There is an intriguing conundrum in the Museum of Sex’s viewership. With its explorations into outsider art, photography, fine arts, and of course, erotica, it obviously attracts a large portion of art-savvy viewers. But there are also of plenty of people who are drawn to it for cheap naughty giggles. Therefore, there might be plenty of viewers who find themselves shocked when coming across raw art imagery that puts the sexualities of its creators on display. The upcoming exhibition, NSFW: Female Gaze, will undoubtedly make some feel uncomfortable. Curated by curator and fine art photographer Lissa Rivera and Editor-in-Chief of VICE Creator’s Project Marina Garcia-Vasquez, the exhibition provides a portal into the raw and diverse forms of sexualities that are reverberating throughout the work of young women in contemporary art and, in turn, are altering the ways in which female sexuality is presented in the broader culture of fashion, cinema, television, literature, and otherwise. Drawing on photography, video, illustration, craft-based art, and painting, NSFW highlights young female artists that brazenly challenge their audiences by using their own sexualities and desires as creative catalysts. This exhibition will no doubt thrill as much as much it will confound, and excite as much as it will repel. “People come to the Museum of Sex to see their own desires reflected,” says Rivera. “And when they don’t, many feel alienated. We wanted this exhibition to make people question the nature of art and beauty.”
If there is one theme that unites the disparate artists on view in the exhibition, it is that all of their work lays out their own identities. This is not solely art work as voyeurism; this is artwork as life, as love, and as sex, and as identity. The exhibition is a reminder to artists that our own identities can always provide fertile grounds for artistic exploration. “We want people to be inspired to use their own identities in their art work,” says Vasquez.
“Because the media and representations of sex in media aren’t just limited to whoever decides what goes into the sex tips in Cosmopolitan Magazine, there’s a whole generation of kids who have grown up with less censorship,” continues Rivera. “This feels like a whole new frontier to explore in contemporary art.”
Below are just some of the excellent works in the exhibition that expound upon the show’s central theme.
Title: Photography: History of Masturbation
Jessica Yatrofsky, ‘Photography: History of Masturbation,’ (video still)COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF SEX
Jessica Yatrofsky is a Brooklyn-based fine art photographer and filmmaker who examines the role of body politics, gender and sexuality and how those topics are represented in fine art. Her work feels, at least aesthetically, aligned with the highly stylized explorations of ambiguities in beauty and gender in the photography of Collier Schorr, but her work goes beyond Shorr’s in its deconstructions of the widening shifts of bodily representations in art work (Schorr by contrast, as both an artist and a fashion photographer, examines how those art aesthetics can translate to advertising). For NSFW, Yatrofsky contributes a video piece entitled Photography: History of Masturbation. The video chronicles an androgynous and tattooed young man, the type of model that wouldn’t be out of place in conceptual style bibles like Re-edition or Man About Town, posing, while a narrator asks the viewer, “Is this Art?,” or, “if the New York times said this was art, would it be art?” The video explores the themes prevalent in Yatrofsky’s output: the human body, human sexuality, and when the body and sexuality become read and/or understood as fine art. But placed near the entrance of the NSFW exhibition, it sets up the overarching concepts found within the show; specifically the widening spectrums of sexuality in contemporary art. “Some will find this exhibition beautiful, and some will find it challenging,” says Rivera. “We want the viewers to be asking themselves these questions asked in [Yatrofsky’s video] while they go through the show.”
Series Title: Boys
Polish, New York-based fine art photographer Aneta Bartos, who according to Adult Magazine self-defines as a “ferocious 86-year old immigrant hustling in Canarsie,” has gained a cultish following for both the haunting, grainy quality of her images (cultivated by blowing up expired polaroid film) and also the sexually explicit and often disturbing thematic content of her work. She is probably best described as a voyeur photographer, looking in onto the sexual acts of others, but she has also been an exhibitionist in the past, posing in front of the camera for a project with three other female photographers and also with her 72-year-old bodybuilder father in an intense examination of the father-daughter relationship for a project called Family Portraut. But it is Bartos’ role as voyeur that takes precedence at NSFW with three images from her project Boys. In the series, three unidentified men are pictured masturbating inside a room at the Carlton Arms Hotel. Bartos’ gaze is felt in the images, and she depicts the act of jerking off as a kind of ritualistic seance. Somehow, she imbues a nobility into the act of self-pleasure.
