No One Called Koons "Masculinist Art"

Portland's new Wolff Gallery stuns with "Now I Am Myself," by five female photographers.

For its inaugural show, Wolff Gallery invited five female photographers to make images of themselves and other women. Wolff co-curators Zemie Barr and Shannon O'Connor wanted to see what would happen if they eliminated the male gaze. The result is that the portraits and self-portraits in Now I Am Myself—images of women naked, bound, submerged, exposed, waiting and wanting to be looked at—feel quietly subversive because none of the subjects is sexualized. We have become so accustomed to seeing women depicted in a particular way that anything else takes getting used to.

In the self-portrait Untitled by Briana Cerezo, the artist sits naked in a warehouse, the floor strewn with matches, shafts of sunlight piercing the air around her. She looks directly at us, without a trace of self-consciousness, inviting our stare and curiosity.

Jamila Clarke presents us with an image of a woman sitting alone at a kitchen table, her hands clasped over a pile of dirt, a mud-caked shovel lying across from her. It is a quiet image but a powerful one because it hints at loss and burial, but also at violence. And we are left to decide.

Jamila Clarke, The Shovel, 2013, archival pigment print Jamila Clarke, The Shovel, 2013, archival pigment print

Lauren Crow, whose work echoes that of Nan Goldin, gives us glimpses of achingly intimate moments in circuslike color. In Untitled (Vivian and Me), Crow lies naked in bed with another women, the two effortlessly draped over each other, their faces lit only by the screens of their phones—a portrait of two lovers for the digital age.

Lauren Crow, Untitled (Vivian and Me). 2016 Lauren Crow, Untitled (Vivian and Me). 2016

When women make work about their bodies, it is often dismissed as "feminist art." When photographer Kris Graves made The Testament Project, a portrait series of African-American men (shown in February at Blue Sky Gallery, where Barr is the exhibitions manager) in which he allowed his subjects to pose themselves in an effort to re-examine black masculinity, no one called the effort "masculinist art." The show was lauded for challenging the dominant culture's representation of a minority group.

When Jeff Koons exhibited Made in Heaven, a series of billboard-sized photographs of Koons and his wife engaged in explicit sex acts—with titles like Blow Job-Ice and Dirty Ejaculation—no one spoke of the male gaze that he was so gleefully employing or made mention of his gender. Instead, critics wrote about the Baroque and Rococo influences in his work.

So let's agree not to be lazy about this. The photographers contributing to Now I Am Myself happen to be women making art about women and representation. But it's important that we treat them not as female artists, but as artists—as we have treated Graves and Koons—and that we give their work the courtesy of being accepted or rejected on its own merits.

Wolff succeeds at something that very few galleries manage, which is to curate a group show in which all the pieces feel like they are in conversation with one another. "We thought all of the work related to each other with a genuine sense of self-representation," says O'Connor. The five artists selected use vulnerability and softness in their images to communicate strength. They shift the narrative, as Barr says, "from objectification to empowerment."

SEE IT: Now I Am Myself is at Wolff Gallery, 618 NW Glisan St., Suite R1, 971-413-1340. Through May 1.

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