We've arrived at a peculiar moment in the history of feminism. Our teen and twenty-something daughters think the battle is won. Sporting their belly rings and cuffing their male counterparts around like boy toys, they see Beyoncé, Britney and J.Lo as liberated ladies, enjoying their sexuality and flaunting their power. We older, wind-dried first-generation feminist types see things differently. In a curious inversion, the patriarchy seems to have recast female empowerment as a floor show for male spectators. How did that happen?
Into this vexed terrain come two Toronto exhibitions that grapple with the representation of female sexual power; Women as Goddess: Liberated Nudes by Robert Markle and Joyce Wieland at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the cheekily titled What It Feels Like For A Girl, Philip Monk's first exhibition in his new role as director/curator of the Art Gallery at York University. The exhibitions span the decades from the sixties to today, showing us where we come from and offering a window onto the next generation of female gender warriors.
The AGO show is a real curiosity. While the catalogue for Woman as Goddess describes both Markle and Wieland as creating "liberated nudes," the exhibition demonstrates something else: the stark contrast between the intelligent and sophisticated treatment of the subject by Wieland and the belligerent and boorish sexism of Markle. The man could draw like a dream, but his paintings are God-awful and the denigrating attitude toward women that lies behind them rises off his canvases like a stench.
Markle's women are portrayed in a perpetual state of splayed readiness (strippers were his favourite subject), invariably offering the viewer a full frontal genital show. The exhibition includes his film Untitled ( Landscape with Nude -- Marlene). Its subject is his endlessly long suffering wife, who is conscripted to lie around mutely in the grass or float Ophelia-like in the river -- starkers, of course. For Markle, quite clearly, woman is creature of nature, without agency, a feral demi-human. He is revealed in all his shagadelic glory: a slobbering dinosaur from the swamps of misogyny.
In one particularly squalid work titled Rooms: The West Wall (1990), Markle pictures himself, variously, squatting on the toilet and watching TV while his wife lounges around in the nude. In the final scene of this triptych, he lies in bed watching TV while she is to be seen crawling across the duvet like a bitch in heat, wearing the standard Markle wardrobe of birthday suit and high heels. Characteristically, in Markle's paintings, the woman is pictured as grotesque, garish, and vulgar. The piéce de resistance is Markle's hand-crafted humping machine titled Creation, a wooden whirligig in which the woman's hips pump up and down as the onlooking artist en profile brandishes his flame-like paint brush with a phallic flourish. I can seldom recall seeing such rubbish on view in a public institution.
Wieland's sensibility, by way of contrast, is all subtlety, and brilliant, brainy flirtation. Before this show has even begun, the visitor encounters her taxidermied beaver (a fixture in her studio in her later years), the Canadian national rodent's presence serving as a witty double entendre in the sexually charged exhibition space.
We then meet a few of her self-portraits (in which she resonates as a figure of character and depth), some dreamy drawings of lovers (in which the woman is pictured as active -- sharing a cup of tea or amorously entangled with her beloved), one of her deliriously beautiful Time Machine paintings from the AGO's collection (a magnificent orange planet or ovum floating on an aquamarine sea and sprouting flaring phallic protuberances like sun fires), and a number of her classic collage works, like the delicate Spring Blues (1960), which uses oil paint, paper and broken shards of mirror, or Clothes of Love (1960-61), which brings together articles of clothing lifted from life and reassembled as art.
The highpoint, though, is Wieland's tiny bottle of Sweet Beaver perfume, custom bottled in 1971 and presented in its own ultra-ladylike cream and gold gift box, and her two little bronzes from the early seventies, one showing the spirit of Canada raped by a bear, and the other showing the spirit of Canada suckling the twin beavers of English and French Canada. In these exquisite reflections on the idea of the mother country, nudity is experienced as an expression of power, candour and elemental strength rather than titillation. Even in her later mythologically inspired canvases from the eighties, works that admittedly work through her earlier themes in a more coarse grained manner, her nudes are never without their dignity.
That Anna Hudson, the exhibition's curator, could have presented these two artists side by side as equals is beyond me. My ultimate objection to the exhibition, as a feminist, lies right there.
At York University, however, the next generation of Toronto women artists is in full swing, reaping the harvest of Wieland's wild oats, and leaving the pathetic wankers in their dust. While I have never really warmed in the past to the persona of Peaches -- the willfully obnoxious Toronto-born, Berlin-based techno-priestess who performed at The Power Plant earlier this year -- she took me by surprise in this show. Her utterly uningratiating and frank insistence on female pleasure and power was a balm to my feminist soul after the creepy "women's lib" vibe at the AGO. One of her videos showed two cute dykes straddling their banana-seat bicycles in obvious foreplay mode. (They stroke the handlebars and seats in mock lust, but it's themselves they are satisfying.) In another, Peaches models a pair of made-for-TV testicles, tucked into her hot pink spandex pants. Her tomboyish body and in-your face manner is bratty and defiant. Markle would have hated her guts.
Other artists in the show pursue a similar Dionysiac vein. Julie Voyce plays on the frilly girl image with highly decorative drawings that, on closer inspection, reveal imagery of female regeneration and fertility.
Fur-lined ovoids abound, bedded down in a field of tinselly decoration, with irony undercutting gender self-deprecation in a dynamic play of meaning. In one drawing, an eye gazes out from the labia with an all-seeing gaze; in the adjacent drawing, the labia have morphed into a melting chocolate sundae.
It is Karma Clarke-Davis, however, that takes us on the deepest voyage into female desire, with her rock-video style projection.
Clarke-Davis takes the image of a woman's open mouth, teeth and licking lips, and subjects the images to a ravishing range of digital manipulations. (Her images are accompanied by a languidly raunchy honky-tonk sound track.) At times, the mouth looks like molten metal, streaming and lava-like. At other times it appears like a dawn-tinted pastel blossom. Next, it appears like glowing embers, hotly orange and burning. Behind the imagery of the mouth/vulva, Clarke-Davis presents images of a snowy landscape, and the visage of a beautiful woman, her face covered in black greasepaint. Is she a player in someone else's sexual fantasy, or in her own? And can the lover ever fully penetrate the mask?
Clarke-Davis's interior space -- protean, volcanic, fathomless -- is not so far from the Wieland's Redgasm zone, pictured in her 1961 painting of the same title, a blood-red, warm and secluded space in which she sets her forms floating free, including a perky little cock and balls, drawn cartoon style. Wieland's painting seems to suggest the random, sometimes comic interruptions in consciousness that fragment our inner life. Then, as now, it's not so hard to show what it feels like for a girl. It just takes a little guts, a little brains, and the will to express yourself in your own terms.
What It Feels Like for a Girl continues at the Art Gallery at York University in Toronto until Feb. 1.
Woman as Goddess:
The Liberated Nudes of Robert Markle and Joyce Wieland continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Feb. 29.