A new book titled A Woman’s Right to Pleasure celebrates the female-identifying artists who have depicted pleasure in all its forms
In a world that still defaults to privileging male pleasure, women must actively assert their own right to it.
Female sexuality is often characterised as oppositional to the rudimentary mechanisms of male sexuality, as well as by its emotional and psychological components. Feminine desire, and the act of giving expression to that desire, is often more complex. “Men despise women’s sexuality because it is so different from their own,” writes Erica Jong, author of the seminal feminist novel, Fear of Flying. “So men make rules about it – rules that make no sense to women. But, in art, the unruliness of women’s sexuality blooms.”
Releasing on 20 August, A Woman’s Right to Pleasure – by BlackBook, Dr. Amir Marashi, and Lelo – is an anthology of work by 77 artists exploring this very unruliness, and “pleasure as a metaphor for so much more”. Featuring the likes of Nan Goldin, Tracy Emin, Cass Bird, Pussy Riot, Kathy Acker, among others, this book gathers together artworks that engage with ideas of women’s bodies and subjugation, emancipation, joy, sexuality, and desire in all their wild subjectivity. The book will also be accompanied by a digital exhibition in August.
Click through the gallery above to see a wider selection of those included in the book or continue reading below as we take a look at nine of the artists featured in A Woman’s Right to Pleasure, whose work speaks of desire and the female body.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS
Carrie Mae Weems was given her first camera as a gift for her 20th birthday in 1973. By that time she’d already had her first and only child, left her hometown of Portland for San Fransisco, tried her hand at street theatre, studied modern dance with postmodern dance pioneer, Anna Halprin, moved to New York with nothing but a cardboard suitcase and her little girl, before returning to San Fransisco after struggling to find work in NYC.
After these different attempts to find her way, once she began taking pictures, her trajectory was set in motion. “I think that the first time I picked up that camera, I thought, ‘Oh, okay. This is my tool. This is it,’” she told The New York Times. Weems, now recognised as a distinguished multi-award-winning photographer who has influenced a generation of emerging artists, makes work that reframes preexisting ideas about people of colour, women, and working-class communities. In her Kitchen Table series (1989-1990) – perhaps her most famous collection – Weems pictures herself as the central figure in a series of unfolding domestic vignettes set in the world of a Black family and their community. Her persuasive, highly-compelling images and films possess the power to convey stories and create empathy.
In her famous picture “Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace” (1987), Weems once again casts herself as the subject as she reclines on a bed, legs splayed, one hand resting on the brass bedpost and the other holding a cigarette. She looks back into the lens with a sly smile, inviting some shared, secret moment of collusion with the viewer. Or perhaps with a post-coital gaze? The text “Portrait of a woman who has fallen from grace and into the hands of evil” positioned between the soles of the artist’s bare feet appears less like a denouncement more like an enticement.
In 1957, nine-year-old Penny Slinger was expelled from her Surrey convent school for waving a sanitary towel out of a bus window. According to The Guardian, an enlightened child psychologist informed her concerned parents that their little girl wasn’t a tearaway, she was simply an artist and it was therefore their responsibility to support her endeavours. Continuing on this trajectory of boundary-pushing and experimentation, Slinger went on to make some of the most radical, surrealist, feminist art of the 1960s and 1970s.
Her photographic collages from this time address ideas of the female body – it’s sexualisation and its subjugation. “Read My Lips“ (1973), from the series Mouthpieces, depicts the perfect “O’ of a female mouth framing another interior set of lips, with a suggestive-looking centre.
“Collage is a naughty medium because it is doing what you shouldn't do with things. And if you have the feeling that you have the right to take any kind of image from anywhere – an entitlement which I think any true collage artist kind of assumes – and you put them together in these new relationships, it really is cocking a snoop to the status quo,” she told National Galleries Scotland. “You are saying that things are not as they appear and, look here, I can subvert what we have and put it together into something that you haven't seen before, which hopefully is always a little bit shocking and therefore naughty, too. And, of course, I have used naughty elements in my work as well.”
