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Cross-dressing the gendered gesture

Sean Johnson's piece, Snare, says it all: CAUTION. Entering the fray about gender and art is a stroll on thin ice, even in relatively-liberal Seattle, replete with its abundance of female artists, curators and other arts professionals.

But artist, gallerist, and Cornish alum Sharon Arnold went for it when she was asked to guest curate a group show at Cornish College of the Arts in response to Elles. Not wanting to exhibit another all-female show (she curated a show of 37 Seattle female artists at Roq la Rue back in March), Arnold decided to invite only men to show work. How would (or could) males respond to this carnival of female celebration?

The resulting show, Ils Disent, is now infamous for the conspicuous absence (i.e. censorship) of Ben Beres' etching, Mamelles. Beres', er, stimulating piece shows the names of 108 female artists (myself included) in a grid, accompanied by more or less identical sets of cartoon breasts. Beres' use of intaglio etching, an antiquated medium, places Mamelles within the tradition of satirical illustration and political cartoons—the kind made in droves by printmakers for 19th century periodicals. It reads like an illustration out of Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary: flip to the definition of "female artist" and there's an encyclopedic constellation of breasts. Naturally.

The shitstorm of responses surrounding a depiction of breasts has been fascinating. Beres could have drawn vaginas, but didn’t. Why? The breast is more fun, more approachable (ambiguous) as a signifier and, importantly, castratable. The breast is more like a dick, in that classic Freudian sense. And that's what Elles is addressing: the plight of the castrated artist. The plight of the dickless dame who professionally suffers for her lack, who's been left out of history books and museums, overworked, underpaid. All said and done, to corral a bunch of female artists is still to make an exhibit overshadowed by the specter of a penis. And many of the spin-off shows in Seattle responding to Elles feel as one-note as this. You don’t have a dick: you’re invited!

So Beres offered up on a plate—literally—an image of the fetishized breast, repeated gracelessly, ad nauseam. It’s one of the few conceivable humorous responses to Elles, yet its explicit reductiveness opened the floodgates to so much quelle horreur  responses on Facebook and SLOG. His depiction of breasts, as fetish, pun on multiple levels: a personal predilection, obsessive labeling, a nod to female lack, a conscious reinscription of patriarchal, phallocentric narratives. In the Freudian sense of fetish, the field of breasts is childlike magical thinking, diverting attention from symbolic female lack as well as from actual discussion of gender inequalities. But it's a parodical magical thinking. No one is bewitched by the breasts. Rather, the use of cheesy cartoon boobs as signifiers of female artists is endearing to some (because Beres' print pays a more thorough homage, by the act of naming, to more working female artists in Seattle than Seattle Art Museum or any of the satellite pro-female exhibits do) and horrifying to others (the signifier is reductive, an objectification, crudely fetishistic).

Interestingly, in the context of Ils Disent, it's not just Mamelles that calls forth the fetish. The exhibit is filled with them. In fact, the male responses present in Ils Disent consist of two conspicuous impulses: the graphic representation of incoherent language and the production of fetishes.


Fetish in the form of cloth cut from second-hand clothes is found in multiple pieces, including Chris Buening's It's All Drag, which conjures the primitive assemblage style of Surrealism and the fetishistic flourish of Louise Bourgeois. His sculpture is composed of cone-forms and blobby bottles that call to mind isolated body parts or oversize, sexualized chess pieces. They’re painted, powdered, dolled up, bound and draped in cloth cut from suits, baby blankets, party dresses, scarves and kerchiefs. He refers to them as "mannequin" sculptures in drag, since he’s put male garments on female forms and vice verse. Buening says he solicited the help of an actual drag queen—an expert seamstress—to help complete the piece.

By bringing drag into the mix, Buening approaches the subject of gender (and of being a male, hence conversationally “compromised” by privilege) in one of the only possible ways: he metaphorically tucks. Buening drapes his work (by extension, himself) in the fetishized trappings of the feminine and enters the conversation in a way that subverts the gender binary. "The artist, regardless of their sex, will create," he says. "It's a primal urge. But we drape examination, ritual, decoration and deeper meaning over that primitive framework like the clothes on our bodies. It helps us identify and categorize."

Nearby in the gallery is a piece by artist, poet and musician Adam Boehmer called Beast of Burden. It’s a grey, wool shirt nailed to a wooden board. The stomach or groin area is taut, distended by a swollen bundle containing three large stones. Boehmer also touches on drag, but a kind of drag that addresses the complexities of playing the part of a man in society. At times masculinity—and privilege—take on the aspect of a theatrical role, even for the biological male.


In a conversation Boehmer explained, “I've always found myself attracted to the drag of being a 'manly' man. My clothing is part of my kink. My beard, my plaid wool, my boots: these ubermasculine accoutrements get me off but also make me privy to an interesting world. Since I sometimes scan as straight and a 'real' man, I find myself in situations where I am supposed to know what to do, how to act, who to love, etc. Playing dress-up at being a man can get you 'in the door' but can also get you into trouble.”

This kind of double-crossing of one’s gender—a subtle, sometimes indistinguishable-from-normative kind of cross-dressing—resonates with the complexity of a more contemporary vein of queer/feminist logic than the binarism of first wave feminism. It also illustrates an aspect of multi-layered self-objectification and playful self-representation that’s characteristic of much artistic practice, but especially of many female artists’ work, whose story-telling and myth-making is often confined to/defined by the perimeters of her body, her dress, her household, her kitchen. Boehmer’s masculine drag makes use of stereotype and the fetishized trappings of gender to access both queer and heteronormative privilege, but the message is mixed, as well as melancholy. What fruit, after all, can come of carrying stillborn stones? Is the self found or only continually lost when playing dress-up?

