“We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life,” writes Tennessee Williams in his play Orpheus Descending. Using the varying notions of skin from universal solitary confinement to a marker of identity to a means of communication, artist Martha Wilson and independent curator Larry List investigate the role of skin in art in their fabulously filthy titled exhibition Skin Trade at the P.P.O.W. Gallery. More than a mere metaphor, many of the exhibited artists alter skin artistically and, in some cases, literally as a means to transcend their own seemingly unalterable identities and intimacies linked with skin.
With a title that brings to mind cheap darkened strip clubs and the golden age of sleaze, Skin Trade features a wide range of artists from different generations, sexualities, genders races and ethnicities, as well as a variety of artistic mediums. From Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographic portraits of black men to the doomed and beautiful Ana Mendieta‘s bloody film “Sweating Blood” to Marilyn Minter’s golden glitter-flecked portrait of fellow artist Wangechi Mutu, Skin Trade delves into the significance of the largest organ in the body.
In her study A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman notes, “Our skin is what stands between us and the world” (68). Similar to Tennessee Williams’s always astute and poetic observation, our skin, for better or for worse, defines us, as well as imprisons us within these definitions. Age, race, ethnicity and even the performance of gender are all etched onto the skin. Even illness can be read on the skin such as the visible lesions of Karposi’s sarcoma as seen in COLORS Magazine’s “Reagan with AIDS” poster. A duel source pride or shame, ugliness or beauty, skin, as shown by the curators of Skin Trade‘s choice of title, is always an exchange whether a communication of identity or of touch.
Reflecting the inevitability of skin as a marker of identity, as well as skin as the main contact with the outside world, Skin Trade displays artists who both represent the universal condition of skin as well as rebel against it. From the use of skin as a raw medium to the queer intimacies of touch to a refusal of the immutable imprisonment inside of one’s own skin, the artists in Skin Trade deftly portray how to maneuver through our own solitary confinement and find pockets of freedom.
Beauty Is Only Skin Deep
In Mark Paterson’s study of touch The Sense of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies, he describes the skin as “the body part the most easily altered by human beings, from circumcision and scarification to cosmetics and hair removal.” (109). Particularly for women who must deal with high standards of beauty and the invisibility of aging, the skin becomes a canvas for cosmetics, as well as cosmetic surgery.
Considering the concept behind Skin Trade in part originates from the always witty mind of artist and Franklin Furnace-founder Martha Wilson, who explores the nature of aging skin, cosmetics and imperfection through her own body in her art, it is unsurprising that Skin Trade features a variety of artists who treat their own skin as an artistic material.
Looking at Wilson’s own contribution to Skin Trade, her eight photographs “America the Beautiful” merge the lyrics to the gushingly patriotic song over closeup colored images of wrinkles, freckles and pendulous breasts. Celebrating the skin’s imperfections while connecting them to the beauty of the country, Wilson literally uses her own skin as a medium to define aging women’s place within overt patriotism and nationalism even though aging women often become invisible in society as they age. A punk hero to many women in her defiant celebration of women, aging and mocking infamous First Ladies, Wilson sets the tone for more radical transformations of skin as a medium in Skin Trade.
In photographs such as Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Roberta’s Construction Chart #2,” which shows the noted alterations of a woman’s face before plastic surgery, cosmetic surgery emerges in Skin Trade as a means to treat skin as “pure potential, as literally a raw material” (Paterson 109). However, no artist takes skin as a raw material more literally than slightly terrifying French artist Orlan. Repeatedly going under the knife as a part of her art and performance, Orlan is possibly most well-known for her man-made horns, created from cheek-bone implants in her forehead, which has led her to sue Lady Gaga for plagiarism.
With “Omnipresence I and II,” both playing on a screen in the back of P.P.O.W., Orlan describes her alienation from the 1980s art world before she gets plastic surgery, transforming her face into an art object. Conscious for the surgery with only a spinal tap to numb the pain, Orlan still appears to be the artist despite the surgeon’s actual handwork. In a state of continual becoming and evolving, Orlan transcends concrete identities connected to the skin as her surgical procedures constantly alter her appearance and herself. Drawing on the ongoing redefinition of female beauty, Orlan critiques these standards while making herself and her skin the ultimate slave to cosmetic whims.