“Collage is a naughty medium because it is doing what you shouldn't do with things” – Penny Slinger
Legendary performance artist, filmmaker, painter, musician, writer, independent curator, and self-proclaimed “internationally revered intersexed doyenne of intermedia arts and sciences” are just a selection of Vaginal Davis’ many hyphenates. An integral and influential figure in the queercore movement, Davis (whose name is a sexualised homage to activist, Angela Davis) first appeared on the Los Angeles punk performance scene in the 1970s, before causing a stir when she arrived on the 1980s drag scene in Brooklyn. Now living in Berlin, Davis continues to make work at the forefront of what’s been described as “terrorist drag”.
Davis’ “I Need A Lover” poem, below, describes the visceral experience of female desire as a form of physical shock, capable of levelling depression by way of exchanging emotional pain for a kind of exquisite, radically transformative physical pain.
“I NEED A LOVER”, VAGINAL DAVIS
Do you know what I need to get me over my depression? What would do me more good
then all the shots
and pills in the entire pharmaceutical kingdom?
I need a lover.
What do I mean by a lover?
A smoldering, sizzling, greasy, hot on the rails lover
Who can scrape the sugar walls of my uterus, open all of my 24 clams in unison and
make me feel like I’ve just cut off my nipples with garden sheers.
and let’s not forget my areolas…
In 1973, Betty Tompkins’ “Fuck” paintings were intercepted and withheld from display by French officials due to their explicit content. The photorealist works depicting genitals, masturbation, and penetration were inspired by her husband’s porn collection. “One day I’m looking at them, and I’m like, ‘You know, if you take out all of this crap, you’ve got a really beautiful arrangement of something’” the New York-based artist told Artsy.
Tompkins’ method of “taking out all of this crap” was, in effect, a means of reappropriating the currency and power of heterosexual pornographic images (a vision of sex created and consumed almost entirely for and by the male gaze) which resulted in her signature style of close-cropped, airbrushed images of the sexual anatomy. Devoid of any wider narrative detail or signifiers, the viewer is confronted solely by close-ups of mouths, cocks, and vaginas.
While her work may have been too confronting in 1973, Tompkins did eventually receive the attention she deserved in 2003 when her “Fuck” paintings were unearthed and displayed (thanks to the influence of Jerry Saltz, according to Artsy).
Now in her 70s, Tompkins’ unflinching exploration of female desire continues to inform her work. More recent paintings attest to her ongoing fascination with intimacy and taboo. The soft pink contours of the subject depicted in her 2017 artwork “Cunt Painting #29” are abstracted but unmistakable. “I was already upset and disappointed by most of the art I saw in the galleries,” she recalled, speaking to Art Basel of the art scene when she first began making her porn-inspired artworks. “It was all very pleasant, but I was not interested in pleasant work – and I am the same today.”
By photographing herself and her body, the American artist, photographer, and activist, Renee Cox, is attempting to reconfigure the Black female body as a cultural signifier. Inspired by the seminal feminist writing and activism of bell hooks, Cox explained in an artist statement, “I use myself as a conduit for my photographs because I think that working with the self is the most honest representation of being. I am working toward regaining a “self-love”, not a narcissism, for the Black female body as articulated by bell hooks in her book Sisters of the Yam.” She adds, “Slavery stripped Black men and women of their dignity and identity and that history continues to have an adverse effect on the African American psyche.” Cox’s practice as a visual artist is driven by the aim of redressing the damaging legacy of this shared trauma.
Her collection American Family (2001) juxtaposes family snapshots and more formal family portraits of her ancestors with her contemporary erotic self-portraits. Her experience as a fashion photographer is particularly evident in “Garter Belt” and “Fur”, which have the editorial aesthetic of a lingerie shoot (albeit for the defiant visibility of the artist’s vagina).
Marlene Dumas is perhaps one of the most revered painters working today, known for her haunting portraits in distinctively loose brushstrokes.
