Beverly Semmes’s art currently on exhibit at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery is part of what the artist calls her Feminist Responsibility Project. The work consists for the most part of pages of old porn magazines—Penthouse and Hustler are mentioned—painted or inked over so that most of the original pornographic image is obliterated. Maybe 90 percent of the original image. You see a naked part of an arm here, part of a leg there. Nothing of what are called and still usually considered—despite the porn industry onslaught assault on the concept—private parts. But enough visual information based on the parts shown and evidence from the obliteration areas to allow an intelligent guess as to the poses and activities of the original picture subjects. The painting or inking over is crudely done, appropriately enough to the—based on guess—gynecological/proctological investigation character of some of the original images.
Whereas a feature item and image of the exhibit is a little different than the numerous porn magazine images. A digital archival photo of a mouth—white teeth, glossy red lipsticked lips—located behind but visible through an aperture in a digitally constructed cherry red fabric hanging, like a curtain with a hole in it. This puzzling image not exactly porn, but somehow, it seems, not far from it. Lurid if not lascivious. Possibly related in some kind of obverse/reverse way to the painted-over porn pictures. Maybe even somehow key to the meaning of those works, that is, to our understanding the artist’s meaning in producing and presenting them.
Some commentary in a little catalog on the Feminist Responsibility Project from an earlier exhibit at another gallery seems germane here. The commentator tells us—helpfully—that “in pornographic parlance, women are just holes.”
The hole in the red fabric curtain, through which we see the mouth—in the commentator’s term—hole. The obliterations on the porn pictures as holes, obliterating various gynecological/proctological holes, as well as—the commentator again—the picture subject hole.
The mouth picture—that’s the title of the piece, Mouth—is strangely reminiscent of another and iconic mouth image, the famous Rolling Stones mouth—lips and teeth and enormous tongue—caricature personal reference to Mick Jagger. A kind of male counterpart image—the emphasis on part—to the Semmes image. And a sex image—like the Semmes mouth—though not overtly. A little obscene even, though not that you could prove in court. (Obscene is something you can’t say precisely or definitively what it is or isn’t, but you know it when you see it.) So not sex image per se, in se, but unmistakably as a sign, a sex semantic, as a part for the whole. Pun intended.
Like the magazine porn pictures, which were not obscene either, apparently. But especially after the obliterations. The holes imposed on holes.
But if arguable on the question of obscene—the Rolling Stones image and the porn pictures in particular, the investigatory views—not arguable on the matter of grotesque. A description that would fly probably in a court of law even, if law cared about aesthetics instead of just morals.
Where the Feminist Responsibility Project starts to get really complicated is regarding the censorship aspect of the obliterations. A basically—historically—puritanical and prurience function. Born of those two somehow interrelated impulses. A little like—perhaps—the impulse to pornography in the first place.
Also on view are a sampling of the kind of work Semmes has been doing from the beginning of her career in the early 1990s, some crudely made ceramic pots—but lovingly made, it would seem, or else why bother—and a gargantuan woman’s dress, what the well-dressed Amazon might be wearing this season. The dress is tacked to a wall, starting near the ceiling, and flows onto the floor where the fabric changes from taffeta to some reams of garish-colored velvet arrayed in concentric rings around a blue ceramic vessel of unusual sort. Possibly unique sort.
Several other vessels are in basic white, a little like classic pots or ewers intentionally crudely made, all lumpy and slumpy and where a handle—ear type—would be useful and traditional—or maybe even two, one on each side of the vessel—on these vessels a veritable cluster of handles. More handles than one could suppose any reason for. As if the potter had a handles fetish.
The Semmes exhibit continues through March 11.