| Art

On the Female Birthday Suit’s Autonomy from Perversion

An overview of An Other View — Joan Semmels’ reimagining of the female form released from the ever-present leer of the male gaze.

Joan Semmel

At first glance, the libidinous forms lying across eight gargantuan oil-paintings (on display as part of Xavier Hufkens’ An Other View) may seem increasingly familiar. It’s particularly the case given that they repeatedly portray the figure of the artist, Joan Semmel, through undulating curvatures, softened midsections and pendulous bosoms.

Where the images differ is beneath the surface of the bodies these creations give birth to. An earlier expressionist painting from 1971, for instance, mothers a contemptuous, yet considerate and profound acknowledgement of the subjugation of female bodies through commercial channels. It does so by featuring an erect cock that you have to concertedly look upon within the composition. The positioning nurtures Semmel’s perspective that “the pattern of male dominance and female submissiveness” is “so deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness, that, at times, a kind of psychological and sexual trauma is caused when that balance is disturbed”. Consequently, “female sexuality is very frightening because it attacks the basis of that relationship”. 

In comparison, her ‘Self Image’ progression espouses, and garners, a more middle-fingered riposte to the omnipresence of male contemplation in western compositions and popular culture. Semmel’s considerations of her physical characteristics inevitably lead to her becoming the observer (focus of), along with voyeur (focused on) within the five decades enveloped within the space.

Painting by Joan Semmel entitled Seated in Red, 2018, oil on canvas 
Joan Semmel. Seated in Red, 2018, oil on canvas 

Each piece encourages observers to gaze upon them through the lens of those broader discourses we instigate around womanhood; whether these are concentrated on bodily autonomy, reproductive protections or the socio-political acknowledgement that ‘the personal is the political’. We view the paintings alongside the progression of feminist inclined contentions, from the sexual emancipation of the ’70s to the present inclination towards, and besetting preoccupation with, youth. 

It is perhaps as an acknowledgement of the disjointed nature of these discussions, that Semmel’s preference is for portraying the anatomy as splintered (and therefore perceivable from different perspectives). 

Particular affirmations of this trope are observed in the artist’s preference for climaxing each project around the presence of cameras, or an inferred intervention of reflectors, that position the figures within a gluttonous paradigm. The gaze itself is included.

‘Baroque’ (2002), in picturing the artist in her birthday suit, save for the presence of ostentatious rings, (one adorned with an unignorable turquoise), undresses itself as the aspirational bedmate to this performative voyeurism.

There’s a flagrancy too, in Semmel’s numerous modus operandi; sensual, heady brushstrokes in one creation; photographic-centred montages in another. Tumblr-style body panoramas become jolting, representational self-portraits, and expressionism-catalysed considerations foster a gleefulness in their inhibition.

Painting by Joan Semmel entitled Camera Choreography, 2006/2021 oil on canvas.
Painting by Joan Semmel entitled Camera Choreography, 2006/2021 oil on canvas.

Brought to life through a considered combination of these approaches is the more recent ‘Camera Choreography’ (2006/21), where Semmel conjures herself twice. The first time moving, as if to lend herself an ambiguity, and the second, squatting whilst her camera, with its emerging robotic eye, is positioned at her vulva. Significantly, Semmel’s facial features aren’t depicted in this particular body of work. Observers can therefore select to look, or look away, (if they presume that they too, are being looked upon).

Joan Semmel:  An Other View.
On display until the 22nd of June.
Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. 


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