Several months ago, my colleague wrote an article about feminist art. The article is entitled How Art Fought for Women’s Rights and it gives an overview of the feminist art movement. It’s difficult to separate feminist art from feminism and the women's feminist movement in general. And, as we know, feminism isn’t a uniform ideology, nor a uniform set of ideas. There are huge differences among feminists and feminist artists. For example, liberal feminism (and feminist artists who accept this form of feminism) insists on equal opportunities for women and men (both in society and in the art). This approach is represented in the famous article written by art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971, entitled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Still, there are many other movements within feminism that influenced modern political and social thought, as well as art. Second-wave feminism, radical feminism, postmodern feminism, post-feminism – these are all diverse range of opinions and ideologies within feminism. And, in this article, we will focus on radical sexual feminist women's art.
Dallas Contemporary has organized an exhibition entitled Black Sheep Feminism: the Art of Sexual Politics. The exhibition is curated by Alison Gingeras, and it examines the work of four radical feminist artists active since the 1970s. Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel, Betty Tompkins and Cosey Fanni Tutti each fearlessly confronted sexual ethics, gender norms, and the tyranny of political correctness; and all four artists faced censorship for the explicit sexual content of their work. So, these women's art is influenced by the radical sexual feminism whose approach towards sexuality or pornography is completely different from the one coming from liberal feminists. Opinions on the sex industry are diverse. Feminists critical of the sex industry generally see it as the exploitative result of patriarchal social structures which reinforce sexual and cultural attitudes complicit in rape and sexual harassment. Alternately, feminists who support at least part of the sex industry argue that it can be a medium of feminist expression and a means for women to take control of their sexuality. Obviously, those who are part of the radical sexual feminist art believe that female nudity celebrates women’s body and that their practice does not subjugate women to patriarchal oppression. The exhibition at Dallas Contemporary opened on January 16 and will be on view until March 20, 2016.
In this article, we present some radically sexual women's feminist art that must be remembered. In addition to the artists whose works is exhibited at Dallas Contemporary, we added a few other artists whose radical sexual women's feminist art should be remembered as well. Although radical feminist and women's art is facing criticism, artists who belong to this art movement are still deconstructing patriarchal structures of power and oppression, through their brave and unique artistic practices.
Editors’ Tip: Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America
As we already mentioned, feminism is quite complex movement, and feminist art practice reflects the complexity of the women's movement in whole. Certainly, the first feminist art practices were the product of more liberal approaches towards feminism, while later on, we witnessed a penetration of radical feminist thought into contemporary art practice. The art movement where radical feminism was popularized was performance art. Performance art was finally recognized as an art form in its own right in the 1970s. The book we recommend situates women's feminist performance art in the US and Canada in the social context of the feminist movement. Highlighting the important contributions of women artists, it shows that artists drew from feminist politics to create works.
Cosey Fanni Tutti is a performance artist and musician best known for her time in the avant-garde groups Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey. She had a long career as a stripper and in the fields of pornographic film and magazines, stemming from a desire to incorporate her own image into collages she produced in this period. This willingness to deliberately and consciously participate in the process of commercial image production has inspired a number of visual and performance artists. Some of her performance art work has also drawn on her experience as an adult performer. Fanni Tuttti immersed herself directly in the UK porn business, posing for over 40 magazine spreads. In her 1976 London exhibition Prostitution at the Institute for Contemporary Art, she claimed the images she created as a sex worker as her own art - provoking a public outrage that reached the chambers of the British Parliament.
Be sure to check out the artist's website and take a look at her latest projects!
Anita Steckel was an American feminist artist known for paintings and photomontages with sexual imagery. She was also the founder of the arts organization The Fight Censorship Group. Steckel came to public attention after her solo exhibition, The Sexual Politics of Feminist Art, held at Rockland Community College in 1973. The exhibition was controversial because Steckel's work was sexually explicit and some local authorities called for the closure of the show. She created a series of artworks concerning erections, in defense of which she said: If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.
