Bodies, Feminist Art, and the Force of Censorship in the 1970s” (exh. cat., Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007: 362–83). The only outlier in this regard is the U.K.-born artist and experimental musician Tutti. If one doubted that Meyer’s essay was an influence on Gingeras, there is a marked-up copy of the WACK! catalogue available for browsing on the resource shelf. No telling whether this is Gingeras’s copy of WACK! or some unlucky intern’s, but I had fun noting the marginalia. Circled: “cunt art.” Knowing the exhibition is a real outgrowth from WACK!’s catalogue suggests a happy way in which curators, art historians, artists, and museums can work off one another to deepen a public’s engagement with feminism’s remarkable scope and history. In this regard Black Sheep Feminism is a welcome turn away from a model of exhibition—and book—making that insists every show, every piece of scholarship, has to stake out entirely new territory. For those who saw WACK! , or read its hefty catalogue, Black Sheep Feminism feels like a refreshingly deep dive into one aspect of the feminist aesthetics presented therein. Semmel and Tutti (both included in WACK! ) are accorded enough space in Gingeras’s show for a prolonged and thoughtful encounter with their art, while Steckel’s and Tompkins’s work, both absent from WACK!, make one wonder why they were passed over to begin with.
The operative (and unspoken) dyad in Black Sheep Feminism is not pornographic/respectable feminist imagery but rather female/male sexuality. Like Faith Wilding and Janice Lester performing Judy Chicago’s Cock and Cunt Play at Womanhouse in 1972, many of the works in Black Sheep Feminism concern not female sexuality qua female sexuality, but propositions for rethinking the power dynamics of heterosexual sexuality. From the opening painting, Steckel’s Untitled (Phallic) (ca. 1970–72), wherein a bevy of busty Busby Berkeley babes form a mandala around a comically erect cock, to the four Fuck Paintings by Tompkins lined up against the exhibition’s back wall, the exhibition is an exegesis on the possibilities of female/male sexual relationships.
Even Tutti’s smartly performative and critically evasive pornographic photographs (which appeared in U.K. porn magazines such as Piccadilly International) strongly implicate men, precisely because they are not in the frame. When Tutti’s name (already an alias) is changed to Millie, Flora, or Geraldine for an ever-new pornographic photo-spread, a forceful argument is made regarding the serialization and consumption of sexual fantasy. Laid out in large frames, her magazine actions are presented alongside other photo and editorial content from the same issue. The work is about Tutti’s performance as porn model/actor, but also addresses the circulation and enframing of pornographic narrative, participatory magazine culture, and artistic control and agency. The slow and careful visual development of Tutti’s bodily positions in the photographs of Szabo Sessions (Volume I) (2010) asks that her work be given more critical attention.
Semmel is likely the best-known of the four artists in Black Sheep Feminism, and her works are no less powerful today than when she first painted them. Semmel began her career as an abstract painter and only arrived at figuration after returning to New York and witnessing a profusion of overly sexualized images of women on magazine racks of bodegas and newsstands. Her solution was inspired—to paint sex scenes from a low vantage point, keeping the profusion of “unnatural” color that she had already been using, while intently focusing on the mutual giving and receiving of pleasure. In Erotic Yellow (1973) the woman’s hand reaches past her lover’s testicles toward his anus. In another painting, Indian Erotic (also from 1973), the woman’s hand gently pulls at the man’s buttocks. Unlike Tompkins Fuck Paintings where penetration is intercourse’s only promise, Semmel’s work is openly and wildly erotic, insisting on vaginal pleasure and the anality of both partners.
Yet much remains missing from Black Sheep Feminism: lesbians, for instance, as well as artists of color. The extra-artistic political and cultural contributions of the included artists are not highlighted (and are arguably not so extra-artistic). Semmel was part of Lucy Lippard’s Ad Hoc Women Artist’s Committee and in the Fight Censorship group, which Steckel co-founded. Tutti’s musical exploits (COUM Transmissions and the Industrial outfit Throbbing Gristle) would make for a complicating and enriching strain of visual and sonic material, as well as a model of collaboration absent from a show about the vagaries of center/periphery, inclusion/exclusion. I point out these concerns because I feel for Gingeras—the stakes for an exhibition about feminism to be all of these things would not be so high if there were more exhibitions that actually addressed historical and contemporary feminisms.
And that’s not Gingeras’s problem, but ours.
Assistant Professor of Critical Studies, Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California