Art historically, depictions of women’s sexuality and beauty have been rendered predominantly by and for men – think the multitude of Classical and Renaissance nudes, Manet’s Olympia, Renoir’s bathers, Jeff Koon’s ‘Made in Heaven’ series with his ex-porn star ex-wife, and John Currin’s recent pornography-inspired oil paintings, to name but a few. This imagery has both responded to current fashions and sensibilities, and aided in constructing contemporary notions of female beauty, sex and eroticism, but from men’s perspective and desires. Critics claim that the contemporary art world remains a male-dominated industry and, despite ground won in gender politics, it would still seem that the majority of artists for whom sex is a successful message and subject are men.
The tide, though, may be turning. Sexish brings together works by seven female artists that muse upon aspects of sensuality, sexuality and the female form, a small survey symptomatic of a wider reclaiming of the female sexual image in art. Sexish’s offerings are by turns overtly erotic and quietly sensual, openly suggestive and coyly covert.
We are told that “Sex Sells”, and perhaps it does – at least according to the preponderance of in-your-face sexual imagery in advertising, films and in visual art. But for whom does it sell, and whom to? Who benefits from the transaction of these obvious and often overly illustrative sexual depictions? How is its aesthetic derived and who controls it? Sexish seeks to step away from shock and awe, and encourage discussion around these long standing questions. It is an exhibition framed by the female gaze – women as seen by women, with a title deliberately eluding a fixed or determined state – mirroring its continuously evolving and unresolved subject.
IMAGE CREDIT: Janet Werner, ‘Dancer,’ 2010, 31″ × 24″, oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Birch Contemporary.