Articles - 15th July 2019

Indelible Women

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

Enemy of Jazz and joyless nitpicker, Theodor Adorno, once suggested that our willingness to follow the rabbit hole of the culture industry has replaced our essential consciousness. If you’re inclined to take the advice of a grumbling fart, you’re welcome to close this tab and take your leave. Undermining the agency of those who gravitate towards culture of any degree is much too sardonic for my liking. We desire to be seen, to feel, to learn, to connect. As selfish creatures, we desire to be desired. We seek culture to express facets of our personality, both factual and idealised.

Anyone familiar with the diligent curation of Facebook profiles in the early 2010’s will recognise the intersections of the cultural and the personal. We gingerly pruned our ‘Interests’ section, serving only the most original, most desirable selection of films, TV shows and bands to set us apart from our undesirable peers. Culture signifies our complex, idealised selves; we hoard books we will never read, stare blankly at unaffecting art, watch foreign language films without subtitles and buy extended Radiohead LP’s then watch dust bunnies collect beneath the glass coffee tables which house them. It’s why, when I’m sat next to a handsome person on the 172 to Aldwych and I’m listening to ABBA Gold, as I often do, I’ll adjust the angle of my screen to avoid their judgement. Where desire undeniably drives the culture industry, its expression in cultural and visual mediums is more complex. 

Standing in front of Emma Hopkins’ ‘Sophie and Carla’ at the BP Portrait Award showcase this week, I felt a profound mixture of sadness and incredulity. The portrait features the two titular subjects, floating in a sparse vacuum of negative space. A fat woman, Sophie, is sat on a stool with short brown hair pushed to one side, and an aged black mutt beneath her, facing lengthwise. The Sophie in flesh and blood is a photographer who founded the ‘Behind the Scars’ campaign, championing scarred bodies and their accompanying narratives. Hopkins’ depiction of Sophie’s skin is hyperreal, moving beyond pleasant pastel pinks to navigate the bruised warmth of mints, greys, blues, lilacs and dusty yellows that constitute the rippled watercolour blotchiness of a big body. It makes me want to cry, reminding me, in part, of how it felt to watch YouTube clips of Lizzo’s Glastonbury performance. Fat, bouncing, dominant bodies, unwaveringly and unapologetically present. Centre stage and unequivocally adored. 

Sophie’s eyes burn into the viewer from beyond the canvas, keeping guard over her image. They are vivid blue specks shouting from beneath her swollen eyelids. Sophie’s vulnerability is supplemented with a certain fury, contrasting the exposed exhibitionism of her nudity. We question our permission to witness. 

Female self-portraiture has always been a fascinating medium for exploring representations of the self and gender, removed from the pathologising lens of historical male depictions of women and their desires. In Cindy Sherman’s retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery the artist laughs in the face of convention, achieving far more than flatly “subverting the male gaze”, or satirically sexualising with moralising undertones. Sherman is unique insofar as she has fully embraced digital mediums, experimenting with avant-garde vaporwave and surrealist aesthetics on her Instagram profile. Assuming her perpetual role as subject, Sherman’s contemporary work features a host of digitally distorted characters with amplified, accentuated features that play on fascinations with plastic surgery, social status and gender performativity. It’s far from a recent fascination though, in the artist’s 1976 “Cover Girls” triptychs, Sherman photoshops her face over the Cosmopolitan model’s, adopting a comically queasy expression. 

Sherman chews up postmodern media and spits it back out, dripping in saliva. Her intrigue with Kristeva’s abjection in her 1985 Fairy Tales and Disasters sequence is appropriately repugnant, reminding us that “[the abject] is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that the “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.” Female forms are recontextualised beyond the dull confines of traditional historical portraits and fairytale images, fooling around with prosthetic breast-plates, noses, sex dolls and lactating nipples; peaking behind the veil of formal composure and exploring the masked dejection of the ageing subject. Sherman’s work is macabre, unsettling and pointedly hilarious. It’s postmodern witchcraft in full technicolour, running until the 15th September. 

Conflicted desires and female selfhood are central themes to Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women which published last week bearing all of the hallmarks of an enormously successful Summer read. Taddeo undertook eight years of in-depth character research and interviews for the project, frequently driving across the country and even temporarily moving home to become closer to her subjects. We learn of three women; Lina, Maggie and Sloane. Taddeo lives and breathes her women, relaying their stories with a convincing prowess which her immersive methodological approach has earned the text. She unpicks their histories, their emotions, motivations, regrets, and above all, their desires. It’s meticulously on the pulse of female psychology, from Lina’s teenage FOMO to Maggie’s gut-wrenching reunion with her abuser and Sloane’s self-destructive tendencies and bodily hatred. 

It’s clear that female desire is far more complicated than conservative conventional representations would have it and Sherman, Taddeo and Hopkins do a good job at dispelling the myths. May your week be filled with riveting non-fiction, fine weather and indelible women.

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