Betty Tompkins is a painter whose works revolve, almost exclusively, around photorealistic, close-up imagery of both heterosexual and homosexual intimate acts. Tompkins in particular explored the extreme edges of feminist politics and sexualized imagery. Her first major body of work was a series of paintings depicting men's and women's figures engaging in sexual intercourse. She elected to render the images in extreme close-up, using vintage pornography stills as her source material. Rather than idealize the act of fornication, by having one body or the other exude dominance or beauty above the other, Tompkins equalizes both figures by showing only their genitalia, in congress.
For the latest works by Betty Tompkins, please visit her official website.
Joan Semmel is an American feminist painter, professor, and writer. She is best known for painting large scale, realistic nudes of her own body as seen from her perspective looking down. During the summer of 1973, while teaching at the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore, Semmel began painting what she calls the idea of myself as I experience myself, my own view of myself. Before that, she had quite famous erotic series of paintings depicting heterosexual couples having sex.
For more beautiful paintings by this great artist, please visit the official website of Joan Semmel.
Radical feminism was highly criticized by other feminist ideologies. Also, in art, radically sexual feminist and women's art was often excluded from main-stream feminist art movement. Still, even today, the radical feminist art exists, and there are a number of artists creating so-called sex-positive feminist art. These artists want to wrest female sexuality and its representations away from the clutches of patriarchal control, and in order to accomplish this, they use aesthetics as a method for explorations of objectification and empowerment and the personal and the political. One of these artists is Leah Schrager. In her work she photographs, appears in, augments, and markets her own image. She’s interested in the line, movement, and biography of the female body. She is a proponent of considering the artistic value and merit of selfies, emphasizing the fact that selfies provide the model full legal and economic control over her images.
Lea Schrager has had a lot of interesting projects. Take a look at her official website.
Naomi Elena Ramirez is a multidisciplinary artist whose work embraces and fuses visual art, performance art, video art, contemporary dance, and the process by which the different mediums can inform each other. She has developed a practice of generative graphic scoring: A choreographic method that filters the process of making live performance through the mediums of photography, drawing, collage, and notation. The method is generative, in that the score precedes the choreography rather than recording it and requires an embodied creative reading: In order to read the script one must dance the script. As a visual artist, Naomi uses photography and drawing to record and choreograph movements and gestures of the women's body. As a dancer her body is her medium. Within the field of visual art the historical and cultural implications of the female form, its representation, sexualization and objectification complicate its depiction. Within the field of dance and performance the body is the primary element. This socio-historical conundrum stifled the full expressive use of her body as a visual artist, the body being an essential element of her work. You can find more info about the work by the artist on the official website of Naomi Elena Ramirez.
Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist. Zanele Muholi is a visual activist who tries to bring light to the importance of black lesbian women in South Africa. Through her artistic approach she hopes to capture the women's and the journey of the African queer community so that one day future generations can look back and be able to see all that they went through. She tries to capture the moment without viewing any negativity or violence but yet portrays the LGBTI community as a whole to help bring the community and non LGBTI persons together.
Featured Images: Cosey Fanni Tutti (courtesy of theguardian.com); Cosey Fanni Tutti - Such is Life; Cosey Fanni Tutti posed for porn magazines and used the results in her artworks. Photograph, Dallas Contemporary (courtesy of theguardian.com); Anita Steckel - Anita of New York (courtesy of nymag.com); Anita Steckel - Giant Woman (Subway), detail [courtesy of openingceremony.us]; Betty Tompkins - Real Ersatz (courtesy of purple.fr); Betty Tompkins (courtesy of thestylecon.com); Joan Semmel - On the Grass; Joan Semmel - Intimacy-Autonomy, detail (courtesy of brooklynmuseum.org); Lea Shrager (courtesy of bustle.com); Leah Schrager - 09bsf, detail (courtesy of leahschrager.com); Leah Schrager - Onas, detail (couresy of leahsrageer.com); Naomi Elena Ramirez Performance; Zanele Muholi artwork (courtesy of madeatthetop.blogspot.com); Zanele Muholi. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.