“They are heavy and off-kilter, and there’s no goal of perfection or lightness as with traditional craft. The glaze has a skin-like aspect; the works are extremely tactile. The ceramics enter into the gallery space as outsiders, as ‘anti-,’” explains artist Beverly Semmes about her ceramic sculptures, currently on view in the center of Susan Inglett gallery.  But these remarks could just as easily be about her newly unveiled drawings, The Feminist Responsibility Project (FRP), which line the walls surrounding her sculptures. Much like her ceramics, there is something particularly “tactile” about these discarded pages of porn magazines censored and distorted by Semmes’s boldly colored brushstrokes. As Semmes describes, “They’ve taken on a painterly surface; they are structured in response to the absurdly concocted magazine scenarios.”  From across the gallery, the painted additions—very similar in both color and shape to the sculptures—obstruct the lewd elements of the magazine images, but they do not mask the content. We still feel a bit voyeuristic as we stand at eye-level with a woman pleasuring herself, legs splayed wide open, as in Eight. Though we feel conscious of how hard we look, we cannot look away. As Catherine Liu writes in the catalog, “The American relationship to the pleasures of seduction and the seduction of images is rife with contradiction.” 
(Image: Eight, 2013, ink on magazine pages)
There is something especially intimate about the images. Rather than enlarge them onto huge canvases, Semmes paints her forms directly onto the slightly crumpled pages, now so delicately framed before us. These very pages that once lay in the hands of someone engaged in a very different type of intimacy. Just as Semmes’ sculptures’ asymmetrical shapes and bumpy lines capture the intimacy of the artists’ hand, FRP too holds an indexical mark of intimate touch—both the male user to whom these images are typically targeted and the artist whose hand has defiled them. “Now things get tricky and funny, too,” describes Ingrid Schaffner, “since the female objects on view are now simultaneously crude consumer objects of male desire and highly crafted feminist works of art.”  Perhaps it is these multiple levels of intimacy which we perceive as our faces are forced close to the glass in order to discern the shift in color and painterly brush strokes juxtaposing the glossy magazine surface. The model touches herself intimately. The man touches the magazine pages while touching himself intimately. The artist intimately touches the magazine pages while painting. The paint before us retains the history of these touches. But the first touch, unlike the private one-to-one intimate relationship afforded between the male and the page, and the artist and the page, is a constructed touch between the female subject and herself for outside consumption. This is highlighted by the visible paint strokes at odds with the glossy paper and the constructed airbrushed nature of pornographic photography. Schaffner claims that Semmes’ paint “disrupts the normal flow of pornography by strategically amplifying the awkward and obvious construction of the pose, the gaze, the exploitation, and the bodies that make it work.”  But it does more than that. It reminds us of the falsity of the first touch. The touch of the male user, like his gaze on the image, continues to use and objectify the woman long after her false touch. The female subject is not afforded the pleasure of a private intimate first touch, nor is she part of the cycle of touch with the magazine page itself, giving her no ownership over the image itself.
(Image: Money, 2013, ink on magazine pages)
While Semmes’ project certainly complicates the relationship between the male gaze and the consumed female subject by denying the viewer the full view of the woman in each scene, these images are still for public consumption, albeit a different sort. Rather than squirrel them away for a later moment when we too might engage in an intimate one-to-one relationship with the page, Semmes’ artworks must be consumed out in the open by multiple viewers at once. Semmes reclaims the intimacy of that first touch, not only is it blocked from our view preventing us from consuming the touch, but we too are blocked from an individual moment of intimacy. Much like the original model, we are given no privacy for our intimate moment and instead are at the spectacle of other gallery goers.
Beverly Semmes is on view through 15 March 2014. All images credited to Susan Inglett Gallery, NY.
I WANT A WORD – OR MANY WORDS – AND WILL PAUSE. This is one of many phrases scrawled in large print across the walls of David Zwirner where Raymond Pettibon To Wit is currently on view. More of an installation than an exhibition, this one large room includes dozens of Pettibon’s works on paper, ranging from life size images of baseball players to small doodles. His various appropriations from literature and pop culture spill off the pages of his work and onto the walls themselves, creating a wholly encompassing experience. Entering this gallery is entering Pettibon’s world, where California punk-rock culture meets Henry James and Gustave Flaubert. The presentation of the works tacked casually to the wall enhances the sense that we have wandered into Pettibon’s private space, where he himself continues to explore the intersection of high and low culture, the language of literature and advertising, and humor and violence. One could spend hours literally reading the text throughout this incredible exhibition, highlighting Pettibon’s “long-standing interest in the way language moves through its many registers” (Press Release).
I highly recommend this exhibition. Not only are the individual works interesting and complex, but the presentation is exciting and engaging. Originally meaning “to know,” To Wit, plays on the nuances of language, both visual and verbal, and pushes the boundaries of what we know.
To Wit is on view through Oct 26.