I Got You Under My Skin
With the use of skin as a material and an objection, skin is also the place for touch and intimacy. Unsurprisingly many of the works in Skin Trade deal with sexual intimacy such as Betty Tompkin’s shockingly not very graphic “Sex Painting #3” and Nancy Davidson‘s hilariously huge and oddly sensual “Blue Moon.” However, skin not only represents sexual intimacy but also the intimacy and touch beyond sexuality or a “queer intimacy” as defined by theorist Ann Cvetkovich.
In Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings, she delves into the queer intimacy between people dying from complications from AIDS and their lesbian caretakers. Analyzing memoirs as a means to capture these queer intimacies between the bodies of the caretakers and the dying, Cvetkovich finds a different type of intimacy that is “rooted in the physical and material” since “the tasks of caretaking involve many forms of touch.” (214).
Defining queer intimacy, Cvetkovich explains, “Intimacy and affective relationships are based on physical transactions. Cumulatively, these AIDS caretaking memoirs add to queer representations of sexuality by finding eroticism and affect in physical acts that occupy a far wider range than genital sexuality and in relationships that are just as intimate as those between families, lovers or friends.” (213).
Like Cvetkovich’s queer intimacy, artist Hunter Reynolds’s, who has been living with AIDS since 1984, film “Butur Mummification Performance,” documenting his performance from his solo show at P.P.O.W. in 2012, and a resulting, aptly named “Mummification Performance Skin #1,” a chrysalis-like remainder from the performances, forges a queer intimacy not only between the artist and his assistants but between the artist and the viewers.
With assistants wrapping him in plastic wrap and multicolored fluorescent tape, Hunter Reynolds’s “Butur Mummification Performance” transforms the erotic fetish mummification practice into a treatise on death, rebirth and queer intimacies through touch. As his assistants wrap his body in the materials, carefully checking his breathing and his one free arm, their exchange of touches, caring and intimate, reflect the bonds of queer intimacy as related by Cvetkovich.
As the performance progresses, Reynolds’s is eventually taken, completely mummified and covered in glitter, into the middle of 10th Avenue, stopping traffic and forcing an invisible queer body into visibility. The layers of tape mirror layers of touching from Reynolds’s skin touching the mummification skin to the skin touching the pavement and the participating observers. Reynolds’s performance connects viewers, participants and the artist into a type of queer intimacy, a caring bond beyond the structures of normative relationships or even, safe art-viewing distance. As Cvetkovitch describes, queer intimacies are “a matter of one body literally touching another body” (225).
Can We Refuse Skin?
While artists such as Wilson, Orlan and Reynolds transcend the boundaries of identity and normative intimacy through their exploration of skin through art, several artists in Skin Trade attempt to transcend their own skin by hiding, receding into the landscape whether a tacky Disney store or a Lynchian abandoned building.
Both Liu Bolin‘s “Hiding In New York No. 7–Made in China” and Veruscka Lehndorff & Holger Trulzsch’s series of photographs deal with invisibility in contrast to many of the other artists in the exhibition. Painting themselves to fade into the background, all three artists negate their own skin, choosing to hide instead of be seen. Whether revealing the complete inundation of individuals through garish surroundings like Bolin or the place of humanity within abandoned industrial environments like Lehndorff and Trulzsch, the artists essentially both use their skin as a canvas and refuse their own skin, painting over their individual markers of identity.
These two eerily similar pieces in the exhibition raise the potentially unsolvable question: Can we refuse our own skin? And I don’t mean in the way of a Bodies exhibit or terrible Robbie Williams music video. All of these artists depict some sort of refusal to skin as an immutable, unchangeable marker of identity. Whether through Orlan’s plastic surgery, Hunter Reynolds’s mummification transformation and rebirth or Bolin’s disappearance into a sea of stuffed animals, the artists seem to, if just momentarily, escape the solitary confinements of their own skin through artistic creation and representation.