 


Brian Cypher’s Fabric Form has nothing overtly to do with drag, but channels feminine influence through use of second-hand cloth cut from a man’s dress shirt. By stitching together the pinstripe pattern, Cypher’s patchwork mimics his meticulous, geometric drawings and paintings. Responding to Elles stumped him at first. "I started thinking about Bourgeois, Martin, Mitchell, Riley, Bontecou,” he says, “and I realized how important these artists were in my initial investigations into art at age 16. I also realized that I didn't make a distinction between 'male' art and 'female' art; it's always been a matter of formalist aesthetics for me."

Cypher's ambivalence about gender as a point of artistic distinction points to a broader question: why should anyone should care about identifying the formal qualities of feminine and masculine gestures (if there truly are such essential distinctions) with their gendered binaries? What do we achieve by locating and isolating this elusive feminine gesture? And what will we do with it when we have it bottled?

There's an exhibit at Hedreen Gallery right now that asks exactly this question. Artists Shaw Osha and Dawn Cerny co-curated The rug pulled out from underneath; you lie on the floor, and in it they ask whether feminine gesture can be divorced from biological female-ness or gender in general. If so, what are the inherent characteristics of that gesture? Is the feminine gesture inherently a site of risk? A site of vulnerability? A discussion at the exhibit’s opening veered towards the subjects of beauty and rejection of finish fetish as risky, feminine forms found contemporary Northwest art. The style of works in the show—by artists like Osha, Cerny, Matt Offenbacher and Jenny Heishman—tend towards the unfinished and undone, a kind of sublime sloppiness that can seem at turns maddeningly insincere and breathtakingly elegant. Osha relates this deliberate undone-ness to a rejection of the patriarchal monolith, much in the spirit of Luce Irigaray's permeable, feminine subjectivity: at once everywhere and fluid, without center, without definite meaning.

The question raised by that exhibit crosses over to Ils Disent. Can male artists cross-dress their art, so to speak? Can they appropriate the feminine gesture without being accused of privilege or eliciting a vibe of camp?

The question could especially be directed at the language-based works in Ils Disent by Ian Toms and Mike Simi, who appear to be channeling the syntax of hysterical (i.e. female) speech. Simi's No Feeling is a Feeling is a diptych made with marker on paper spelling the phrase "NO FEELING IS STILL A FEELING." Notably, whether on accident or purpose, the word "Still" has been left off the title placard. The absence may be purposeful or a real Freudian slip. Nevertheless, it calls attention to the word "still" and to the possible meanings inscribed by the word's absence. It can be read as a linguistic stutter, gap, or lack, a sly syncope, an aphonic silence (a speciality of the classic female hysteric). Of course, having no feeling is a masculine cliché. Still, Simi insists, lack of feeling is a feeling, and should be recognized. His masculine no-feeling demands sympathy equal to feminine excess of feeling. Simi's companion piece spells out "NO FEELING IS STILL A FEELING" in Wingdings font. Notably, there are a lot of frowny faces. It's a juvenile, anti-linguistic babble.

Toms' painting Untitled (SPELL pieces) is a cryptic mess of paint drips that's vaguely legible as a palimpsest, words sprayed one over the other, piling up to the point of abstraction. "Spell of……" death, we want to read. But it could be many things, or nothing. Illegible writing and language stripped of meaning is the stuff of madness and spellbinding; that is, language in the domain of the hysteric and witch.

What does it mean for a male to cross-dress his speech or art? When he appropriates the linguistic clichés of the feminine? Is it in line with any meaningful type of feminist thought? Perhaps a movement towards a liquidation of binaries? Or simply a mockery of them?

There may or may not be any truly valuable dialogue that emerges from the whirlwind of Elles, but I hope so. Otherwise so many artists are just riding on the coattails of an institution that's riding on the coattails of a nice exhibit in Paris a few years ago. And that would be a shame. These gender-inspired shows have illustrated that there is conversation to be had still about what it means to be feminist in Seattle, and that, as The rug pulled out from underneath; you lie on the floor and Mamelles proves, there is a need to push towards the dissolution of crude, binary discrimination. The dissolution of binary thinking has pragmatic implications in the aesthetic realm as well as the political. It includes the poetic liberation of language, the de-gendering of formalism, the tolerance of multiple meanings. Perhaps it also means the acknowledgement that a certain kind of scopophilia—the childish ecstasy of looking at and objectifying the external world—is an aspect of the artistic gaze that transcends male or female stereotypes. Such a dissolution would be a movement towards a more playful and pleasurable self-objectification. A movement away from black and white, a movement toward love of the inchoate, toward a mythology of an undivided sex (the hermaphrodite, who sees in its mirrored reflection the symmetrical union of both male and female attributes).

Boehmer's bittersweet examination of the implications of playing dress-up (which women and female artists have been doing for ages) resonates with poetic pragmatism. When asked to articulate what feminism might look like in Seattle, he responded: “To me, being a feminist right now in Seattle means meeting people where they are at, in how they understand that term. I understand it currently to mean acknowledging and celebrating the differences and similarities between women and men, and giving these qualities equal weight. A more interesting question is what it means to be an individual in this city, or to develop practices of self-love, and embracing of kink, which to me leads to more honest and expressive living. This might then lead us to discussing what it means to be ‘queer.’ To me, what it means to be queer, trans or post gender—truly a 'self'—is much more interesting, and includes feminism. However, I am in a city where it is a privilege to even comprehend living in the forefront of that thought. Since most of America still needs wide-sweeping actions like the Lilly Ledbetter act, I find it’s best to meet people where they are at, and push for progress at all those different levels.”

 

Ils Disent is on view at Cornish College of the Arts through December 15, 2012.

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