The Artist as Voyeur: Group Show as Peep Show
Rear Window Treatment at Louis B. James Gallery
December 11, 2014 through January 17, 2015
143b Orchard Street (Between Rivington and Delancey)
NY, 212 533 4670
The exhibition “Rear Window Treatment,” currently at Louis B. James Gallery, is a group show that explores the concept of voyeurism, and by extension, implicates the viewer in voyeuristic acts as well. While it is traditionally considered a shameful thing to be a voyeur, the six artists in this show are unabashed in their representation of voyeuristic perspectives, exposing the extent to which the desiring gaze has come to inform contemporary sexuality and interpersonal perception in general. These are artists who like to look.
The star of the show is Betty Tompkins, who in recent decades has met with belated critical acclaim for her “Fuck Paintings”: large-scale reproductions of pornographic close-ups, usually depicting heterosexual penetration. Scandalous at the time of their debut in 1969, her paintings have garnered more and more attention over the years. Whether this is due to a gradual acceptance of women artists into the canon or a gradual decrease in American prudishness is open to debate.
Tompkins’s paintings aren’t on display here, rather, a group of small studies in ink on paper and photographs. Created between 2012 and 2014, these six drawings are more reserved than her photorealistic paintings in that the explicit content has been drawn (or drawn over) with loosely quivering scribbles of ink. Some of the scribblier works depicting vaginas, such as Photo Drawing #7 (2013), begin to approach a transcendental level of abstraction. Other works, such as Photo Drawing #3 (2012), with its highly explicit depiction of double penetration, are more in keeping with her original oeuvre while also incorporating the expressionistic scribbles to pleasing effect.
Other artists in the show invite us to look at porn, and invite us to touch it too. Michael Mahalchick’s Acid Rain (2014) consists of cardboard DVD covers from porno films, folded together so as to create a “crude” un-bound book that sits on a shelf. Visitors are welcome to flip through it, although they might not want to, as the covers have a used look about them. The absence of actual DVDs hints at the hollowness of pornographic consumption, wherein the object of desire is inevitably elsewhere. The DVD covers feel anachronistic when considered in relation to Deric Carner’s interactive Tip If You Love Me (2014), a spidery black sculpture proffering touch-screen tablets streaming live-cam pornography. The structure resembles a mutant mic-stand carved out of wood, and the tablets are all tuned to the website chaturbate.com, each one showing a different sort of pornography. The wooden armature lends the installation an organic tactility that offsets the impersonality of the cyber-sex component, perhaps suggesting that digital voyeurism is a natural extension of human sexuality.
The title of the exhibition, “Rear Window Treatment,” is adapted from Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which Jimmy Stewart plays a newspaper photographer with a broken leg who passes his convalescence by watching his neighbors from the window of his apartment. Barb Choit, a Vancouver-based photographer, mimics this scenario by presenting photographs of her neighbors going about their daily affairs. The pictures are simply exquisite: taken under low light, the colors are rich and saturated, and the framing device of the window lends them extra drama. The scenes hover between the banal and the touching, such as a cheesy kiss on television glimpsed through a neighbor’s drapes. In another, a beautiful woman brushes her hair behind slatted blinds. The photographs are so loaded with untold stories that they feel like film stills.
The exhibition’s only film work, William E. Jones’s Mansfield 1962 (2006), consists of edited archival footage taken by the police through a two-way mirror in a public bathroom during a gay sex sting operation in 1962. Many of the men in the video were prosecuted under sodomy laws, a chilling reminder of the restrictions on gay rights less than 50 years ago. Back then, state-of-the-art visual technologies were being used to out gay people; today, the latest visual technologies are being used for things such as chaturbate.org.
Finally, Brad Phillips pays homage to the legendary Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý with a series of watercolors based on Polaroids that Phillips took of women in New York City. Tichý (1926 – 2011) was often mistaken for a crazy person with a fake camera because of his sketchy appearance and his homemade cameras constructed from cardboard tubes with hand-ground lenses. He almost exclusively photographed women in public, which eventually got him banned from the local swimming pool in his hometown of Kyjov. The four watercolors by Phillips are each titled Your Miroslav Tichý (all 2014), and they emulate Tichý’s style by depicting sexy women’s legs with all else cropped from the frame. However, the conceptual connection ends there, since Phillips’ watercolors lack the dream-like soft focus that makes Tichý’s photographs so magical. There is a clean quality about Phillips’s work that betrays the fact that he is not an inveterate voyeur like Tichý, although he may aspire to be.
The exhibition raises questions about the morality of spying on people for one’s own pleasure, but most of these artists appear to be in favor of the practice. The exception might be Jones, whose work reads as a condemnation of police surveillance and discrimination. Nevertheless, even Jones’s video carries an element of voyeuristicdétournement in that the source footage has been repurposed for our pleasure and edification. We want to see everything (especially sex) and the evolution of visual technology is being employed towards that end. Mahalchick’s empty DVD sleeves remind us that the voyeuristic gaze can be an unfulfilling substitute for a physical human connection, but if you like to look, rest assured you are not alone.