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Difficult women collide with serious money in ‘She’

Exhibit stages competing visions of the female body in David Winton Bell Gallery

The first satisfying feature of “She” — the group exhibition with the ambitious subtitle of “picturing women at the turn of the 21st century” ­— is its not having been called “Her.” The nominative pronoun seems to promise a feminist inflection, a show that will deliver to us women as subjects rather than objects.

Pieces in the exhibition’s lineup, which can currently be viewed at List Art Center’s David Winton Bell Gallery, substantiate this expectation. The display includes, for instance, a photograph by Cindy Sherman, an oil painting by Jenny Saville and a sculpture by Rebecca Warren. These are artists whose practices have foregrounded, and then subverted, the problem of representing female bodies in visual culture. They have grappled rigorously with the history and politics of imaging women, both in and beyond art. With various working methods and in original emotional registers, they have generated radical images of what a woman might be. They have engaged in a familiar, and important, conversation.

But hold up. Other names on the list, and indeed the objects that represent them in the gallery, kind of ignore that discourse, no? In some cases they seem to actively contest it. Take, for instance, the show’s first image: a John Currin painting titled “Entertaining Mr. Acker Bilk.” Currin is a painter whose women consistently assume erotic, subservient and pornographic positions. He’s an artist who seems not only to perpetuate these masculinist postures, but also to derive from them a measure of delight. Mr. Bilk’s anonymous companion in the portrait at the Bell Gallery, for instance, crouches quite literally in his shadow, baring her breasts and patting his thigh. Our polite excursion into second- and third-wave feminism has been derailed upon arrival.

The complicated juxtapositions resulting from these competing narratives are as cunning as they are suggestive. Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the Bell Gallery and the show’s curator, has packed a dramatic assortment of arguments into the small gallery. Consider the American artist Lisa Yuskavage, whose work, “Night,” is included in the show and who sees Playboy spreads through to their logical conclusion by painting women with patently absurd bust and hip dimensions. Her appropriation of pornographic images traffics in objectified women, sure, but certainly it should also be read as skewering Currin’s vision.

Another interesting territory highlighted in the show is the way the featured artists process and manipulate art history. “Filth,” for instance, a fascinating work by British artist Glenn Brown, reimagines the coqquetish maiden from a Fragonard portrait as a slimy, sinewy ghoul. Hinting at the violence inflicted in such images of women, he reworks the ribbon around her neck into a gaping wound. But Jeff Koons, by plopping a reflective garden ornament onto his sculpture, “Gazing Ball (Ariadne),” invites no such critique. In the same series, he gives mailboxes and snowmen — inanimate objects — the same treatment he does the female body.

“She” also interrogates the intersection of feminity and race. The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, represented in the exhibition by an arresting self-portrait, fell into obscurity for several decades after her initial entry into the New York art world due, in no small part, to her status as an Asian woman. In some ways, her polka-dots supply a feminist alternative to the polka-dots of the comic book pin-ups from the work of, say, Roy Lichtenstein. The British artist Chris Ofili poses the question more directly by titling his portrait of a black woman  “Orgena,” which spells “a negro” backwards. Images of the female body, it follows, are not only about the female body: They’re also about power.

While “She” is a show about women, it also tells a story about money. That is, if these artists are major figures in contemporary art history, their works have sold for major figures in the contemporary art market. They are represented commercially by blue-chip gallerists like David Zwirner, Larry Gagosian and Matthew Marks. They have received substantial critical attention, and they have been awarded with blockbuster retrospectives at big-league New York institutions — Sherman at the Museum of Modern Art, Koons at the Whitney Museum of American Art and, fresh off the press this month, Ofili at the New Museum. Narrowing the field to artists whose brands have acquired a certain cache raises some important questions about the criteria by which artists acquire celebrity associations. Currin and Saville, for example, both show with Gagosian; the way they represent women does not seem to have impacted their financial viability.

But, in terms of money, what’s really startling is that all of these objects are on loan from the private collection of a single anonymous donor. We’re obviously talking about someone with extraordinary assets, but are left to wonder what his or her motives may be for purchasing so many contradictions. An unusually critical eye with a genuine interest in organizing museum-quality surveys about gender in contemporary art? Maybe. But a sinister, more likely alternative is that the original acquisitions were as banal as they were strategic — a corporate mogul or a hedge fund manager wandering merrily through Chelsea, someone who knows what’s at stake in this economy of prestige.

But that is someone else’s dissertation topic. However they got there, the works on loan at the Bell are perfectly worthy of our attention, and in some cases, our celebration. One exciting outcome of the show’s framing is its potential to activate new questions about female artists. Saville’s handling of the female nude is interesting, but so is her incredibly nuanced treatment of surface, light and color. Proceed to Kusama’s magnetic handling of patterns and texture or Warren’s joyful investigation of bodies in motion. We are encouraged to examine the questions women artists ask about their status as women artists, yes. But we’re also called to ask better and more sophisticated questions — the same questions, that is, that we would ask of their male peers. And then, with an equal resolve, to ask the men what we would ask the women.

In staging these evocative combinations, the curator has eschewed the easy answers. “She” is a dense, brainy collection of connections and incongruities. Here at the intersection of gender and contemporary art, there are many urgencies at stake.


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