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The unfamiliar experience of comfortably looking at a woman’s vagina

By Patricia Gorczak

When an artist calls her work Cunt Painting #31, you might not expect an airbrushed acrylic grisaille tracing the soft curves of a woman’s bottom, with the lips of her vulva almost turning into an O’Keefe-like flower between her legs. A glowing effect, if not a sense of pleasure, emerges from the pink primer shimmering through the thinly applied layers of gray. Yet, this is how Betty Tompkins chose to paint the subject. As provocative and degrading the title may sound, the image itself seems to be dignifying female genitalia above anything else.

Nonetheless, it would be unjustified to dismiss her work as a mere celebration of female sexuality, and it is far from being a simple aestheticisation of pornographic imagery which served as her source material in the late sixties. Her cut out collages made out of – at the time illegal – porn magazines overturn any imposed censorship by zooming in on the sexual act. Scaled up and presented on a canvas in a photorealistic manner, Tompkins forces its viewers to examine parts of the human body that etiquette has taught us not to. Despite the omnipresence of sex in popular visual culture, the tangible act of intercourse, and female genitalia in particular, still is predominantly laden with bashful modesty. Deemed to be obscene and repulsive, its particularities remain a very intimate and personal matter. It is no surprise that her large-scale Cunt Painting, especially when seen in a sterile gallery context, leaves the viewer with the discomforting task to fathom his or her own sexual behaviour.

It is the rigid segmentation of the body, the monochromatic palette and soft focus that create a tension between the explicitness of the subject and its artistic abstraction. In finding a balance between obscenity and beauty, Tompkins withstands to impose any claims, typically linked to second-wave feminism. Unlike the provocative and more aggressive approach of artists like Linder Sterling, who similarly took inspiration from porn magazines, Tompkins’ imagery doesn’t convey an obvious sense of abuse. Whereas Sterling points to the objectification of women for the sake of men’s sexual pleasure, when placing an iron over a naked woman’s head posing on a kitchen counter – interestingly, her vagina is concealed from the lustful spectator – Tompkins is not preoccupied with male dominance. “I've never used material where my sense of the people involved was exploitation.” It might be the naivety of this statement that enabled her to keep a clear and unbiased look on female sexuality. It makes her work a perfect flagship for young artists such as photographers Talia Chetrit or Sandy Kim, confidently experimenting with sex-positivism and the pleasure principle.

Betty Tompkins' Fuck Paintings, Etc at J Hammond Projects in London, on until 13 April 2019

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