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L'Origine du monde, by Gustave Courbet, is perhaps one of the frankest depictions of female genitalia in the fine art canon. To the puritan sensibility, it may well border on the pornographic. Yet the painting hangs in Paris, on a wall at the the Musée d'Orsay, and enjoys a relatively uncontested position in the Realist pantheon. There are no warnings of graphic content, no heavy curtains through which only consenting adults may pass. Courbet's vagina, so to speak, is there for all to see—accompanied only by a placard translating its title into English: The Origin of the World. Next to those words, the image becomes noble, reverent, and beautiful.
Imagine if it had been called Power Pussy.
"Maybe I should've named it something else," says Julia Haw, casting a look across the room.
Hanging there on the north wall of the Hauser Gallery is one of her most recent works, a large oil on canvas depicting a headless female figure. She is nude, kneeling against a dark background, large red roses blooming from her groin.
"No, absolutely not. That's you trying to take control of the narrative," responds Claire Molek, shaking her head. She adds once more for emphasis: "No."
Power Pussy is the focal point of "Atlanta & the Lion," a group show curated by Molek, who's Hauser Gallery's cofounder and director. The show, which features seven female artists, grew in part out of a response to German painter Georg Baselitz's recent comment that "women don't paint very well." Taken in isolation, that comment could've been dismissed as the grousing of a known provocateur. But considered alongside critic Ken Johnson's brutally casual dismissal of women artists in a November issue of the New York Times, the sentiment seemed to contribute to a feeling of hostility towards women in the art world—one that was all the more worrisome for being so nonchalant. As David Levi Strauss writes in the March edition of Art in America, "the frustration (is) recognizing that the institutions of the art world and the language still used there can slide back all too easily into a pre-1960s de facto racism and sexism."
That de facto sexism is something Haw feels she's been experiencing first-hand. She's drawn a lot of heat for Power Pussy. It cost her a speaking engagement at a local high school. She didn't plan to present the piece to students, but because it was featured on her website, she was deemed a "liability" by administrators. When she posted a link to the work on Facebook (knowing that a JPG would likely be removed immediately) the painting inspired a heated thread. Someone was upset by the lack of pubic hair, a former partner posted sexually suggestive comments, and a well-known artist criticized the promotion of the work in conjunction with the show, calling the decision exploitative and amateurish. When people posted comments in her defense, someone wrote "Sorry, ladies. You may have seen Social Network, this whole thing started for boys to compare the looks of women (and their inherent merit). Facebook is NOT your forum for feminist rants!"
"See, it's the nuance of language," says Haw. "Because a woman said it, it's a feminist rant."
And that's really what's at issue here—the meaning a woman imparts to something simply by virtue of being a woman. "Atlanta & the Lion" was conceived in part because we seem to be living in a world in which a woman's biological ontology takes precedence over her identity as an artist.
"The market is generally swayed towards white males," says Molek. "If you single someone out as a woman artist, suddenly that work is worth so much less."
Lest that seem the skewed perspective of a woman gallerist promoting women artists, here's Ken Johnson in the New York Times: "(T)he day that any woman earns the big bucks like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons rake in is still a long way off. Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?"
The nature of the art that women tend to make. Were art to be presented in a vacuum—no historical background, no context—who among us would be able to distinguish Lee Krasner from Jackson Pollack or Louise Bourgeois from Richard Serra? Who among us could discern from its "nature" that Power Pussy was created by a woman while L'Orgine du monde was painted by a man?
My guess is no one. But if you think you can, I suggest taking that show on the road.
Haw's Facebook thread, along with links to the work, was removed by moderators after only a few hours. She has no idea why. She's candid about being somewhat wounded by the level of criticism the piece has drawn. To create anything is to render yourself completely vulnerable and to have your intention misinterpreted, your work denigrated or dismissed, is crushing. Showing Power Pussy to a group of college students recently, she was surprised to find that a common complaint was that she'd featured herself in the piece, that Power Pussy was, to an extent, a self-portrait.
"They seemed genuinely bothered by the fact that I had portrayed my own body," she says. And that points to another troubling question we face when considering art: Are we more comfortable when women are objects, seen from the view of the Other? What upsets us about the gaze directed inward? Art throughout the ages is replete with images of the naked female form. But does something change for us when the woman positions herself behind the easel, becoming both the viewer and the viewed? What happens when women, as Molek says, "take control of the narrative?"
Haw and Molek can think of exceptions, artists who have seemed to experience considerable market success while escaping the designation of "woman artist." Molek points to Cindy Sherman and Haw to Francesca Woodman.
"And Woodman's work is very revealing, very exposed," she says.
"Yeah," counters Molek, "but it's not sex in your face."
Woodman's ethereal black-and-white photographs are incredibly revealing, featuring nude female forms that seem to disappear into, or be absorbed by, eerie, surrealist backgrounds. Even Ken Johnson seems both moved and impressed by her work, writing in a review of a 2012 survey of Woodman's photographs at the Guggenheim: "It was not only her body that she exposed—she bared her soul too, and that is a rare and beautiful thing."
But Francesca Woodman is dead. She killed herself in 1981 at the age of 22. And therefore I would argue that she is safe to consider, easy to praise. It's not only that her work isn't sex in your face, it's that Woodman herself can't be. She's no longer a living, breathing force with which to contend. A dead woman artist is like Haw's headless female figure; a body with no mouth, no brain—a form with no mechanism for response.
Towards the end of our conversation at Hauser Gallery, a man enters the room who is clearly familiar to both Molek and Haw. They rise to say hello.
"I'm here to see your, um . . . your new piece," he says to Haw.
"Power Pussy," she says loudly, and smiles.
"Atlanta & the Lion" runs at Hauser Gallery, 230 W. Superior, through May 2.