Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

2015 Art Writing Prize Winner - Yasmin Coutinho

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Yasmin, a psychology student from Brazil on exchange from the UK's University of Exeter, won the 2015 Art Writing Prize for her essay titled 'Denuding TextaQueen’s nudes: identity, sexuality and body politics in women’s portraitures' on Did you get bitten? by Australian artist Arlene TextaQueen.

She was inspired to enter after viewing the work during a Gender Studies tutorial conducted by Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art curator Gemma Weston.

Yasmin said, “I’ve always been very interested in artistic representations of women by women. This work had a reclining nude, which is about as classical a subject as you get. But with a woman artist it felt so different. There was none of the idealism or romanticism you often see in traditional reclining nudes. It felt a lot more authentic, a lot more real. That was surprisingly shocking, and it inspired me to start writing.”

Image of student Yasmin holding a giant cheque 

Denuding TextaQueen’s nudes: identity, sexuality and body politics in women’s portraitures

by Yasmin Coutinho

It is unarguable that art, whatever the form, is unwittingly a potent apparatus for the representation of identity, gender and sexuality, as well as our understanding of the self as an embodied and constantly meaning-making agent, inextricably bound to our social world (Davis, 1997)1. For the artist, the blank canvas (similar to epistemology’s idea of the human as a ‘tabula rasa’) becomes a powerful platform in which we can depict ourselves, others and the world around us. When exploring such art that deals with identity, gender and body politics, it is therefore important to consider the context and vista in which we deconstruct the discourses of representation exhibited. For example, considering the patriarchal ideas of gender that is perpetrated in our society, it can be argued that the ‘white Western male viewpoint has been unconsciously accepted as the paradigm for viewpoint of the art historians’ (Nochlin 1971, 2) . The Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art (CCWA) however at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery holding 600 works by female artists, provides us with a feminist framework of analysis for critiquing art produced by women, and often, featuring women. It can be contested that gendered collections of art poses various challenges, as they often come with assumptions and pre-conceived ideas about the artefacts. Hence, this essay aims to explore the intricacies and complexities in the representations of identity, sexuality and body politics in women’s art. It will utilise Australian artist Arlene TextaQueen featured in the CCWA as an example of how traditional modes of female embodiment can be challenged by modern idiosyncratic variations of the Eurocentric female nude genre, with specific focus on one of her reclining nude portraitures within her series titled Textanudes 3 .

Historically, there is a plethora of artistic commonality in classical nude paintings, especially in the genre of the reclining female nude, usually using white canonical bodies, repetition of idealised poses and the similar exotic and erotic tonality. For example, the first female reclining nude, Giorgione’s 1510 Sleeping Venus from the high Italian renaissance, set the tradition for the idealised glowing skin that faces the viewer horizontally, filling the landscape but at the same time gazing away, making us the voyeur to the ‘subtle goddess’4. However, by 1864 the reclining nude saw a revolution to the female nude cannon: Manet’s innovative variation of 19th century prostitute Olympia in Paris marked the arrival of modernity and the new age. Arguably one of the most discussed and represented nudes of all time, the character of Olympia would have been widely recognised, as her direct gaze with the viewers denoted vulgarity and her unidealised body reflected modern Parisian women.  Such traditional nudes have been described as somewhat habitually objectifying, manipulated by white male subjectivity and perhaps produced scopophilically or to titillate the male-only object/gaze, as suggested by Berger: 'According to Berger, the nude is not a representation of the nakedness of an individual person; rather, the nude represents a body objectified for the pleasure of the male viewer’ (Deats, Munson & Lenker 1994, 23)5 . Within the CCWA however, an example of a post-modern nude by Australian artist TextaQueen as part of the series Textanudes as she calls it, subverts the classical traditions and serve almost as a pastiche or parody of the salon nude, deconstructing and challenging the traditional model of how the female is translated into art. Entitled Did you get bitten?, TextaQueen portrays another artist Raquel Ormella, in a creative process that she labels a 'collaborative exchange’ contrasting to the traditional ways of producing a salon nude:

