NSFW: The Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex

 
Curator Lissa Rivera speaks to Math Magazine about NSFW: Female Gaze.

Curator Lissa Rivera speaks to Math Magazine about NSFW: Female Gaze.

NSFW: The Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex is a presentation of 28 female artists from various disciplines and making work dedicated to powerful feminine narratives in a range of mediums. Co-curated by Lissa Rivera, Associate Curator, Museum of Sex and Marina Garcia-Vasquez from VICE Media’s Creators, NSFW: The Female Gaze moves beyond the traditional ideas of women only in the role of muse and presenting contemporary visions of bodies, sexuality, desire, and gender.
Their work revitalizes important questions and brings up new issues in the fluorescent light of smart phones, apps like Instagram and Twitter that allow for women to share experiences and perspectives like never before.
Yet there are larger forces at play too keeping this important work in an ever-precarious place. Is it NSFW? Will the post be taken down? Will the account get shut down? What does NSFW mean today? It’s morphed from it’s origins, read about that here, into something else, something larger, something important. The artists in this exhibit are pushing some boundaries, making the unseen seen, and bringing new narratives to light.

The Math Magazine Summer Staff; Kevin Sussy, Veron Ames, Ginger Hollander, Dana Burns and MacKenzie Peck, spoke with Lissa Rivera and took a closer look at NSFW. The conversation has been edited for clarity.


Lissa: We have an all-woman show here where we didn't have to worry about censorship at all. Which is why it’s nice to start with Maria Tomanova’s work here, which so often, gets her kicked off of Instagram. She receives criticism for these photographs, but not as much as she receives celebration from people like us who are really inspired by her work, so it's great to show how silly that is here because in this context it’s really mundane, it’s just a person’s body, and to be so afraid of that is ludicrous.

MacKenzie: I’m curious about the kind of criticism she’s gotten, what kind of push-back she’s seen.

Lissa: Yeah. I think that sometimes the thing that happens, especially with women artists, using their body, is it can seem like a sexual invitation or it can be seen as a way to get attention, instead of it being a real challenge.

She just always has to put little colorful dots over her private parts on social media which means, while she has a really big social media presence, you just never get to see what her photographs should look like. 

This show is called “NSFW: The Female Gaze” as a way to relate back to the internet, and how the internet has changed how we view sexuality especially as it has become ubiquitous and more part of everyone’s life.

I feel like people are able to click on what they relate to instead of having to depend on publications that are run by a few people who are deciding what sexuality is for everyone. I think most people don't, actually relate to that. And that was a way that they were able to control what people thought was normal sexuality and now, I think, with the internet, young women especially are clicking on what they want and that is driving new industries.

I think that's why, artwork and articles about gender, articles about sexuality where women are challenging cultural norms, are popular because people really want to learn about that. And in this show we’re looking at a new generation of women who don't feel like choosing to be in the Museum of Sex or making work about their desires or sexuality is a threat to their character. They're not going to be seem on the fringe anymore. We recognize that this is an important topic to be taken seriously.

We are presenting this in a way that honors the work focuses on the personal. Looking at the personal perspectives of the artists, allows people to accept something that may be outside of their own desires. A lot of people come here looking to see themselves, and if they don't, they see a type of sexuality that they don't understand that can seem like a broad statement on all sexuality. It could alienate, but because everyone here is using their own bodies, using their own stories, it allows for these artists to make more challenging statements.

Like Marie Tomanova, she grew up in the countryside in Czechoslovakia and she really enjoys way she feels naturally, nude. I think the smells, the textures, pushing her body against these areas and showing how organic it is, that is something that is very personal to her experience that she writes about. It’s really sad because she was an art student in Czech Republic. She was working on paintings with a sexual theme. And her professors there acted like she should sleep with them then, if she wanted to do that kind of work. So she moved to New York City where could explore these ideas more freely, and the first thing she did was, to try to integrate into the urban scenario by taking nudes in her apartment, through photography. So she switched mediums. But now she’s going back into nature.

MacKenzie: I’d love to circle back to what you were saying about Instagram, kicking a lot of artists off or forcing them to censor themselves in a way that completely obliterates the work. It’s interesting the combination: you're reaching millions of people but you’re having to make these sacrifices while running the risk of being completely annihilated from the record. What do you think about that?

Lissa: I think it’s a very big and a very frightening thing because it takes hundreds of hundreds of hours if you want to use that as your platform. Not every artist feels that that's the best platform for their work, but for a lot of artists it is. Many artists are really good at tapping into audiences in conversations and really experimenting beyond traditional mediums. They're pouring in hours and hours of interactions to build an audience and then that experience can just be deleted and then you have to rebuild from scratch. And there's no way to have a conversation about it. There's no way to know who's behind all of this, who is making these decisions, where are they, it's such a mysterious phenomenon.