With a background in psychology, Dumas is less interested in portraiture than she is in the emotional terrain of the people she depicts. The figures who appear in her paintings are there to serve as the embodiment of particular phycological states.
Many of Dumas’ nudes confront the notion of sexual pleasure and its correlation with shame. “Fingers” (1999) appeared amid a series of work exploring the eroticised body and depicts a woman bent over and using her fingers to open herself for the benefit of us, the viewer. It demands that you consider how it feels to be positioned as the voyeur in this erotic exchange.
For what is actually quite a blurred, abstracted image, it can give the false impression of being incredibly graphic. “‘Fingers’ is always described by writers as if everything is depicted, but if you look at it closely, there are no genitals there,” Dumas is reported as saying in Hyperallergenic. “That little painting exposes nothing, really. It is quite abstract. Very gestural.” Perhaps what the artwork exposes is a suggestive space between what we gratuitously imagine exists there between the woman’s splayed fingers and what the painting actually contains.
MONICA KIM GARZA
Monica Kim Garza is known primarily for her paintings of racially ambiguous nude women with a multiplicity of body types. Her style is figurative and painterly, and she depicts her subjects engaged in modern, everyday pursuits and settings. Despite making art that portrays women of colour, she remains unruffled about the overrepresentation of whiteness in the art world as a whole. “Yeah, a lot of white dudes take the cake but, you know, it’s not like they ain’t good,” she tells Dazed. “Maybe it’s overrepresented because there have been more white people. But, you know, slowly things are changing so... It just is what it is. If I’m lucky, I’ll die and some rich ass white dude will buy my painting, or maybe he will be Chinese. Or maybe it’ll end up in the Fuego. All good.”
Renowned visual artist Carolee Schneemann is responsible for making some of the most powerful and pioneering imagery about female sexuality and gender. Born in 1939, Schneemann came of age at the height of abstract expressionism – a movement described by art critic Marcia Brennan as the “metaphorical embodiments of masculine selfhood”, dominated by the likes of Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and the manly splatters of Jackson Pollock. Despite beginning in the 1950s primarily as a painter, Schneemann turned to performance art and photography in response to what she perceived as this poisonous machismo of contemporary painting.
“Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963), perhaps one of her most iconic and reproduced images, is a private action staged in the artist’s studio and captured in photographic form. Schneemann decorated her naked body with paint, chalk, and grease, and adorned herself with snakes to make this work of art in which she is both subject and object. “I am both image-maker and image,” she famously claimed. “The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, but it is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture, discovered by my creative female will.”
As a young art student in Portland, Oregon, Mickalene Thomas came across an exhibition of Carrie May Weems’ Kitchen Table series (1989-90) and was profoundly inspired. “It was the first time I saw work by an African-American female artist that reflected myself and called upon a familiarity of family dynamics and sex and gender,” Thomas told Artomity. Through this exposure to Weems’ photography, Thomas glimpsed the possibility of representing and reimagining herself within her work. “It ignited a new awareness and willingness to create in my own voice; it made me aware of how you can use your experiences as a person and make art out of it.”
Thomas, whose paintings often incorporate rhinestones, collage, acrylic, and enamel, is known for excavating the history of western art by taking canonical works and reimagining them with Black subjects. “Origin of the Universe #2“ (2012), takes its name and inspiration from Gustave Courbet’s cheekily-titled French realist painting, “L'Origine du Monde” (1866), depicting a pair of female legs spread apart to reveal an anonymous vagina. Thomas’ own version is a self-portrait, painted from a photographic study of herself in this same pose. She’s adorned the pubic hair and labial folds with dark rhinestones. “By including her own body in the image, she’s converted Courbet’s crude example of female objectification into an image of feminine agency,” writes The Brooklyn Rail. “It’s also a nod to her artistic production: she is now the origin of her universe, from which all creation springs forth.”
A Women’s Right To Pleasure is out 20 August 2020 but you can pre-order from BlackBooks here