Fragile to funny, and from dynamic to serene, either way, the artworks on view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery seize a moment. They are capturing a moment centred around female experiences of the world. Plural, obviously, we cannot speak of one universal female experience of the world. And those experiences have come to the foreground in the last decennia.
A common buzz word in recent years has been the female gaze, but what does it even mean? The gaze is a psychoanalytic theory, one that describes the anxious state of mind that comes with the self-awareness that one can be seen and looked at. And this has to do with how an individual (or a group) perceives other individuals, other groups, or oneself. Throughout the years, people from different fields developed the concept of the gaze to illustrate certain kind of dynamics.
Laura Mulvey, for example, proliferated the concept of the male gaze as a feature of gender power asymmetry in film. Mulvey stated that women were objectified in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera. A couple of years before her 1975 groundbreaking essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, writer John Berger discussed, without calling it the male gaze, a similar concept, but then as seen in the history of western art.
“The female nude in Western painting was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire. She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972.
And this has been the norm and fate for women in art for centuries. Hence, the Guerrilla Girl’s famous 1989 piece Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?
The creative expressions that have been represented have drastically changed over the last decennium. Reni Eddo-Lodge, recently analysed in an essay in the December issue of the @BritishVogue how the 2010s have changes the male gaze in movies, tv and books. When looking at a movie from the 00s, 90s or 80s, you see how many plots, statements and dynamics didn’t age well. Heterosexual men and their desires are put front and centre, the requirements of the Bechdel test are rarely met, female characters are fighting for the men or entangled in the Madonna–whore complex, you get the gist.
The 2010s have introduced a proliferation of expressions such as Orange Is the New Black, Gone Girl, Pose, Euphoria, Big Little Lies, Lady Bird, the list is endless. However, I’m not saying these kinds of films, series, and books didn’t’ exist before the 2010s. As a recent top 100 by the BCC Culture, where they polled 368 film experts from 84 countries in order to find the best films from female filmmakers, shows a pretty big chunk of those are made before the 2010s.
In the arts, there has been a similar trend. Certainly not yet fair proportioned, there has been an expansion in overthrowing the male gaze. Thanks to feminist art since the late 1960s and 1970s, and intersectional feminists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Judith Butler and bell hooks since the late 1980s, artistic practices have diversified. Different (female) experiences have been prominent in museum and gallery line ups. In general, there has been more room for the non-male gaze.
So is there a female gaze? If there is, I don’t believe it’s not about women objectifying men (ahem, Samantha Jones). And I don’t think it should be mixed up with feminism. Just if something is made by a woman, that does not make it per definition a feminist thing. To use bell hooks definition: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” There is just more room for different kinds of expressions and experiences in the visual arts. Which is expressed in Elizabeth Houston’s exhibition: SHE.
With works from twelve artists on view, SHE mediates between degrees of abstraction and experience from a feminist, and at times feminine, perspective, successfully holding a mirror up to the world around us. Women putting women central. They make sure this is not an essentialising perspective on *THE* female experience. The exhibition is expansive in its aesthetics and artistic investigations, they emphasize that there is no quality or characteristic after all, that all women share. Visit the gorgeous gallery in the Lower East Side if you’ve got the chance and check it out for yourself!
Participating artists: Svetlana Bailey, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Daniela Edburg, Sally Gall, Weronika Gesicka, Cig Harvey, Sandra Kantanen, Kathrin Linkersdorff, Liz Nielsen, Laura Pannack, Chloe Rosser, and Corine Vermeulen.
SHE is on view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York City until December 7, 2019. For more information, click here.