‘The essential complement of the lusty artist was the female model, who was never seen as a contributor in the production of an image, but only as a passive material to be posed and manipulated, subject to the transforming power of the artist’ (Betterton 1985, 11).6

The subjects of TextaQueen’s drawings are usually friends or what she describes as ‘unique women’, often members of the trans and queer community. She intimately presents the unclothed body (as seen in the image of Raquel) in its natural state with a bigger emphasis on ‘realistic’ qualities rather than the erotic and prosaic principles of the objective ‘realism’. Raquel is not only a paradox to the reclining nude, but can also be comparable to the ‘modern pin-up’ representing an identity that does not adhere to normative idealisations of beauty. This is seen in the portrait through the subject’s hairy legs, monobrow, and visible hair on the bare nipples. Not only is this somewhat sexually confronting, but an unquestionably frank and raw representation of the female human form, described as ‘undressed-up’ by TextaQueen, subverting the notion that for women,  ‘the whole possibility of being loved and comforted hangs on how their appearance will be received’ (Coward 1984, 78) 7.  As seen from Raquel, it is clear that TextaQueen’s subjects have autonomy over the mise-en-scène they are depicted in, usually in a milieu where they feel most comfortable: juxtaposing the staged backdrops of traditional nudes reclining on chaise longues. For example, Raquel is illustrated in her messy sofa, surrounded by objects and mundane paraphernalia that she has chosen, consequently revealing aspects of her personality (in this particular portrait references to orientalism are clearly present, immediately hinting at Raquel’s cultural affiliations). In relation to the subject’s gaze, it can be seen that TextaQueen has borrowed from Manet the direct view towards the spectator, and the inclusion of the symbolic cat. In addition, just as Manet’s Olympia is described to have been receipted as  ‘an image of a contemporary women living on the fringes of respectable society, an inflammatory image to present to the Parisian public’ (Lipton 1975, 50) TextaQueen’s work is comparable in the sense that certain communities that she depicts, such as LGBTI personae, are still considered to be laying in the fringes of society due to their marginalization.  With this in mind, TextaQueen’s portrayal of such marginalized characters like Raquel’s, places spectators vis-à-vis with identities they may have not negotiated with before. 

The bold and colorful felt-tip medium that TextaQueen uses to portray Raquel echoes the boldness of the subject’s identity: the bright contrasting colours evoke a tone of playfulness whilst succeeding in being incredibly political. In fact, TextaQueen’s choice of using simply textas in her visual art means the expectation of the typical commodification of women’s bodies in this genre is broken, and she is hence able to depict female sexuality, gender and even race in a way that shows more truthfully how the lived body is someone’s ‘grasp of the world’ (Beauvoir 1949)9.  In addition, the multiplicity and seriality of TextaQueen’s portraitures echoes the notion that bodies and identity are multiplicitous, fluid, and not fixed, whilst subverting the idea that art is a singular, permanent masterpiece.

In conclusion, like her pseudonym, TextaQueen’s illustration of Raquel Ormella is striking and successful in highlighting the complexities and intersectionality of gender and sexuality. Hence, like Manet, TextaQueen could be considered an idiosyncratic iconoclast, although she herself describes her work as merely ‘inherently political’ 10. Historically, achieving greatness as a female artist is discussed to have been a struggle in comparison to many successful males:  ‘it was indeed institutionally impossible for women to achieve excellence or success on the same footing as men, no matter what their talent, or genius. (Nochlin 1971, 37)11.  However, as our society becomes more transgressive, acceptant and understanding about the fluidness and complexities of identity, we can use TextaQueen’s work as an indicator about the future of the representation of women in art, and overall, it looks optimistic. Although it is said that ‘female sexuality is clearly a problematic area of representation for women artists to work on given the bias of western culture towards fetishizing the female body’ (Betterton 1985, 3) TextaQueen easily subverts the heteronormative hegemony that promotes the status quo art which how men look at women. 12 Instead, thanks to women’s art we are increasingly being exposed to not only how women view other women, but also how women view themselves. With this in mind, it is unquestionable that we are extremely necessitous of more TextaQueens in female artistry, especially in the Australian contemporary art world. More frank depictions of identities that betray dominant heteropatriarchal stereotypes and don’t necessarily adhere to the types of normative beauty that are presented in this art genre are needed, transcending the boundaries of cultural-ideological limitations and essentialist notions about women’s art: which the CCWA collection beautifully accomplishes. Albeit for many art signifies different things, one thing we can all undoubtedly agree on is that ‘good art is, after all, about shifting our perceptions and opening up new vistas’ (Davis 1997, 168) and there is no doubt that TextaQueen and her nude of Raquel Ormella featured in the CCWA, succeeds in doing so13.

