Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Femme Mystique: "She" at Michael Kohn Gallery

In the Spring/Summer of 2007, the Geffen Contemporary at MoCA Los Angeles presented “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an incredibly extensive collection of woman-centric art created by a veritable laundry list of female artists (including, but not limited to the likes of Judy Chicago, Alice Neel, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, Audrey Flack, Faith Ringgold, and Cindy Sherman). As the birth of the Feminist movement in art occurred during the 1970s, it was often related and reactionary to the booming pornography industry and its depiction of women. The much-discussed collection examined, played with, and re-imagined such sexualized stereotypes of women under the scope of an impressively diverse group of artists.

Perhaps as an unintentional answer to “WACK!” and the work of many of its included ladies, noted art critic-cum-curator Kristine McKenna organized the recent exhibition “She” at Los Angeles’ Michael Kohn Gallery which compares and contrasts the work of Wallace Berman and Richard Prince, who worked between the 1960s and present day with particular regard to the sexualized female form as subject. Of course, none of these artists pioneered the use of such a subject. The pre-historic Venus of Willendorf, DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, Manet’s Olympia, Edvard Munch’s Puberty, and nearly the entire body of work by Willem de Kooning all serve as examples of how time-spanning and genre-crossing the subject matter truly is. That said, Berman, who worked in the Beat period of mid-century and Prince, who began to flourish in the late 1970s and early 1980s, each opted to draw from “the archetypes and fantasies” of women, so explains McKenna who selected these artists because of their mutual and contrasting depictions of the subject. Both artists achieved considerable notoriety, Berman for his involvement with the Beat movement, and Prince for his mischievous antics within contemporary art.

“She” is essentially a man’s view of women, in all the stereotyping, humor, glorification, and misinterpretation that implies. What draws these two artists together in similarity is their sexualizing of their subject. In fact, misogyny is an oft-used term when discussing Prince’s highly controversial art. For this exhibition, McKenna has included works from the artist’s well-known Nurse and Girlfriend series. The selected works certainly show Prince’s penchant for using pornography as a means to create images that are both provocative and purposely exploitative. There may be no better example of this within the collection than No New Next (2008), an actual 1986 El Camino which Prince has covered in vinyl images of topless, erotically-posed women out of old biker magazines. This piece, from his most recent Car series, is the ultimate object of machismo. However, the best moments of Prince’s work here happen in his Nurse collages, in which he splices graphic pornographic images into otherwise tame book covers from nurse-themed pulp novels. Prince uses the idea of male fantasy to transform the commonplace scenes of nurses (a frequent object of fantasy) into explicit ones.

Though Richard Prince was a notorious fan and collector of works by Wallace Berman, an artist working about a generation prior, in this context their work feels vastly different. Though Berman, too, used erotic images of women in his found object assemblages, it manages to come across with a sensibility more of intimate way than an explicit. Berman, who was best known for his art publication Semina, was a major figure in the assemblage art movement and popularized verifax images. While both such works are included in “She,” McKenna makes sure to include previously unseen portraits of women as well, and selects a body of work of Berman’s that exemplifies a more sensual, less aggressive depiction of women (albeit just as stereotypical at times) than Prince’s. Berman’s collages feel lovely and personal in their obvious hand-craftedness. In contrast, he seems to sincerely adore women for their femininity and subsequent soft sexuality. Though some of his images may have been seen as more erotic in the context of the 1960s, the overall sense is that of a private dialogue with an intimate lover, and less so of a shockingly explicit centerfold.

Prince’s misogyny may be sarcastic and calculated, and Berman’s pretty portraits more sexist than they at first appear, but at the end of the day, both of these artists are drawn to the female and her powers of sexuality. At times celebrated and at other times exploited, this characteristic of women is a theme artists continue to tackle and regardless of ever-evolving mores, that seems unlikely to change.

*"She" closed March 7, 2009. Michael Kohn Gallery is located at 8071 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. All images are courtesy of the gallery.

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