When facing a painting, will the artist’s gender identity fundamentally alter the way one sees the work? This simple question has permeated discussions of art appreciation for nearly half a century.
In the context of representational art, the term “female gaze” generally refers to the observation and description of a work from a female perspective. The film critic Laura Mulvey first introduced the concept of the “male gaze” in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). She concluded that traditional films always imposed a masculine point of view onto the viewers who were led to view the world through a male perspective, turning women into mere objects of desire. Since then, numerous works have emerged to subvert this traditional male perspective in art history. Women are no longer passive objects to be viewed. Instead, they now stand up and walk behind the canvas or lens as active observers.
Traditional “female gaze” artworks have focused on reversing the power relations between genders. Three female artists, however, offered varied dimensions for “female gaze” through the use of different perspectives and narrations at three recent exhibitions in Shanghai. Cheng Xinyi, a young painter based in Paris and Shanghai, portrays the males around her through a third-person perspective. By exchanging glances with these males, she examines the parallel relations of desire and power between the two genders. Hu Zi, a painter based in Shanghai, constructs a perspective similar to the “free indirect style” in fiction writing. Through her observation and substitution of male characters, we can gain a new understanding of gender and body. Sarah Faux, a painter from Brooklyn, New York, uses canvas as her body. Through a first-person perspective, she attempts to liberate the true female experience from the trap of a passive gaze.
Cheng Xinyi: Forget that He Is Him
Cheng Xinyi portrays men at off-guard moments of vulnerability. Her subjects are shaving, sleeping, picking a flower, bathing in a river, or leaning over for a kiss.
The artist once admitted being fascinated by the white male body. The hairy torsos in her previous works may have provoked an interpretation of the power relations between white males and Asian females. Yet, in her recent new exhibition Harnessing the Power of Wind at Antenna Space, Cheng Xinyi illustrated images of feminine males with a cool, damp tone and a faintly melancholy aura.
In these images, figures in twos and threes are immersed in light purple, creamy white, and turquoise atmospheres, with subtle feelings and yearnings pulsating through flirtatious, casual, and mundane moments. The switching scenes remind a viewer of the aimless dialogue in director Eric Rohmer’s French New Wave films. In North Brother Island, a blond boy half underwater stares at the relaxed body of an underwater man with a black beard. The same couple reappears in I Surrender, the beard man now reclining on the bottom of the water while watching the upside-down, free-stretching body of the blond boy. In their naked, unguarded state, body shapes re-emerge in unpredictable ways, making it hard to tell which man on the painting is stronger—like a free-flowing gender performance.
By shedding light on the internal worlds of homosexual partners, the artist deepens her contemplation of masculinity and femininity, and their relative fluidity. Meanwhile, her work pulls emotional strings from the artist’s female experience. In the anecdotes Cheng Xinyi wrote for this exhibition, she adopted a calm third-person perspective to recount the “lightness” and “weight” in this gay couple’s life of friendship and trust, honesty and sharing, death and compassion, and lust and pity.
By projecting herself onto another biological gender, a different sexual orientation, a new way of life in a foreign country, or an alienating third-person perspective, the artist tears open a deep gulf that gives her more freedom to express her feelings and generate new emotions. In the meantime, the male traits of these torsos, under a prolonged gaze, gradually dissolve into the canvas.
Hu Zi: Between Imagination and Reality
Hu Zi also integrates her understanding of a foreign culture with an asymmetrical gaze towards the opposite sex in her work. In Stone Flesh, Hu’s recent solo exhibition at Don Gallery, Hu Zi imagined a fictional scene:
“On the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Poseidon looks upon two Davids gazing at one another for a moment: a giant and a man––a marble called David, and a mortal called David Gilmour.”