MacKenzie: I’m curious, if Mark Zuckerberg and the founders of Instagram came to this exhibition, what would you want them to take away from it?

Lissa: I think that, what I would like them to see is that these are artists dealing with a part of themselves that all humans experience. Everyone has a sexuality. And for so long, especially for female artists or queer artists, we haven't had a voice or a space to create the material or deal with the material that alienated us. I think that it’s important to show that this is a part of everyone's emotional being, it's a part of their identity that touches so many different parts of their lives, and to be blocked off from having a way to express that or deal with that world, or to be told that it's dirty or inappropriate, is actually really frightening and really sad. So I hope that this work, being so personal, humanizes sexuality, I hope that they would walk away seeing it's a little more than black and white than exploitation. Everyone has to deal with sexual images in ads, what is accepted and what isn't is really controlled by men and corporations. Maybe they should think twice about blocking off this form of expression.

In this show I like to consider both the feminine and masculine, because the female gaze isn't necessarily a binary thing, but often the gaze is a result of empathy. You might be imagining what your mother’s gaze is, I can be imagining that you are judging your body, or I can be imagining how a male partner sees me and what they want, because we're all trying to understand what other people see. I think in this show, we see a lot of different layers in perspective, how people are struggling to control how they're seen, or show how they see in a way that's usually very restricted.

Dana: I’ve seen one of the exhibiting artists, @scientwehst, on Instagram and what I think is interesting is she makes these really voyeuristic, salacious images but they are completely fine for Instagram because they are creatively working around the rules. Something that really activates the work is how they are conveying hyper sexual narratives without breaking censorship rules.

 A Place of Worship, 2017 by Scientwehst, Image Courtesy of Scientwehst

 A Place of Worship, 2017 by Scientwehst, Image Courtesy of Scientwehst

Lissa: Yeah it’s so brilliant, the installation is really interesting because I wanted to show how this work functions in the digital space where its meant to be because she's in this really engaging conversation. So you can see how many likes she gets and sometimes you can see how many followers she has.

And that's why I wanted @scientwehst to be one of the first things you see. Because in a way it's like taking this artwork and bringing it into a different dimension. To see it juxtaposed with Shona McAndrews sculpture here, that was a really important connection.

Also I wanted Shona’s piece to stand as our statue of liberty because I feel like she’s liberating her body. Shona is a plus-sized woman and that's really what she deals with in her work. As an artist you just naturally start to create artworks using the cultural norms of what a body should look like. And it was a really painful, but rewarding experience for her to force herself to show beauty in a larger body. Before she felt like she wasn't part of the world, that she was existing in this “other” space and she wasn't able to communicate with other people who weren’t plus sized because it was so alienating and so misunderstood. It's so moving that the women in her sculptures are in this mundane, private, kind of day-dream like states. She’s just relaxing in her chair, twirling her pubic hair, she’s not even masturbating. She’s just kind of feeling her body in a way that feels natural and comfortable.

They, 2016 by Erin M. Riley, Image Courtesy of Erin Riley

They, 2016 by Erin M. Riley, Image Courtesy of Erin Riley

Lissa: This is Erin Riley and these are her vibrators, this is her phone in the corner, and her underwear on the floor. It’s hand-woven, with a big wooden loom. It’s like an archaeological investigation and also like a contemporary trompe l'oeil painting, where an artist in the past would show his books, his palette and his paintbrushes.

Another thing about the work in the show, is a lot of it is about self-pleasure, in a way, and independence. And here, she’s showing all the different forms of devices, especially mechanical devices, which really shows our contemporary situation here. Where we’re using the same charger that plugs in our phone, you plug in your vibrator to.

Cup Fuck, 2017 by Joanne Leah, Image Courtesy of Joanne Leah

Cup Fuck, 2017 by Joanne Leah, Image Courtesy of Joanne Leah

And here, Joanne Leah, discovered she has more of a dominant personality through photography. She was photographing people she was meeting on Craigslist, but then began gravitating towards people from the BDSM community. So she would meet up with pro doms and submissive men who were interested in modeling and taking part. And what really makes her images stand out are her candy colors which reference childhood, because a lot of sexuality comes from experiences which build up over time, from the time you're born, and instances you might not even remember. Not to be Freudian but it’s true, I think that some things like even being humiliated in middle school can be a large part of your sexual appetite. So she explores personal stories. A lot of the artists, too, like a lot of the woman-identifying artists in this show are experimenting with power.

 
Foundation III by Amy Ritter, Image Courtesy of Charlie Rubin

Foundation III by Amy Ritter, Image Courtesy of Charlie Rubin

 

And here is a great example as well, of Amy Ritter, who went to school for painting and sculpture but then she broke out into these three-dimensional photographs, which are really unusual. What she does is uses all of the materials related to where she grew up. She grew up in a mobile home, and the backs of all of these figures have wood paneling. She uses cinder blocks and xerox, really accessible materials to rise up and use them more on par with marble, or classical materials, and also at the same time to use to explore her own body in a powerful way where she is experimenting with the way that these function, through different angles all in the same piece.