Series Title: Indentured Servitude
Medium: Paper collage
Maidenfed ‘Bejeweled Worship’ (collage)COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF SEX
NYC-based artist Maidenfed (first real name is Jackie) works primarily in poetry and photo collage. There has been much made of her physical appearance in Maidenfed’s media attention: Maidenfed has a taut, model-esque body (and indeed she does do some modeling work) and a severe, narrow face that recalls that of Spanish actress and Pedro Almodovar muse Rossy del Palma. Hers is a very striking and odd beauty (though she herself refers to herself as “a butterface”). Maidenfed has been the subject of much online trolling and ridicule, with entire misogynistic Reddit pages dedicated to her physical appearance and the critiquing of it. Though she says her work in BDSM has nothing to do with her art work, the aesthetics of that sexual practice abound in her series included at NSFW entitled Indentured Servitude. But perhaps more interesting is that the three collages all feature the image of Maidenfed herself, and often as an object of worship and desire. In ‘Bejeweled Worship,’ Maidenfed is pictured surrounded by hundreds of bowing men. It is a bold statement of sexual ownership and artistic confidence. Also, her work can be admired for its general sense of craftsmanship and composition. While so many collages come off as just artists throwing random images all over a canvas out of boredom or desperation to fill a gallery, Maidenfed’s look deliberately symmetrical and composed.
Series Title: ”Between Flowers, Rocks, Trees and Self”
Marie Tomanova was a painter when she moved to the United States from The Czech Republic, but she had always taken photographs (in a show at the Czech Center that she recently curated, Baby, I Like it Raw, Tomanova looked back the on her raw, snapshot images downloaded from an old cell phone taken while still living in the Eastern Bloc that show a remarkable, early voyeuristic talent). Continuing painting felt financially infeasible, so she shifted her attentions towards photography and video. Not knowing anyone in The United States, Tomanova made herself her subject. Her images chronicle the concepts of universal femininity against cultural displacement. In her work, you see Tomanova establishing her presence in a new country as an artistic and cultural voice and also holding onto her national and gender identity. Two large-scale self-portrait prints appear in NSFW, pulled from a series called “Between Flowers, Rocks, Trees and Self,” to the largest sizes she has ever presented. As is often the case, Tomanova puts her genitals on full display as a symbolic means of holding onto her identity and femininity in the face of living in a new country.
Medium: Film Excerpt
Anna Biller, ‘Viva’ (film still)COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF SEX
Perhaps indicative of the demonstrable ambitiousness of the NSFW exhibition is the inclusion of Anna Biller, an honest-to-goodness director of feature films. Biller grew up with an artist father and a fashion designer mother. Her father’s use of vibrant colors and her love of classic cinema influenced her filmmaking style that often uses the bright hues of saturation and graphic style that recall the aesthetics of the 1960s Sexual Revolution. Her most recent film, 2016’s The Love Witch, was a serial killer film in which a female killer makes her male victims fall too much in love with her. The film’s greatest strength is by utilizing feminist politics without sacrificing cinematic stylization, working as a critique of social justice filmmaking and feminist politics simultaneously. But her inclusion in NSFW is a clip from Viva, her 2007 film. In the film, Biller stars as a suburban housewife with a slack jawed all-American handsome husband who both engage in the new cultural freedoms of the Sexual Revolution. The film critiques the ultimate absurdity of that movement as the expression of white privilege and upper middle class stability that it ultimately proved to be. But her films also work as pure entertainment in the way that Douglas Sirk’s films were entertaining and Paul Schrader’s films were entertaining. Her films’ politics don’t overshadow the enjoyment of getting lost in the cinematic experience.
Medium: Sculpture (Xerox print, cardboard, casted concrete, cinderblock)
Robert Mapplethorpe considered photography to be the new sculpture, but Brooklyn-based artist Amy Ritter takes that concept further by using photography in her large-scale, cheap material sculptures. According to Rivera, Ritter is deeply indebted to and proud of her mobile home upbringing, and her sculptures utilize the cardboard and cinderblock materials that she could have found around a campsite. Her sculpture at NSFW, Foundation, is comprised of cinderblocks and large-scale self-portraits printed onto cardboard and assembled in such a way that a viewer can find Ritter looking at him/her anywhere throughout the space. She uses a variety of gazes and poses in the different images, making the viewer analyze the complexities in human body language.