Upon entering the exhibition hall, one immediately sees an oil portrait of David Gilmour, the co-lead singer of Pink Floyd. When one turns around, the wall opposite David Gilmour contains a gouache on paper capturing the complex muscle volumes of Poseidon and David––two Renaissance marble sculptures pulled from the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Due to the intentional positioning of these two paintings, the two Davids face each other: one is an ideal embodiment of the Renaissance masculinity, radiating strength of perseverance with its curly hair and strained muscles; the other is a rock star that roused a wave of sexual liberation through 1960’s psychedelic rock music––he emanates an ambivalent temperament, with his shoulder-length hair and clean facial features. A charismatic hero from classical mythology and a gender-neutral musician from the 1960’s mirror each other’s identities, dramatizing an unspeakable tension between them.
From the Renaissance to rock music, one can experience the enlightenment brought by art history and popular culture through Hu’s creative practices. This time, Hu sets the scene at the birthplace of the Renaissance and designs the protagonist to be David Gilmour from the 1960’s and 1970’s. As the “narrator” of the story, Hu does not merely try to tell us a contemporary fable from the perspective of hindsight: she does not remove herself from the picture like a God, nor does she fully embody David’s role to present his crystal-clear thinking process. Instead, Hu casts a calm, sensible gaze at David, Gilmour, and Poseidon, sharing the psychological secrets of these three different subjects with the audience.
The two Davids from different eras have different bodies but share the same humanity. Through the reflection of the two Davids, Hu juxtaposes the physical, psychological, and social identities of the male character “David” on the same square. As a female artist, her gaze of “David” and the looks and thoughts she gives him further complicate the viewers’ understanding of body and gender.
Sarah Faux: Canvas Is Body
Sarah Faux, an American artist who recently held a solo exhibition—Pucker—at Capsule Shanghai, also investigates the relationship between body and gender. What sets Faux apart is her portrayal of females alone––males rarely accompany them. Most of the women she paints are naked and only partially presented. Every painting begins with a private moment, followed by fragmented movements capturing a female’s physical experience in an intimate setting.
In a recent dialogue with the Yuz Museum, Faux mentioned that she had been inspired by American feminist oil painter Joan Semmel, who painted her own body as she gazed down at herself, altering the art-historic tradition of painting a female from a male perspective. Yet, once the body enters the gaze—even if said gaze comes from oneself—the artist nonetheless becomes self-conscious. According to Faux, classical artistic language is permeated with male DNA; in order to escape this language and open a “crack” between the image and the audience, Faux turns her canvas into her body.
“I dream…of creating a sensory setting [on canvas] outside the body, and allowing the audience to fill that white space with imagination and physical memories,” Faux said.
In her paintings, Faux dissects the body, zooming in on body parts. The skeleton is typically the frame of the canvas—or the external contours of the cloth collage. The oil paint poured onto the sketch of the body (coated with a strong water-absorbing primer) is immediately scraped off to create a flat “skin” made visible when hues are soaked into the canvas fibers, while the coarse texture of the canvas resembles skin pores. In this composition, the viewer enters an intimate first-person perspective. What fascinates Faux the most are the moments when one’s self-awareness slowly fades, for example, when a female painting subject indulges in dressing up (Wet Mirror, 2018), experiences a moment of ecstasy (White Smoke Rose, 2018), or plays with her private parts when no one is watching (Comedown, 2018).
As John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake”, whereas a woman makes a joke to express how she expects herself to be treated by others. A woman’s double role of an observer and the observed requires her to constantly monitor and check her behavior as others’ impressions have replaced her own feelings.
Faux believes that, in the social space created by the male-dominated patriarchal system, women are typically more sensitive to their appearances and their bodies. “Therefore,” the artist notes, “my paintings present women’s real characteristics in the public space, making these images a source of pleasure, rather than a source of shame.”
When facing the intimate movements pushed in front of us in Faux’s paintings, we digest the shame about sex, exiting from others’ alarming gaze and returning to the important intimacy reserved for ourselves.
Translated by Liuyu Chen 陈留瑜