Saturday, October 24, 2009

The incidental feminist

“…an artist may actually be driven by something less weighty like focusing on the things they like, be they alligator purses or cakes.”

Laurie Simmons’ discussion with writer/curator Marvin Heiferman at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan took an interesting turn last night when the thorny question of feminist intent came up. She stated that she does not want to repudiate her reputation as a feminist artist, but that making feminist art is not her agenda. It is easy to see how her oeuvre has been cast in this light when you consider photographic works like Walking Cake I (1989), in which a fuchsia and white cake with precariously lit candles dwarfs porcelain legs, replacing the female torso and head entirely; Underneath (1998), a series of women’s widespread legs with miniature houses below; and Color Pictures (2007-09), a series that incorporates cut-out female porn stars with overlaid undergarments in dollhouse settings.

Simmons recalled that the very first review of her work cast her as a feminist. While it was not a reading that she intended, she was not indifferent to its impact. She rightly asked, “How much was I influenced by the first review of my work?” The dialogue that is established between artist and audience is bound to be influential, though not necessarily symbiotic. That first review has also coloured people’s subsequent expectations of her work. She sounded immune to reactions that her work has strayed from appropriately feminist subject matter, for she said, “I don’t think I was ever there in the first place.” Simmons considers herself to be a political person, but not a purposefully political artist.

She does not see her work as ardently feminist because there is no element of anger. Rather, she feels like an observer, which reminded me of photographer Susan Anderson, about whom I recently blogged. Simmons’ work has always been about women, but not about questioning their roles: “I make my work about women because that’s what I am and that’s what I know…the condition of being a woman is so interesting to me.” She has rarely made work about men. “I can’t. I try,” she explained. (I was nodding my head when she said this, having recently made my second piece in a decade that addresses male socialization. As to her comment about anger, I have to wonder if my feminist angst helps or hinders my work. Unlike Simmons, I am not an incidental feminist. I have to wonder, after writing blog post after blog post to contextualize my work in feminist art historical scholarship, will I be seen as an overbearing feminist?).

Although great importance can be attached to presumed artistic motivation, an artist may actually be driven by something less weighty like focusing on the things they like, be they alligator purses or cakes. Simmons loves fashion, so she has engaged in collaborations with designers like Thakoon Panichgul, who made a line of clothing from fabric featuring a rose on legs and Peter Jensen, who made paper dolls wearing tiny garments, which Simmons photographed in her characteristic style in dramatically lit interiors. Jensen’s model in a pink satin dress with juxtaposed massive overlaid pearls has the effect of wearing shackles, drawing attention to the blurred line between the quirky and the subversive in Simmons’ work. Even though her approach to work sounds lighthearted and playful when she describes it, this is not to say it is not consuming and powerful. When you really get into your work--and, I would argue, the same is true of the viewer’s engagement with your work--Simmons said, “[I]t knocks you off your feet. It destroys you.”

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