Speaking Her Mind: Betty Tompkins at P.P.O.W.
Betty Tompkins: Will She Ever Shut Up? at P.P.O.W. Gallery
November 15 – December 22, 2018
535 West 22nd Street, 3rd Floor (between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, ppowgallery.com
In her second solo exhibition at P.P.O.W., “Will She Ever Shut Up?”, Betty Tompkins, ever the bold tinkerer and experimenter, finds ingenious new ways to speak her mind. The formal link between three rooms of stylistically diverse, modestly scaled artworks is Tompkins’ strategy of placing socially charged phrases – handwritten, stencil-lettered or directly painted – on top of a separate visual field. These pointed juxtapositions poke us to puzzle out the connections, to think through the implications.
In the first room Tompkins unfurls the latest chapter of “Women Words”, a series she began in 2002. These incorporate phrases by and about women the artist solicits from the public. Interspersed here are companion works derived from the #MeToo movement in a separate series she titles “Apologia,” directly quoting public statements made by prominent men accused of assaulting women. Both categories of text are cleverly applied onto book page reproductions of canonical images by the likes of Titian, Raphael, Gainsborough, Cassatt, Rembrandt, Ingres and Artemisia Gentileschi. For the acrylic paintings in the second gallery, all from this year, selected “Women Words” expressions and accounts overlay her signature monochrome airbrushed, gracefully cropped close ups of genitalia.
As a suffused, solemn backdrop for these timely new works, the third gallery presents her text-only paintings and drawings on paper from the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Bringing to mind their on-going significance, Tompkins hand-copied fragments of our country’s founding legal documents painted in warm colonial hues over a subtle background grid of painted and penciled words. This group from the artist’s considerable archive is a reminder that her earliest, monumental paintings from 1969 through 1974, based on pornographic photographs her first husband had ordered illegally through the mail, were not shown for over 30 years. Since “discovered” in 2003, these and others Tompkins has since created have been shown virtually non-stop in museums and galleries around the world.
Perusing Tompkins’ word-image juxtaposition it is impossible not to think of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “L.H.O.O.Q,” (1919) created by doctoring a post-card reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee. Duchamp’s sly pencil marks succinctly highlight gender ambiguity in Leonardo’s oeuvre. Likewise, Tompkins’ satiric defacement of historical masterworks allows us to scrutinize her repurposed works for lessons in identity formation and gender role definition. Her clustered expressions of scorn, praise, pride and contrition loosely hand lettered in opaque pink paint completely cover single figures in the reproductions of well-known paintings and photographs. The resulting frozen pastel silhouettes also call to mind another historic reference, the ancient catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. As with this end-of-days event, Tompkins’ verbal flows have seemingly stopped the solitary men and women in their tracks ensnaring them for our analysis. Notably, the artist reverses her formula in an outlier work installed on the gallery’s smaller foyer wall, Women Words (Anon #11) (2017). On this vintage photograph, rather than the figure it’s the rural background that is filled with hand painted crude expressions such as, “Bean flicker,” “flesh wallet,” “Hagia Sophia,” “Love Socket”, ”put a bag over her head and fuck her for old glory.” The young woman is fully dressed but seated in a way that modestly displays her underclothing. Unlike the other 50 plus readymades in the show, this woman is fully visible. She appears protected from the insults by her self-esteem and safe within her self-knowledge—indeed, wearing a quiet Mona Lisa smile.
Naomi Wolf’s landmark book, “Vagina” (2012) explores the implications of new research on the neuroscience of women’s reproductive organs. We now know there are multiple direct nerve connections between these organs and the brain. Wolf discusses how the impact of physical and verbal abuse on women’s psyches can now be more precisely measured. She also presents important correlations between erotic pleasure and personal agency. Tompkins’ seven pale pink and blue-grey paintings in the second gallery combine two contrasting techniques. Her signature soft airbrushed compositions of the swooning folds and creases of a woman’s labia and clitoris are counterposed with hard-edged stencil letters that have been removed to reveal the artwork’s under painting. Despite having its origin in exploitative pornography, Tompkins’ gentle yet emphatically clinical presentation of women’s genitalia tells of the importance for women of having a full understanding of the workings of their own sexuality. Being aware of the profound positive power of full female sexual expression for both men and women is the best defense against the attitudes expressed in the crowd-sourced phrases and narratives “pressed” into the genitalia in Tompkins’ paintings. My ex’s favorite…(2018) perfectly portrays this dynamic by hypnotically balancing the work’s two compositional elements within its floating painted space.
Let me suggest one way to consider the show’s composite truth that listening to each other with mutual respect is vital to the survival of our country. Imagine a vocal performance based on all the artworks in this show, simultaneously read aloud by their original authors. Men’s and women’s voices would create a calibrated cacophony merging insults, confessions, revelations and apologies pertaining to the opposite sex. Next, the phrases from Tompkins’ history works with key fragments from our Constitution and Bill of Rights would be recited by male voices. In these works, there is an underlying grid of the single word, “law,” repeated in rows. This would become a chant demanding “Law, law, law, law…” performed in a long, slow crescendo by an all-female chorus in the tens of thousands echoing the recent women’s marches. This multilayered vocal performance would reply to the question in Tompkins’ title with a resounding and hope filled “No!”