Contributed by Jacob Patrick Brooks / I take it as a bad sign when galleries seize an opportunity to “respond” to something. At best, it’s slightly out of touch. The nature of putting on a thoughtful show is that it takes time and effort to pull off. Generally, the result is that it misses the moment. “New Images of Women” at Shoot the Lobster avoids this pitfall. It manages to be both provocative and timely. The work is carefully chosen, the message well-crafted and delivered like a perfectly timed punch in the stomach.
The concept and title of the show are riffing on “New Images of Man.” Displayed in 1959 at MoMA, that exhibition signaled a new bright light of human advancement and the undeniable aesthetic achievements of modernity. It had all the heavy hitters you’d expect: Bacon, de Kooning, Giacometti, and Pollock, among many others. Walking into “New Images of Women,” you’re confronted by women and women-identifying people in various forms of anonymity and identifiability. They’re by turns disfigured, beautiful, outright threatening, and totally innocuous. New orthodoxies are pointedly elusive.
Cindy Sherman’s In My Garden is a simultaneously funny and sad image of the artist wearing a prosthetic nose, the only visible hand covered by an enormous glove and holding a snake.
She looks disheveled and annoyed, her bright yellow overalls covered in dirt. She’s taken the banal exasperation of domestic chores and heightened it to an extreme, cartoonish end. It makes you feel a sickly mix of wanting to laugh and enormous pity. Looming above it is Curtis Mitchell’s Hairbrush. Banking on hair hanging from anything other than someone’s head as being an easy way to make your skin crawl, it is uncanny, creepy, and extremely effective, while also functioning as a portal from Sherman’s portrait to Duncan Hannah’s collage, Untitled.
Like Sherman, the woman in Hannah’s piece makes direct eye contact with the viewer, albeit much more confrontationally. One eye is hidden by her hair, and she looks tense. She’s topless, collaged on the cover of Time magazine. It recalls William Bailey’s painting Portrait of S. from the cover of Newsweek in 1982. Hannah’s update meets this mass-produced image and takes it a step further. The woman almost certainly came from a porn magazine, shifting Bailey and Sherman’s portrayals of imaginary women from something harmless and innocent to something more vulgar and exploitative. Viewing this image is akin to watching professional wrestling. You know it’s fake, you still take some lizard-brained pleasure in it, and you wonder what that says about your character.
Brittany Adeline King’s NJ Transit gestures towards another form of the mass-produced woman – one that isn’t sexual but still reinforces socially accepted views of femininity while also being completely disposable. The piece is a black-and-white photograph of a small, Polly Pocket-like figure, her arms out and bent down at the elbow, in a small found frame, painted and adorned with plastic gemstones. Polly Pockets are known for their customizability, within the limits of what standardized accessories are available at the retail center of your choice. Mattel’s message is clear: she can look however you want, as long as she presents as a conventional “girl.” NJ Transit feels like a retort to Hannah’s collage. Both directly confront mass-produced images of women, but to completely different ends, suggesting that there is no easy way to grapple with femininity on a society wide scale meant explicitly for public consumption.
As a whole, the show avoids telling us anything directly. There is no right or wrong, there’s only art putting other art in context. Room is left for the work to breathe and fight it out. Various references of how women have been depicted through art history float just outside the gallery, charging the atmosphere with a potential that other group shows in basements have not conjured. The show is greater than the sum of its parts and a living project all its own.
“New Images of Women” is the latest in a trend of shows at downtown galleries that have either taken issue with late modernism or used the idea of its legacy as a jumping off point. These galleries and the artists they enlist seek to expose the flaws in high modernist thought, challenge contemporary interpretations of art history, and explore connections between the two. Be it disdain for art world patriarchy, doubt about the great-man theory, or impatience with uneven museum collections, the generational beef is the driving engine of art history and an important part of any conversation about contemporary art. The problem with other shows is that they only do half the work, stopping short pointing a way forward. This leaves the viewer with the impression that there isn’t one, dooming us to relitigate the last 100 years forever.
The idea of any sort of universal truth seems quaint now, another utopian dream of modernism that failed to materialize. The thought is beautiful and naïve, something to be approached with an ironic distance to avoid getting hurt. The accidental genius of “New Images of Women” is the way it manages to hit on the only relevant universality of our time: that universal truth is impossible. We’re all presented with the same information and drawing wildly different conclusions. In this acknowledgement, the show uniquely manages to thread a needle, pointing out the flaws in the source material while also gesturing towards an aesthetic way forward. It suggests that there can be no single truth or “right” answer; that advancing requires a vulnerability that implicates artist, curator and viewer; and that the only way to progress is to get your hands dirty. If you are willing to accept this reality, you will welcome this show as an opportunity to appreciate how far we’ve come and yet how far we still need to go.
“New Images of Women,” Shoot the Lobster, 138 Eldridge Street, New York, NY. Through January 21, 2023.
About the author: Jacob Patrick Brooks is a Brooklyn painter who grew up in Kansas.