“Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt off. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” - John Berger

“Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt off. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” This quote from John Berger’s ‘Ways Of Seeing’ suggests that women are never just themselves, they are always performing. How can she ever be truly naked if she is constantly positioned and posed in the mould of feminine expectations?

The depiction of the female subject matter in art has historically been reserved for these assumptions. This has implied their passivity, weakness and domestic purpose, restricting them to an object of observation, or what Laura Mulvey famously called “the male gaze.” As women were relegated to the domestic sphere and excluded from the modern era’s developing academic institutions in the fields of science, art and philosophy, they were excluded from research, defining what questions should be asked and thus the production of knowledge. Take for example, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory which proposed that infant males saw the female as a castrated version of themselves, envious of the penis they are lacking. Therefore, the philosophical knowledge that is rooted in society immediately overlooks the female body in favour of masculine bias and up until now this formed the basis for the representation of gender in art. This can be seen in the repetition of lounging female nudes for the pleasure of a male viewer in conflict with the heroic male figures and phallic symbols in art history.

Georgia O’Keeffe outdoors with Pelvis Series Red With Yellow, 1960.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, second wave feminism bought with it the proposition of new ways of thinking about science and culture and with this, new depictions of feminity arose. Whereas in the 1920s women were concerned with getting the vote, feminists now sought to locate the cause of women’s oppression and during this time they fought for their portrayal in society. They wanted equal image, equal representation, equal pay and equal opportunity. Propelled by Linda Nochlin's provocative essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971) a new generation of artists arose. For example, Barbara Kruger’s graphic imagery sought to reverse the resounding slogans of a male-dominated society. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, a series of staged portraits of the artist herself, in the guise of a variety of stereotypical female movie characters mimicked the cliches of female roles in Hollywood and critiqued the representation of women in the media. In the realm of performance art, Carolee Schneemann reclaimed the vaginas sacridity as a passage of life by drawing a scroll out of it on stage. Yoko Ono invited an audience to cut her clothes off her body during a performance where she sat submissively on a stage. The artists of this era were on a mission to reclaim the female body and the rising of unprecedented female perspective paved the way for the female as art creator and not just subject.

Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero)" (1987). Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers

Second wave feminism had broken the gendered constraints of expectation. This enabled the fetishization of body parts in painting through a new lens, the female gaze. Today we see a host of artists representing the female form in contrasting and exciting ways. Some are desexualising the female form and others are overtly celebrating the female bodily landscape in abstract and figurative painting. Through the contrast of sex positivity and negativity, there is one reoccurring theme and that is the choice of women depicting and choosing the light they want their body to be recognised in.

Loie Hollowell

B. 1983, American.

Loie Hollowell in her studio. Courtesy of Cultured Mag.

Loie Hollowell (b. 1983, Northern California) said, in conversation with Katy Hessel (on The Great Women Artists podcast), that her work is about breaking her own experiences with her body into geometric forms and using the canvas as a landscape to situate these experiences she has. She became a painter as a reaction against having grown up watching her father, a traditional painter, depict her mother in the nude as his muse. Leading on from this she had to think about new ways which broke free from old traditions in how she wanted to portray her own truthful naked body as both artist and model. Hollowell’s psychedelic and enigmatic shapes are autobiographical and represent her own experience of womanhood. This includes a dated series, documenting her pregnancy with her daughter Juniper, through penetrating shapes and visceral lines describing pain and feeling. In further conversation with Hessel, she described how after her birth when the midwifes cut open her placenta and unfolded “this flowery, growing organism” she “had no idea there was something that beautiful inside the whole time.” The shakey vessels mimicked the lines she had drawn in the moments prior to her birth. Through penetrating shapes, line and colour her work transports you on a corporeal journey of female experience. Hollowell takes a specific interest in the cropped interior view of flowers painted by Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986.) Although O’Keefe was not a self-proclaimed feminist, her work is thought to have been very ahead of her time for evoking the theme of female genitilia in the 1920s. O’Keefe herself denied this and it was mostly male art critics at the time, fuelled by the provocative pictures her husband Alfred Stieglitz had exhibited of her, who suggested her images referenced sexuality. The nod to O’Keefe’s work makes Hollowell’s abstract visual descriptions all the more profound as she grapples with a previously taboo subject matter that is so universal to the bodily experience. Therefore, we can appreciate her work as an ode to femininity and an elaboration of the previous restraints potentially felt by O’Keefe.

On the left, Loie Hollowell's Concentric Vibes in Orange and Blue, 2015. Oil on canvas mounted on panel. 71,12 x 53,34 cm | 28 x 21 in. On the right, Loie Hollowell's Linked Lingam in Green, Yellow, and Mauve, 2016. Oil on linen. 71,12 x 53,34 cm | 28 x 21 in. Both painting on view at WHAT'S UP/ LONDON.

Emily Mae Smith

B. 1979, American.

Emily Mae Smith in her studio. Courtesy of GQ, photograph by Matteo Mobilio.

Emily Mae Smith (b. 1979, Texas) elaborates the theme of her own experience in a very different approach. She offers a critique of our gendered society through surreal oil paintings charged with historical references and anxiety. Her work does not abide to a singular style, instead borrowing elements from Surrealism, Pop Art, and Symbolism to aid the images she constructs. This involves personifying objects ripe with eroticism and societal connotations. Take for example, the motif of the phallic-like broomstick referencing Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia film in the pose of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque. Her works, such as The Field, The Gleaner and Me, 2021, embrace the third wave of feminism through the fluidity of the subjects which lack gender identity in their socio-political commentary.

On the left, Emily Mae Smith's Scream, 2015. Oil on linen. 121.92 x 93.98 cm | 48 x 37 in. Painting on view at WHAT'S UP/ LONDON. On the right, Alien Shores, 2018. Oil on linen. 137.2 x 116.8 cm (54 x 46 in.). Sold at Phillips on October 2020.

Sara Anstis

B. 1991, Swedish - Canadian.

Sara Anstis in her studio. Courtesy of Fabian Lang gallery.

In contrast to Mae Smith’s work which draws from the past in a critique of a now, Sara Antis’ (b. 1991, Stockholm) soft pastel paintings anticipate female fantasy worlds. Her blurred abstract figures celebrate the naked body and often appear as hybridized figures lounging around surreal landscapes. Her paintings explicitly worship the female gender with a reoccurring theme of water. In conversation with Emma Grayson (Art of Choice), Antis says “Sea creatures are so other-worldly that they have been mistaken for women. The characters I paint are increasingly of the water: they have slick, smooth skin, the way you’d think a dolphin’s skin would feel.”

“Sea creatures are so other-worldly that they have been mistaken for women. The characters I paint are increasingly of the water: they have slick, smooth skin, the way you’d think a dolphin’s skin would feel.” - Sara Anstis

On the left, Sara Anstis' The Crescent Seat, 2021 Pastel on paper. Painting part of her exhibition Pencil of Rays at Galerie Fabian Lang, Zürich. On the right, No Title, 2021. Charcoal on paper21 x 30 cm | 8.2 x 11.8 in. On view at WHAT'S UP/ LONDON. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Fabian Lang, Zürich.

In the past the notion of womanhood, feminity and birth had been defined by an importance of fertility, domestic values, and specific male needs. However, these artists are creating painting for females to read and associate with opposed to a display of gendered values tied up with societal expectations. They return sacridity to female genitilia and female experience in an ode to the past, present and future.