Kevin: I’m curious as the artists, or, you as a curator, helped make the selection as “female gaze” because I can imagine there must have been a preconceived notion for society as, what is the female gaze? I’m wondering if you guys worked with that or against that to make this exhibit.

MacKenzie: It’s interesting to think about the “history of female gaze,” versus your personal experience as someone with a female gaze, and whether you're trying to redefine it or reaffirm it. How would we describe the female gaze being different from the male gaze? And how does this exhibit push that definition or reaffirm it?

Lissa: I wanted it to definitely be expansive. I didn't want it to be just this black and white, male versus female gaze. I definitely think that in the past, just recently, we’re definitely still struggling with, is that mostly men are making films. Mostly men are making pornographic images, with very few exceptions.

MacKenzie: Yeah, there wasn't much precedent for a show like this, right?

Lissa: Yeah, you know, not in a museum. There have been a lot of shows, you may have noticed, in commercial galleries, but I feel like having a show in a commercial gallery there's a completely different context. There's a lot of freedom that happens there but then there's the idea: it's all for sale. There's not a price tag on anything here. So we can really have a different level of freedom in terms of what we’re choosing to have in the show.

Lissa: And this is an artist from Poland, Joanna Grochowska, this is her romantic partner, and these are things they do together. And her romantic partner is a transgender woman. They document, a fetish where they like to become mannequins. It’s kinda like a J. G. Ballard type of story. They're very challenging images but they're personal. It’s important to show, I think, something like this in the Museum of Sex, you might not see it somewhere else.

MacKenzie: Is this a bottom surgery scar?

Lissa: Yeah. So these are different surgery scars from transition.

 
Fish Nets, 2014 by Brandi Twilley, Image Courtesy of Brandi Twilley

Fish Nets, 2014 by Brandi Twilley, Image Courtesy of Brandi Twilley

 

Lissa: And these are Brandi Twilley paintings (Imaginary Friend), they are inspired by the drawings she made as a little girl. She would imagine prostitutes, based off TV shows she was attracted to when she was young. She would draw pictures of prostitutes instead of princesses. These are paintings and she painted the dot matrix paper that her mom would bring home. The reason why the spaces are so messy is because she really grew up in a home like this, in this state. And her work is all about recreating her past, because her house ended up burning down with all of her old drawings. She's always kind of looking at the first things that she drew. And her first attraction to art, how it's helped her transcend.

 
Centerfold #8, 2013 by Paula Winkler, Image Courtesy of Paula Winkler

Centerfold #8, 2013 by Paula Winkler, Image Courtesy of Paula Winkler

 

Lissa: These are centerfolds by Paula Winkler that we chose to show as pin-ups. She made these as centerfolds, she folded them, but I asked her for her permission to print them on magazine paper and just pin them onto the wall for the show. I think pin-ups are so interesting because they're almost like icons in the home-- like if you were European you'd put an icon up in the corner, but these men are these icons of the idealized sexuality. She met these men on Craigslist, and photographed them in her idealized way. Really, with a homosexual gaze, she really identifies with more of a homosexual male gaze.

Dana: It doesn't have to be just a soft and gentle gaze because it's a female gaze, it can be super salacious.

Lissa: I love Paula. In her film My Wig you can see she has these really large breasts, and she's shaking them in almost an aggressive way where it’s almost like … if you have large breasts, you can't hide them … but then she’s kind of assaulting you with them.

MacKenzie: By the end--it felt menacing.

Lissa: I love all the imperfections. And I think that the way Female Fantasy by New Level of Pornography is shot in terms of gaze in cinema, the way it's shot, you feel pleasure looking at all the imperfections on the skin in that film. You see a pimple, and you're just like, “Oh, that's so hot!”

Dana: It’s so nice, that's one of the residual problems with porn now. Women feel empowered to watch, but most porn still doesn't show, like a little zit on the labia, and asymmetrical nipples and stuff.

Lissa: And Taira Rice, she was saying that when she puts her images on the internet, that women are commenting, “Why do they have such big nipples?”, “Why are their breasts saggy?” you know, getting upset. “Why do they have armpit hair?” And she’s like, “Then I look at their profile, and I’m like, that’s you. You're upset, but you're like the women I draw.”

And then also, there is pleasure in being the object, you know? Sometimes the most erotic thing is making something that people are going to look at.

MacKenzie: Being an exhibiting artist is a form of exhibitionism.
 

Photos courtesy of Charlie Rubin

 
MacKenzie Peck