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The explicitly sexual female artists that feminism forgot


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In The Guardian, Sarah Galo writes about an exhibition entitled “Black Sheep Feminism: the Art of Sexual Politics” currently on view at the Dallas Contemporary museum in Texas. The exhibition features sexually explicit paintings and photographs by feminist artists who were active during the 1970s, but who were largely shunned by mainstream second-wave feminism because their work smacked of pornography. These artists include Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel, Betty Tompkins, and Cosey Fanni Tutti (who was also a member of the UK industrial band Throbbing Gristle). Galo suggests that as feminism has changed in the intervening decades—becoming more “sex positive” and less anti-pornography—these works can now be accepted as part of the canon of radical feminist art. Here’s an excerpt:

At first glance, there is nothing terribly shocking about the art of any of these women. Tompkins’ paintings are so up-close that context is nearly removed, and Steckel’s series Giant Woman, comprised of silkscreen landscapes of nude women standing alongside the phallic New York City skyline, are not a matter of outrage. Tutti’s sex work and poses in pornographic magazines – which she then displayed as her own art – would be greeted with applause now. But it is 2016, and we are in the fourth wave of feminism. The anti-pornographic movements of second-wave feminism seem antiquated. Perhaps the greatest testament of Black Sheep Feminism’s power is that the outrage is irrelevant now for young feminists; sex positivity is the order of the day.

And yet, even in 2007 when Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art put together the encyclopedic exhibition Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, only Semmel and Tutti were included, though Steckel received mention in art historian Richard Meyer’s essay for the exhibition’s catalogue. It’s this sort of exclusion that initially turned Gingeras off to feminism as a college student.

“I felt a little disconnected or ambivalent about that label of feminism because it didn’t feel that it applied to my generation’s challenges. We took for granted all the advancements that the women’s liberation movement made,” she tells the Guardian. “My generation was taught by people who were directly part of second-wave feminism, and I felt like there was a lot of self-policing within feminism. It was OK to think this, but not that. It felt very stilted.”.

Even among Steckel’s group Fight Censorship, self-policing was in action: Betty Tompkins was not invited to join. “She was a lightning rod for her peers, and she was completely excluded,” Gingeras explained. “She knew all the artists in the Fight Censorship group, and she wasn’t invited to join their group because they objected to the source material.” The nature of Tompkins’ work – sourced from pornography – is complicated by the fact that the sale of any pornographic imagery was illegal at the time in the US.

Image: Anita Steckel’s Giant Women series, via Dallas Contemporary.