Betty Tompkins: Fuck Paintings
If there are three things I’m never getting sick of one this blog, its art, vulvas, and sex positivity. Betty Tompkins was involved in the feminist arts movement in the United States in the late 1960’s and 1970s, but her work went practically unknown until it was exhibited for the first time in 2002. The style she mostly uses is photorealism, in which a painting is made from a photograph. (If you’ve visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art you’ve probably already been struck by Chuck Close’s Frank, an example of this style.) Rather than potraiture, she photographed heterosexual couples having sex, and created her paintings from there. She also does drawings and photography, often playing with forms of censorship. The images are all very explicit, focusing in on genitalia and sexual activities, which is why her work is only linked.
But, for a sense of scale, here’s Betty with two of her paintings:
I think these works play into a discussion we had earlier this term about the line between art and pornography. These pictures do represent very explicit sex acts, and although we know them to be inspired by photography, they could just as easily be inspired by screen shots from a porn film. Does the line between porn and art have to do with the intentions of the creator? Tompkins original title for this series was “Joined Forms,” emphasizing the objective beauty of the forms depicted, but they were certainly meant to shock and force dialogue as well. Additionally, the creation of these pieces have none of the same abuse of its female actors as seems inherent in the popular porn industry. But what about the reaction of the viewer? Does the fact that these photographs are erotic and stimulating make it pornographic? If someone buys one of her works and masturbates to it, does it change its placement as an artistic, rather than pornographic form? There are also the questions of objectification and gaze. Does her position as a female artist, take away the male gaze often considered so problematic in porn? Her gaze is evenly distributed across the body parts, which are treated as forms. I think the fact that she reduces sex in many ways to forms is interesting. I guess it is by definition objectifying, but I am not sure that its necessarily negative. Sex is physical, it’s bodies interacting, forms unifying; does the graphic representation of this make it porn?
I think I would posit that if created without the maltreatment of its participants, any strict delineation of porn and art is a false one. So maybe Tompkins’ works can be both pornographic and artistic.
Some interesting articles:
On the Feminist art movement: Art Review, New York Times
In her own words: Interview with Betty Tompkins, Spike Art Quarterly
On art and pornography: Betty Tompkins at Mitchell Algus, Art in America