    

Footnotes

  1. Davis, Kathy. 'My Body is My Art': Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia?. na, 1997.
  2. Nochlin, Linda. "Why have there been no great women artists?." The feminism and visual culture reader (1971):1.
  3. TextaQueen , Arlene http://textaqueen.com/ (accessed November 15, 2015).
  4. Bradford, Richard. “The Nude Reclining” eighthsquare.com http://www.eighthsquare.com/recliningnude.htm (accessed November 15, 2015) 
  5. Deats, Sara Munson, and Lagretta Tallent Lenker. Gender and academe: Feminist pedagogy and politics. Rowman & Littlefield, 1994. 23
  6. Betterton, Rosemary. "How do women look? The female nude in the work of Suzanne Valadon." Feminist Review (1985): 11
  7. Coward, Rosalind. Female desire: Women's sexuality today. Paladin Grafton Books, 1984. 78
  8. Lipton, Eunice. "Manet: A radicalized female imagery." Artforum 13 (1975): 50.
  9. Beauvoir, Simone de. "The Second Sex. 1949." Trans. HM Parshley. Harmondsworth: Penguin (1972)
  10. O’sullivan, Jane. “Artists - What Now?” www.sullivanstrumpf.com
    https://www.sullivanstrumpf.com/assets/Uploads/6.-OSullivan-Jane-50-Things-Collectors-Need-to-Know-Art-Collector-March-2013.pdf (accessed November 15, 2015).
  11. Nochlin, Linda. "Why have there been no great women artists?."  (1971): 37.
  12. Betterton, Rosemary. "How do women look? (1985): 3.
  13. Davis, Kathy. 'My Body is My Art': 1997. 168

Bibliography

  • Beauvoir, Simone de. "The Second Sex. 1949." Trans. HM Parshley. Harmondsworth: Penguin (1972).
  • Betterton, Rosemary. "How do women look? The female nude in the work of Suzanne Valadon." Feminist Review (1985): 3-24.
  • Bradford, Richard. “The Nude Reclining” eighthsquare.com http://www.eighthsquare.com/recliningnude.htm (accessed November 15, 2015)
  • Coward, Rosalind. Female desire: Women's sexuality today. Paladin Grafton Books, 1984.
  • Davis, Kathy. 'My Body is My Art': Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia?. na, 1997.
  • Deats, Sara Munson, and Lagretta Tallent Lenker. Gender and academe: Feminist pedagogy and politics. Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.
  • Lipton, Eunice. "Manet: A radicalized female imagery." Artforum 13 (1975): 48-53.
  • Mulvey, Laura. "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema." Media and cultural studies: Keyworks (1975): 393-404.
  • Nochlin, Linda. "Why have there been no great women artists?." The feminism and visual culture reader (1971): 229-233.
  • O’sullivan, Jane. “Artists - What Now?” www.sullivanstrumpf.comhttps://www.sullivanstrumpf.com/assets/Uploads/6.-OSullivan-Jane-50-Things-Collectors-Need-to-Know-Art-Collector-March-2013.pdf (accessed November 15, 2015).
  • TextaQueen , Arlene http://textaqueen.com/ (accessed November 15, 2015).


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