Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Naked State by Betty Tompkins

When researching background material for this post, I realised that Betty Tompkins’ Fuck Paintings are often presented as: painted hardcore porn that was locked up in a NY dungeon for over thirty years! Sequestrated by French customs officials in 1973! Locked up again by their Japanese homologues in 2005!

Even so, it is not for border protection to decide what becomes big in the art world. As upset as the bureaucrats might have felt, the main reason why Tomkins’ paintings were not shown on a broader scale is because no gallery was interested in showing her work, at least not more than once.

In an interview with Filthy Gorgeous Things, Tompkins explains:

“The response to them was essentially negative. One dealer walked into my studio, ran out and then backed in (…) Most [dealers] refused to come (…) at all. Whether it was because I was a young artist or whether it was because I was a young woman artist or whether it was the subject matter or the subject matter being done by a young woman artist, I never knew. It was a very different time. I would beg [Tompkins’ husband at that time] to take the slides in as his own as he was so much older than me and he was a man but he refused.”

Furthermore, her renaissance is to a large part due to the fact that thanks to the support of Mitchell Algus gallery, which exhibited the original fuck paintings in 2002 and helped Tompkins to take part in the 2003 Lyon biennale. Centre Pompidou bought Fuck Painting #1 for its permanent collection a year later, making it appropriate to show “large-scale photorealistic paintings of heterosexual intercourse”, as described in the words of the artist herself, to the general public (the French/European one, albeit). Collector interest ensued.

Anyway. Having attended the opening of her solo show at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen last Thursday, I do think that these over-sized genitalia are worthy of thought.

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #11, 2004 Acrylic on Canvas 213.4 x 152.4 cm, courtesy of Galerie Rodolphe Janssen

First of all, Tompkins’ work provides an interesting example of the painter’s dilemma of abstract vs. figurative representation. Tompkins explains in the Galerie Rodolphe Janssen catalogue:

“As an undergraduate, I had fallen in love with Abstract Expressionism. By the time I was in graduate school, I had a lot of facility with it and got bored. In my youthful arrogance, I made up a list of all the things I loved about the act of painting and was also really good at doing. With each subsequent painting, I did not do another thing on the list. I thought by the time I was through, I would have either obliterated painting or invented something new for myself.”

In her quest for a way to embrace imagery, Tompkins took to her husband’s collection of pornographic photos and figured that by disposing of the subjects’ identifiers, such as heads, hands, and feet, she would be left with “beautiful abstract images out of the part of the photograph that was most compelling”.

Abstraction was reinforced by her choice of technique: she used only white and black paint applied in hundreds of layers. This, in combination with the paintings’ scale, meant that the images went out of focus when the beholder approached. Actually, of the paintings exposed at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, my favourite was the most abstract one, made by the marks of thousands rubber stamps.

As for the subject matter, I found it interesting to consider the fuck paintings through the prism of John Berger’s analysis on the nude, as put forward in the BAFTA award-winning BBC series “Ways of Seeing” and the subsequently published eponymous book. They further benefit from having been made at the same time as the original fuck paintings (early 1970s), thereby sharing the mood of the moment.

"Why are these pictures so vacuous and so perfunctory?" --- John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Berger argues that the nude is a highly conventionalised genre in European oil painting, typically depicting a female subject who is aware of being observed by a male beholder (as opposed to the naked state which is simply being without clothes). This corresponds to the different presence that women and men have assumed throughout the times.

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping (…) Men watch and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relationship between men and women but also the relationship of women to themselves. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision – a sight.”  (p. 46p)

Nude, naked, natural? --- Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Courtesy of Louvre.

Furthermore, besides being reduced to a sight whose only purpose is to beguile, tradition demands that the woman is to be blamed and punished for her vanity, Berger contends.

This archaic and unequal foundation may well be the reason why the nude has become less important as a form of contemporary art. Few are able to imagine a nude that does not objectify and diminish – according to Berger, art history has witnessed, at most, a couple of hundred paintings showing naked women (their reason to undress:  because true lovers need to overcome the unnecessary distance of layers of garment), capturing the traits of a loved and desired and irreplaceable woman.

(Meanwhile, the tradition of female objectification holds sway in contemporary marketing.)

