“She lost all her innocence
She said, ‘I am not a feminist’
–Hole, “I Think That I Would Die”
Examining society’s impossible expectations for women in her essay “Bad Feminist: Take One,” Roxane Gay describes, “…the right way to be a woman is to be thin, to wear makeup, to wear the right kind of clothes (not too slutty, not too prudish–show a little leg, ladies), and so on. Good women are charming, polite and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn or, depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise those children without complaint. Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don’t adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable; they are bad women” (303-304).
While sometimes shielded by the progressiveness of certain artists, the art world holds women to equally unreasonable standards. Gallerinas are expected to act as just another beautiful artwork for collectors’ consumption, women serve as the centuries-long objectified subject of art made by “great” men and women artists are just that–relegated to the label of “Women” artists.
Feminism, and its artistic counterpart feminist art, continue to have a bad rep, conjuring images of tampons in teacups and menstrual blood paintings. The refusal or rejection of the feminist label largely comes from a place of misinformation, aside from the valid criticisms of a non-intersectional form of feminism. “I disavowed feminism,” admits Roxane Gay in her introduction to her essay collection Bad Feminist, “because I had no rational understanding of the movement. I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, ‘You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.’ This caricature is how feminists have been warped by the people who fear feminism most, the same people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds” (xi-xii).
Like Gay’s final acceptance of the label, two Lower East Side gallery exhibitions reveal how women can take representation into their own hands. While of differing generations and, I assume, relationships with feminism, Andrea Mary Marshall’s The Feminist Calendar 2016 and Brigid Berlin’s It’s All About Me depict the ways in which self-portraiture can be a feminist act.
After her Elvis/Geisha extravaganza Sacred/Iconic, Andrea Mary Marshall returns to Garis & Hahn with her newest body of work–a series of 24 self-portraits exhibited as a double-sided calendar. Drawing on the legacy of the storied and exclusive Pirelli calendar, Marshall explores the limited roles of women in these calendars as either objectified models shot by male photographers or clothed and sexless influential women captured by women photographers.
On one side of the calendar, Marshall photographs herself with a hypersexuality so heightened that it transforms the erotic into the abject. A calendar girl gone rogue, Marshall spills cum-like milk from her mouth, pisses in the darkened Bushwick streets, wields a gas pump like Lynda Benglis’ dildo and wades through a car wash’s chemical spray in a bikini. Essentially objectifying herself as the photographer and model, Marshall both embraces and critiques this excessive version of female sexuality, revealing its absurdity while reveling in her own agency.
The other side of the calendar features Marshall in her studio with no makeup and simple clothes. In some respects more naked than the nude sexualized photographs, Marshall’s second body of self-portraits are vulnerable and emotional. Stripping away the performance or persona, these are possibly the most revealing photographs Marshall has exhibited.
By making her own calendar with these double images, Marshall asserts the ability of women to enact both these roles–the sexual and the vulnerable. Women don’t have to chose between the Madonna or the whore, powerfully self-fashioning themselves in either performative role.
To further cement her artistic statement, Marshall titles her calendar “The Feminist.” Taking a word fraught with various meanings from its use by pop singers such as Beyonce to its utter rejection by others, Marshall wholly embraces the term as an affirmative, fluid and empowering label. As Roxane Gay writes, “Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at it’s best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe by voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard” (x).
Speaking of voices demanding to be heard, what better way to introduce the work of known blabbermouth and Filthy Dreams role model Brigid Berlin, whose gift for gab made her one of Warhol’s closest friends and Factory superstar. In her It’s All About Me curated by Anastasia Rygle at Invisible-Exports, Berlin comes out from under Andy’s bewigged shadow to present her own work from her early selfies, tapes upon tapes of recorded conversations and her aptly named Tit Paintings. I bet you can’t guess how those are made.
While Berlin’s constant chatter is what made me initially fall in love with her, her Polaroids create a captivating cross-generational conversation with Marshall’s calendar despite her Polaroids dating from decades earlier. Like Marshall, Berlin acts as both photographer and model in her innovative double-exposure Polaroids, creating a trippy and playful form of self-representation.
Even though Berlin poses with makeup and wigs, Berlin is certainly not performing any of the traditional accepted “good” roles for women as discussed by Gay. Instead, Berlin’s self-fashioning of her gender is humorous, quirky, and just a bit addled. Of course, this was the era of Brigid Polk–her Factory name given for her notorious amphetamine “pokes.”
Often nude, as she frequently was at the Factory, Berlin celebrates her imperfect body, appearing as the antithesis of the stereotypical Warholian gamine. With her double exposure layering images of her face and a refrigerator or piles of candy, Berlin both reflects on and pokes fun at her own struggles with her weight.
With nearly thirty Polaroids in the exhibition, Berlin’s photography can be understood as feminist artwork, as she experiments with double exposure to assert her own agency over her representation and explore various gendered roles. More than an assumed version of feminism, Berlin’s art, as well as Marshall’s, perhaps best portrays Roxane Gay’s conception of “bad feminist.”
As Gay describes, “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying –trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairman because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground” (xi).