Representing Rape: A Powerful Show at John Jay College
The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S. at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
September 4 to November 3, 2018
11th Avenue and 59th Street
New York City, shivagallery.org
The #MeToo movement has focused urgent national and global recognition on the problem of sexual abuse, rape and violence against women. Attention is also being paid in the art world. A significant exhibition, curated by Monika Fabijanska, took place this fall at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. THE UN-HEROIC ACT: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S., presenting the work of twenty female artists, closed November 3. [See artcritical’s interview with Fabijanska by Karen E. Jones.]
The exhibition’s title references and inverts a chapter heading, ‘The Myth of the Heroic Rapist,’ in Susan Brownmiller’s landmark 1975 study, “Against Our Will: Men, Women And Rape.”While Brownmiller explores a “direct connection between manhood, achievement, conquest and rape,” citing Genghis Khan’s notion of “women as warrior’s booty, taken like their proud horses.” Fabijanska sets out to demonstrate the “un-heroic” reality of rape by focusing “on the lasting psychological devastation of the victim.” Located on the ground floor of John Jay College, the gallery affords floor-to-ceiling windows onto Eleventh Avenue creating a dramatic effect even from the street, with the exhibition’s title boldly stenciled on the wall. The first two works you encounter portray rape in a classical mode, though cunningly subverted.
Susanna and the Elders, Restored with x-ray, 1998, by Kathleen Gilje, originally part of a diptych, riffs on the famous 1610 painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, presenting in pentimento Gentileschi herself as Susanna. With stroboscopic effect, a violent motion transforms themute and defenseless Susanna into a screaming Susanna struggling furiously against physical violation. Carolee Thea’s installation, Sabine Woman, 1991, adjacent to Gilje’s piece, is a recreation of the 1998 Central Park Jogger rape incident. Depicting five men gang raping a woman (as the crime was understood to have taken place at that time), the figures, crafted from chicken wire, are hauntingly spot lit by overhead lights that cast an eerie reflective sheen over the grisly scene. The installation has a looped, tape recording of the artist reading “fragments of news reports” of rape incidents, seeming to emanate from behind curtains as she speaks in a low, slightly inaudible tone, forcing the viewer into quiet witness in order to grasp what is being said. Gilje and Thea provided substantive historical context as an exercise in power, laying the groundwork for the rest of the exhibition.
Fabijanska groups the assembled sculptures, photographs, fabric installations, text-based wall panels, films, paintings and drawings into subject categories. But key works like Guerilla Girls’ Broadband poster and Ana Mendieta’s five “performance documentation” photographs constituting Rape Scene, though categorized under “College Rape Culture,” are situated, oddly, at opposite ends of the gallery. This sort of inconsistent placement happens frequently enough throughout the show to confuse and distract anyone seeking to explore how the exhibited works thematically interact.
Guarded Secrets, 2015, a sculpture by Sonya Kelliher-Combs, based on “Iñupiaq walrus tusk trim designs,” consists of semi-translucent phalluses of varying lengths made from sheep’s rawhide and punctured by porcupine quills. Posed in a random manner, some closed at both ends, others opened at one end, and with quills protruding on all sides of each piece, they are ready to pierce the skin of any wandering hand. Peering into the open end of one of the penis sculptures I spied an interior maze, consistent with the idea of a hidden, inaccessible and thus unknowable secret, even as the forms clearly portrayed penile rape as a crude, quite unmysterious and grisly form of torture.
In a small walled-off screening room the film, First Person Plural, by Lynn Hershman Leeson, deals with “things she was told not to speak about as a child” that one eavesdrops through headphones, The film montages images of the Holocaust, physically abused children, and other signifiers of atrocity and helplessness
A second film, “RAPE”, by Yoko Ono, seems not to be about rape per se but rather how physical harassment and constant attention can illicit and heighten a person’s sense of fear and paranoia. Categorized under Gender and Abuse of Power the film shows a woman flattered by the attentions of a camera-wielding man, but as the lens follows her to the point where she falls down from intimidation and the invasive threat of physical violence that such constant attention can suggest, the theme of intrusive attention morphs into a metaphor for rape.
