By Kristie Landing
The Nasher Museum recently hosted the opening of Exposing the Gaze: Gender and Sexuality in Art, an exhibition curated by the students of Professor Kimberly Lamm’s Women’s Studies course, Gender, Sexuality, and the Image. For the exhibition, each student chose a work from the Nasher Museum’s permanent collection that resists the viewer’s gaze, often through its blatant acknowledgement. In this exhibition, you will find that the archetypes of feminine beauty are aware of their objectification. Soldiers will show fear and “softness” in a militant culture where hyper-masculinity is naturalized. Andy Warhol’s polaroids confront us with the notion that we can all be exposed as potentially inauthentic and they nod to the performative nature of our culture and our identities.
The gaze is a fascinating subject to explore in art. Since the beginning, art has involved a subject or object that is looked at and someone who is doing the looking. This power dynamic is often asymmetrical, as in the case of the female nude, which gained popularity as a subject during the Renaissance. According to feminist critique, when a male painter renders the naked female body for the sole purpose of pleasing a heterosexual male viewer, he strips the woman not only of her clothes, but also of her power. Think this dynamic is outdated? The feminist group, Guerrilla Girls would beg to differ. One of their most famous posters reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.”
However, it is works like untitled, by Alison Van Pelt that have the ability to change this dynamic. When I first saw the painting, I could only see a red canvas. During the tour, however, I realized that if you stand directly in front of the work, a female nude is revealed, almost like an optical illusion. According to the student presenting the work, this “hidden” aspect of the figure may signify that it is the viewer’s gaze that exposes the nudity, not the other way around. Yet, once revealed the overt nakedness of the figure is defiant. Van Pelt has presented a challenge to passive gazing by creating a female nude that is frighteningly stark in color and form and one that can’t be seen without close inspection. What’s more, the figure doesn’t have a head. By painting only the body, Van Pelt signifies the dehumanizing aspect of the gaze.
I really enjoyed this one-room exhibition because I feel that it addresses very relevant issues in today’s society. What we see and who sees us is not a relationship confined to art or the media. This exhibition has the potential to make us aware of our looking and the way in which we present ourselves. The only question is…do we want to be aware? Or, do we prefer to see the imageless red canvas from afar?
Photo by J Caldwell