Sophia Narrett, ‘Naked Bride in the New Face’COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF SEX
Sophia Narrett’s embroideries don’t just question the types of sexuality represented in art work, they redefine the mediums that are acceptable to present as art work. Embroideries themselves have often been considered kitschy pieces of craft; a past time for retirees. And yes looking at Narrett’s intricately woven tapestries at NSFW it becomes undeniably clear that she has elevated this craft to the plane of fine art. The images in Narrett’s embroideries are hallucinatory, confusing and dread-inducing. Her work draws on her influences that range from high-brow literature to low-brow television and examine how those influences manifest in her sexual fantasies and dreams. Her piece ‘Naked Bride in the New Basement,’ for instance, finds Narrett picking apart her prurient interest in the reality series The Bachelor. The piece features the image of two women clad in bridal gowns vying for the attention of a lazy, shirtless, couch-ridden man masturbating, perhaps trying to understand how some men are given the privilege of not having to do anything to have women fighting over them. Also, for pop culture junkies out there, the image of the man is appropriated from that of Jared Leto’s Paul Allen just as he’s about to be axe murdered by Christian Bale’s psychotic Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s classic literary ode to nihilistic capitalism American Psycho.
Series Title: Like A Pregnant Corpse the Ship Expelled Her into The Patriarchy
Fine art photographer Nona Faustine’s practice is simple but effective: she photographs herself against natural or known urban backdrops. While the art of self-portrait photography has been done brilliantly countless times (Ana Mendieta, Francesca Woodman, and Cindy Sherman anyone?), Faustine’s images play on the biases and long-held conceptions of their viewers. Simply put, we are not used to seeing full-figured women of color represented as artistic beauty. Faustine’s images reclaim her own body as a work of beauty, thereby altering the types of beauty that are represented in art images overall. Her work seems to answer the questions posed in Yatrofsky’s videos: “I am art, I am beauty,” suggests her images.
Series Title: My Black Ass
Tschabalala Self, ‘My Black Ass with Multicolored Wig’COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF SEX
Harlem-born, New Haven-based artist Tschabalala Self examines representations of the black, female body by both embracing and rejecting certain aspects of its representation in culture. Her drawings and multimedia installations often feature the ostensibly black female form in technicolor and with the most overtly sexualized of black, female body parts, the butt and the breasts, accentuated and/or abstracted. Her series of drawings on view at NSFW, entitled My Black Ass, all have titles that pair her “black ass” with another bodily phrase, like “My Black Ass With Red Cheeks” or “My Black Ass With Purple Pussy,” for example. The message is clear. Self knows that her ass is always going to be the focus of the viewer’s attention due to cultural stereotyping of the black female form. It’s a humorous series, to be sure, but carries with it a lethal cultural critique.
Series Title: Beautiful Boy
Lissa Rivera, ‘Beautiful Boy (Bourdoir)COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF SEX
NSFW co-curator Lissa Rivera is also a fine art photographer who has generated much critical acclaim for her recent series and show at ClampArt Beautiful Boy. Beautiful Boy is a series of portraits and a modern love story. Back when working together at a museum, Rivera’s now-partner BJ told her that he felt more comfortable wearing women’s clothing. She started taking pictures of him so he could see his self reflected back in that photographic technology. The series is successful on so many levels. In the images, you see BJ growing into comfort and confidence in his gender-ambiguity, you see the couple’s love for each other becoming stronger and purer, and you find Lissa locating her artistic voice. The images are perfectly lit, beautiful in their composition, and moving in their thematic content. Rivera’s work brings another dimension to the exhibition (a dimension also expounded upon by the work of other artists included NSFW Pixy Lao and Joanna Grochowska): it’s not just representations of sexuality and gender that are shifting in culture, it’s the growing acceptance of domestic relationships that exist outside the spectrum of traditional familiar normality.