For centuries, paintings from Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” to Manet’s “Olympia” has pretended to capture women in casual states of undress, seemingly unaware of anyone’s presence as they display their bodies for our delectation. In art, in media, seemingly everywhere, the female body has been a plaything, a novelty, an entertainment, or someone’s political agenda. But photographer Sandra Lee Phipps’ images are thrilling for how they upend the usual ways women tend to be seen in pop culture and in high art.
In the photograph “I Told Him These Things I’m Telling You Now,” a woman wearing a peaceful look on her face is bathed in buttery sunlight and holds a fig branch to shield her naked body from the viewer. In “Beauchamp” another naked woman floats in a pillowy nest of seaweed and swirling ocean — a modern Ophelia — though here she confronts the viewer with her direct gaze and an expression of self-possessed contentment.
“Against the Tide,” a group exhibition at Whitespace Gallery, features female artists covertly and overtly dismantling perceptions of what it is to be female.
The nude bodies depicted in Phipps’ photographs may be shocking to some: zaftig, scarred, middle-aged, imperfect. They’re not the type of women we are used to seeing rendered nude. But Phipps reveals the truth of female bodies: that they are occupied by real people with no interest in enticing or seducing our gaze. Phipps’ images convey instead the pleasure felt by the body’s owners: the sensations of wind, sun and water on their skin. That distinction is radical, moving and just one reason to see this exhibition of female artists who take an utterly different, often revelatory approach.
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Alongside Phipps’ moving recalibration of the nude are Suellen Parker’s portraits of self-possessed women of a different stripe. For “Against the Tide,” she has created likenesses of female members of Congress including Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kamala Harris using her uncanny hybrid of plastiline clay sculpture and photography. Though the glistening sentience of her subjects’ eyeballs speaks to a realistic photographic effect, their skin is molded and modeled like putty in these surreal hybrids of the real and the artificial.
Superimposed onto their clothing and the photos’ backdrops are excerpts from a speech by 19th-century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton which link past and present crusades for equal rights. As the artist says in her statement accompanying the work, “I value the leaders fighting for the rights of those who are not treated as equal. I treasure those who fight still to give my daughter more opportunities and model who my children can become.”
More subtle and formalist in their effect, V. Elizabeth Turk’s photograms are cameraless images of the female body as an abstraction. In Turk’s otherworldly photographs, ghostly female figures float against pools of black background. Within their bodies are fragments of leaves, water and natural forms, as if the universe itself is contained within their beings.
The photographs in “Against the Tide” can induce feelings of sadness, loss, wonder and delight. But work by Athens, Georgia-based artist Jaime Bull will more likely produce a serious case of the giggles. Off-the-rails nutty, Bull’s installation piece “Rhinestone Cowgirls” works this artist’s goofball, compelling magic in which outrageously tacky elements, such as second-hand Spandex and sequined clothing in garish shades, cascading hairpieces and plastic toys, stand in for female bodies. Bull essentially “dresses” rattan bar stools and hot pink plastic children’s furniture in those tacky outfits, creating renditions of the female form contorted into lewd sexual postures that hover between “girls just want to have fun,” drunken orgy and women — literally — bending over backward to please. The bizarre combination of fun, work, burden and excess is Bull’s way at poking hilarious fun at the outsize expectations we have for women, as perpetual caretakers and nurturers, youthful beauties dressed to thrill, and the sheer exhaustion and rigor of filling those roles.
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