Anna de Rijk by Sofia Sanchez Mauro Mongiello for Tar magazine

In this regard, Tompkins offers an interesting way of overcoming the limits of the nude. Far away from fulfilling the role of flattering the male spectator, her paintings put men and women on equal footing as both sights and spectators. They furthermore serve as a means of exploring one’s own sexuality and offer a personal way of interpreting. In Tompkins’ own words, cool as cucumbers:

“Everybody has sex one way or another, but we don’t see ourselves doing it. So we have a real curiosity about what it looks like. I think that for many people curiosity is a plus and a minus, they look and are attracted and repulsed at the same time. That is okay with me.”

Betty Tompkins in her studio. Courtesy of Ari Marcoupolos.

> Fuck Paintings are on at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen until 17 March.

> See our text on the work of Wouter van de Koot for a comparative endeavour of a painter striving to move from figurative to abstract painting.

— Aleksandra Eriksson Pogorzelska —

Introducing Karen Vermeren

Karen Vermeren is a Belgian artist whose in situ landscapes already caught our eyes some time ago. One rainy Sunday, we met up over tangerines and wine to discuss wanderlust, geology and endeavours of surpassing the usual borders of painting – – – and constructing new ones. We were very happy when Karen agreed to join us at Ponyhof.  

Carrara, Delft, Gullfoss, Ithaka, Mingo Falls, Pech Merle, Snežna or Stone Mountain: these are some of the titles of Karen’s exhibitions, named after natural sights she visited or pictures she saw and rendered in her work.

The conscientious art lover may already have located some of these places: the caves of Pech Merle in southern France, for instance, feature in most art history textbooks as the venue where some of the earliest examples of painting were found (which, as a matter of fact, represented spotty ponies); whereas Carrara, in Tuscany, is famous for its marble quarries which provided among others Michelango with material for his ‘David’.

Others are better known as impressive natural sights, such as Snežna, a Slovenian cave whose permanently negative temperature has given rise to astonishing frozen waterfalls; or Stone Mountain, a geologically outstanding (sic) monadnock in Georgia, USA (even if this enthralling site also holds a sad connotation in American history as it used to be a place of Ku Klux Klan activities: in his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King proclaimed that “freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia”).

Karen, a keen traveller and recurrent laureate of art residencies, explains that she wants to capture the beauty and mystery of natural landscapes (a genre that seems somewhat undervalued in contemporary art), but also their physical structure and substance, the history and processes that shaped them. She conducts thorough geological research in order to understand how her subjects function and incorporates these insights into her artistic practice.

Karen was trained as a painter but uses walls and windows (or paper) rather than canvas as the support of her work, and turns to tape almost as frequently as to paint in her practice. However, the way she uses tape — to create depth, to portray the tectonic structure and underlying layers of the mountains — as well as her choice of colours and composition provides her work with a “painterly” impression. Which she maintains herself: “I was trained as a painter and I see myself as a painter.”

I asked Karen how she came to work this way, and she explained that after a course on murals, which she took during an Erasmus exchange in Finland, she started to find canvas too heavy and restrictive and focused on walls instead as she thought they offered her more freedom. She then began using tape in order to frame her murals, to create sharp borders and endings in the walls. Initially she removed the tape but later let it stay, and, over time, more and more tape found its way to her practice.

Stone Mountain in Brussels, 225 x 184 cm, & tape on plastic, ZSenne art lab, Belgium, 2011.

In this painting, representing a cross-section of Stone Mountain, the use of tape creates layers that are suggestive of tectonic plates, while the colours – pinks and reds growing more intense downward the mountain, conveying increasing temperature and magma movements.

Furthermore, many of her paintings are in situ projects including references to the exhibition space, hereby inviting the audience to take notice of the venue and their general surrounding. Her choice of landscape is never treated at random, but always has a special connection with the exhibition space. Walking around one of her shows, I noticed how the works changed depending on my position, and really liked the way that Karen again tests the usual border between work and exhibition space by immersing latter into former.

Isola Comacina in Knokke : Acryl & tape on window & plexiglass.

Karen mentions Cézanne and Monet as references, but also Per Kirkeby (don’t miss the Bozar retrospective), who was a geologist as well as a painter; Robert Smithson, the earthworks artist; Katarina Grosse, for her use of colour and light as well as crossing the borders of the frame, exploring space and a liking of corners.

Valdera in de Hortahal, Bozar, Brussels

See more of Karen’s work at our website.

—Aleksandra Eriksson Pogorzelska—