A third film, And Nothing Happened, by Naima Ramos Chapman forms, to my mind, a triptych with the work of two other artists, Suzanne Lacy and Ana Mendieta, hung close by. Lacy’s monumental wall piece, Three Weeks in May, is a map charted from Los Angeles Police Department reports in which crime scenes are stamped with the word, “RAPE.” One is struck by the irony of this piece appearing on one side of a wall on the other side of which Chapman’s film on the aftermath of a rape is projected.
Sixteen minutes long, Chapman plays a restless young woman unable to regain any sense of who she once was after being raped. We see her lying in bed in her parent’s home, unable to sleep, or masturbating to porn on her i-phone. Whether showering, taking medication, eating a meal with her mother or dressing to go out, she is barely able to function. We hear her talk to herself as she walks about the apartment, and like the voice of rape consciousness in Thea’s installation, she cannot exorcise the demon of her trauma, or advance forward into life. I found this film to be a powerful Illustration of the damage that rape inflicts upon a woman’s psyche.
Exiting the screening room, I went to look at Ana Mendieta Rape Scene. Created when a student at the University of Iowa, , Mendieta’s “performance documentation” was made in response to the brutal, highly publicized rape and killing of a nursing student, Sara Ann Otten, by another student in March 1973. Mendieta replicated the rape with herself posed as the victim, and her much repeated comment about this work, “I can’t see being theoretical about an issue like that,” has the power of a mantra. While curator considers Mendieta’s Rape Scene to be a pinnacle of rape imagining and the undoing of “classical art depictions of rape,” by comparing Gilje and Thea’s works with Mendieta’s images in her press release commentary she unwittingly defuses the power of some of her own choices for this show. There is absolutely nothing “theoretical” about Mendieta’s work, which stands alone and apart in its power, and seeking to connect them to other works only underscores the others’ academically reductive perspectives—none of which possess the authenticity of Mendieta’s.
Mendieta’s work is also curatorially paired with Jenny Holzer’s series of color images, Untitled (Selections from Lustmord). But Holzer’s work requires extensive textual exegis to be understood in a way that weakens its immediacy and power in comparison with Mendiata. Fourteen images of tattooed sayings on bare skin are so cryptic as to verge on meaninglessness. I could not fathom, say, how a slogan such as “I try to excite myself so I stay crazy,” inscribed on skin, is illustrative of the show’s “un-heroic” theme. And while Holzer’s images are categorized under Rape in Wartime, ” Lustmord” (lust-killing) is a specific form of sex crime – almost always between lovers – from a very particular historical period, the Weimar Republic.
Holzer’s use of the term to characterize the mass rape and genocidal slaughter of Muslim woman during the Bosnian war in the 1990s feels not only inaccurate but wrong. The murder of Muslims by Serbs and Croatians were not private lover murders but acts of ethnic cleansing. Simply put, the linkage makes no sense.
Kara Walker, whose career is built on depictions of rape in the context of themes of slavery and race, has the the last wordt in this exhibition with a drawing hung at the end of the gallery. A large graphic depiction of the rape of a twelve-year old girl, it explicitly presents and personalizes in the face and posture of its victim the atrocity of rape as few or none of the other works in this exhibition succeed in doing. Not even her accompanying, hand-written account has the force of this picture. Yet, in the context of the exhibition as a whole, this drawing is a visual anomaly because it both represents Brownmiller’s use of the phrase “heroic rape” as a soldier’s prize, while successfully illustrating “the un-heroic act” in the face of its victim and the sense of dread and shame that hangs over the entire drawing. Both act and aftermath coexist in this drawing. If anything, it seems to linger in some kind of limbo between the historical crime and stag magazine pornography, adding another layer of meaning to an already complex work.
While looking at and studying these works on and about rape, I was impressed by how Fabijianska’s curation showed the complexities that arise when art and atrocity meet against the urgent backdrop of current events. Broadly conceived and explanatory in its narrative design, this was a powerful show that rewarded repeat visits.