Art in the Flesh

Mike Newton May 3, 2014

"Aftershock: The Impact of Radical Art"
Edelman Arts
Updated: Through May 31

We had to spray our windows so you can’t see through, and cut the shades down, because we have schools on this block.” This is what curator Dara Schaefer tells me about her exhibit, “Aftershock: The Impact of Radical Art.” As we talked about the fleshy, explicit imagery on the walls of Edelman Arts, a gallery located on a leafy stretch of the Upper East Side, a stream of elementary-school kids — with uniforms and lacrosse mallets — passed by outside.

Among the artworks behind those frosted windows is a pair of Marilyn Minter’s late 1980s/early 1990s paintings, sourced from dirty magazines and rendered with a glossy, pop-y polish. If these kinds of pictures — of fondled breasts and orgiastic blowjobs — feel common (even a little quaint) in our era of endless, instant-access porn, it should be remembered that back then, that wasn’t at all the case. Or at least such images — presented in a high-art context by a female painter — were controversial enough to seriously derail Minter’s art career. Minter has said that these works were meant to raise questions about what it means, of what happens culturally and ideologically, when a woman embraces the hardcore visions of heterosexual porn. Twenty-five years on, and with pornography more prevalent in our culture than ever before, those questions still have no easy answer.

“Aftershock” is a small but lively exhibit about how American art has paralleled and fed into struggles for women’s rights and sexual liberation. It bears noting, though, that this “radical” spirit — as mentioned in the show’s title — doesn’t apply to class or economic issues. On its surface, really, much about this exhibit doesn’t sync up with the ethos of “radical” politics. Indeed, though ostensibly a not-for-profit show, it’s being presented in what seems to be a highly profit-driven venue: the gallery is a project of Wall-Street-shark-turned-art-dealer Asher Edelman.

But look a bit closer, and the links to social movements are there. For example, Thomas Lanigan Schmidt’s mid-1980s assemblages gather together a host of religious and cultural symbols to make a sparkling, unmistakably queer and highly personal cosmogony. Mickalene Thomas’s recent, large-scale photos combine 20th-century fashions with an unfussed sense of immediacy to create singular portraits of Black women: conflicted images that seem to both affirm and reject common tropes of magazine-friendly glamour. Carolee Schneemann’s classic 1975 performance Interior Scroll found the artist, naked and covered in mud, reading a text (about issues of film and representation) as she slowly pulled it from her vagina, locating the female body as a source of knowledge and authority.

The best reason to see the exhibit (and perhaps the main reason why this show had to be hidden from the local children) is the work of Betty Tompkins. Like Minter, Tompkins gained art-world notoriety with a series of paintings sourced from pornographic photos. But while Minter’s work feels brassy and loud — inspired as much by glitzy nightclubs as by art history — Tompkins’s paintings seem to come from fascinated reverie: black-and-white ruminations on the strange mechanics of heterosexual intercourse. Tompkins started these works during the throes of 1970s feminism and returned to the concept in the mid-2000s after the original paintings started to receive some long-overdue recognition. “Aftershock” presents some of these latter-day works and, while the show doesn’t have any of the initial suite of paintings, it does include a wonderful 1973 photo of Tompkins herself, looking somber and demure alongside the giant penises and vaginas that she had set to canvas.

Elsewhere in “Aftershock,” there’s a 1991 artwork by Cary Leibowitz (also known as Candyass), an exponent of the slacker-y early-’90s aesthetic known as “Loser Art.” The installation, called “No Peeking,” includes some homoerotic photos and general nods to Leibowitz’s queer/Jewish identity, but the work traffics mainly in a more generalized frustration: a text-painting that reads, “I am a miserable AND selfish person,” a pennant emblazoned with “GO SADNESS,” a necktie embroidered with the word “LOSER.” What emerges most from Leibowitz’s piece is a sense of the artist as a struggling human subject, and this may be the main theme of “Aftershock” overall.

Images of bare genitals and unfiltered sex still have the power to shock from gallery walls and yet, sexuality is a nearly universal aspect of human experience. The term radical has lately been identified with massive change and upheaval, but the word derives from the Latin radicalis: “of or having roots.” As with the gay-rights and feminist movements that inspired them, the works in this show mainly seek to affirm, realize and honor a sense of shared, essential humanity. Betty Tompkins made giant paintings of people having sex; in the sense of rootedness, of collective human struggle, what could be more radical than that?

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