I used to think gender was everything; the lense through which all else must be viewed. Got a problem? Put on your gender inspectors and poof, the solution, once hidden behind culture’s murky gender norms, would be revealed. But since Hilary Clinton’s loss (could we hate anything more than a woman who seeks power?), and Caitlin Jenner’s rise (not her personal story and strength but the media’s strange infatuation with it) — and to be honest, probably quite a long while before that – I’d come to think maybe I’d lost touch with the meaning of the word. Leave it to the next generation, I thought, who, at best, see gender as an intensely personal and political choice and, at worst, see it as invisible. But artist Sarah Lucas took no such defeat. Using the typical tools of contemporary art, she does what any badass person does with a complicated topic: she makes it strange, funny, a question mark. Her summer show at the Hammer (can’t help but wonder if the touchy subject was hidden in the downtime month) used gender signifiers to question the legacy of art as a male domain.
Though the female body was partially on view here (the advertisement for the show was a self portrait of the artist with fried eggs on her shirt where her breasts might lay) the main thrust – if you will – was to confront the solipsistic art world and its comfortable, if cloaked, collusion with what’s considered male. The photo posted at the entrance of the gallery was another self portrait – this time of the artist in a leather jacket eating, of all things, a partially unpeeled banana. “Men of the art world,” I hear her saying, her eyes direct and playful, “I’m coming for YOU!”
Indeed, humor was the show’s own foil, which Lucas uses with a masterful touch. One of the entry pieces was a mechanical hand pumping up and down near a penis shaped dildo, surrounded by a box of mirrors. Without the mirrors the piece has no humor at all, but just by adding a frame, a reflection, a reflexive wall, the sculpture turns into a joke about the masterbatory nature of solo work.
Later in the show a huge clay sculpture of a penis takes up the middle of one of the gallery rooms, which kind of bothered me, until I thought of it As suggesting that the penis is extinct. Like we might go visit in the halls of the natural history museum someday and point at it with awe and curiosity, as we do a bunch of dinosaur bones; a big dusty relic. Behind the penis hung a big sculpture of Jesus, made up in a graphic print, reminding us how saturated our world is with iconography of all kinds. Or perhaps he was just there to watching the penis, on guard.
My favorite piece was a video of the artist sitting by a kind of pale blue fountain (image above), reading aloud from a book of prose. She seemed at once to be making fun of the desire to film yourself reading aloud from the work of another author in the name of art (love the sound of your own voice, do you?) and also curious about that desire. The cord for the video camera was visible on the floor next to her; a clear shout out to Cindy Sherman’s, who left the mark of her camera’s click extender in her Untitled Film Stills; confronting the assumption that woman’s bodies are only works of art when captured by the gaze of man.
Porn also got a laugh, with photographs of stuffed leg and arm-like shapes humping and holding each other, which, from afar might look like pages from a nudie magazine, but, close-up were clearly mushy forms made by hand, like the limbs of a doll. Given the similarly, might we also question our view of what’s perverse?
The entry placard to the show warned that you may want to use parental discretion when visiting the show with children, which I support, if only to protect yourself from having to answer many many questions. The biggest confusion my toddler had was also my own; what exactly ARE the long thin leg looking things, covered with colorful stocking, sitting, otherwise body-less, on the outskirts of a pool table? Something about the violence that occurs in male spaces when the female body is a part? Or the requirement of women to be both sexy and half of themselves to fit into the male game? To me, this work was more uncomfortable than all the penises and porn combined; the suggestion that the sanctity of men’s pleasure, though old-school, is as strong as it ever was.