"Absolutely Gorgeous Women": Lowbrow Art and Female Castration

by on Mar.29, 2011

Some weeks ago, I found myself involved in a brief Facebook exchange with a Hi-Fructose-featured artists Conrad Roset and some of his audience. I, like many others, was drawn to his visually striking and technically proficient explorations of the dynamics between sexuality and violence, power and submission, pleasure and pain. The post received a record number of “likes” on Hi-Fructose’ Facebook page.
If the gushfest in the comment stream is in any way indicative of the public response, the audience mostly agreed with the magazine’s effusive write-up (authored by Zach Tutor): “Roset fills his pieces with absolutely gorgeous women, who glow with a sexual intensity so thick that it can only be described as something created from passion itself. Their looks are mysteriously endearing, catapulting the viewer into an ecstasy only rivaled by the endlessly bright colors Roset splashes carefully amongst the scenes.”

Lovely. Now, once we’re all done jerking off, let’s take a second look. I, for one, am much less enthusiastic about these portraits. To begin with, I find the nudes woefully traditional and uninspired. Despite their (not terribly convincing) facial expressions, their poses are centuries-old clichés of female submission to the male gaze, a phrase that is itself quite worn-out by now yet sadly fitting in this context. Most of the drawings are carefully orchestrated with the use of composition and color to showcase the breasts. Perhaps there’s nothing so wrong with that, except that they also prudishly and very systematically expunge the genital area. These are castrated women, deprived of any capacity for pleasure, without which their defiance and pain loses all its supposed sexual intensity. We may call it the mermaid syndrome: any sexual response is wholly focused in the male viewer; the subject itself has no capacity for it.

I see this becoming somewhat of a trend in Hi-Fructose’ brand of lowbrow art. To be sure, the insistence on unbridled viewing pleasure is one of the defining characteristics of the movement, but so has been its playful and subversive exploration of gender and sexuality. In this case, though, it seems that a subculture that purports to spurn traditional hierarchies is opening a backdoor to patriarchy. Is it a ruse devised to engage patriarchy in kinky anal play? We can only hope.

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21 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Josef,

    Like you, I really like this genre (or is it subculture) of art. Magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose – I read them all the time, for a number of reasons. I like their omniverous engagement with pop culture, including disparaged sub-pop-cultures like tattoo art and skateboard art and grafiti; I like how seamlessly international this art seems (the journals often feature artists from all over the world, and of course the cover to Lara’s Maximum Gaga was by Swedish artist Mia Makila who’s also part of this genre/subculture); and I like their unabashed love of visual pleasure (as opposed to a lot of the institutional high taste). Joyelle and I both wrote posts accompanied by Camille Rose Garcia images last week.

    Like you I find the frequent inclusion of these nude girls kind of boring – not so much for the reason that there are nude girls, but more because – as you note – when the subject matter are nude girls, the art tends to be less imaginative. At the same time I wonder if this is a necessary result of exactly the things I like about this art – its revelling in visual pleasure, its “lowbrow”ness, its disregard of high taste, its omniverous use of sources/genres.

    Another thing: I love the images in these journals, but the writers tend to shy away from any kind of theoretical argument; usually it’s focused on the materials and how did you start painting and what were you listening to when you painted this etc. This might be part of the issue.

    Johannes

  2. Johannes

    Or, I don’t know, mabye that’s a patronizing attitude.
    Johannes

  3. Johannes

    I mean my comment is patronizing.I didn’t mean for it to be.

    Johannes

  4. Josef Horáček

    Johannes, I ask myself precisely the same questions. I wonder if the resistance to critical reflection comes from the fact that it is often automatically associated with cultural elitism. I’d say this blog is an argument to the contrary.

    Sure, not every artist needs to be a critic, and asking artists theoretically loaded questions is often counterproductive (much like asking translators such questions). On the other hand, magazines like Hi-Fructose and Juxtapoz could afford a bit of critical distance. Without it, they’re little more than fanzines. Nothing wrong with that, but as lowbrow art is becoming somewhat of a cultural force, it could use a venue capable of placing the genre in a broader context.

    In the end, this might actually help the artists sell their art.

  5. Johannes

    I wonder if we can ask them to have not critical “distance”, which does seem to run counter to a lot of the rhetoric (and which I think frankly is over-rated), but critical “closeness” or some other version of criticism that doesn’t necessarily “distance” but exacerbates or excites or bewilders. What do you think?

    Johannes

  6. Lara Glenum

    Josef, I love what you’re saying. I’m a huge fan of “lowbrow art,” and I routinely eat both Hi-Fructose and Juxtapoz like cake, but I’m often totally choking on the flatness of the gender dynamic.

    Of course, it’s not only the omnipresence of “castrated” female bodies that tires/irritates, but the near total absence of erocticized male bodies–or any kind of representation of the queer gaze, the hetero female gaze, etc.

    Juxtapoz also seriously lacks coverage of working female artists. Hi-Fructose includes women more often–as long as they produce pettable, furry art or colonize their work with boobs. Or space-age nymphettes.

  7. Josef Horáček

    Yes, Johannes, that’s a better description of the kind of criticism that I’d like to see.

  8. Johannes

    It would be interesting to see what the Juxtapoz people would do with Nathalie Djurberg (http://montevidayo.com/?p=1167, post below) or Ryan Trecartin.

    Johannes

  9. Josef Horáček

    What would they do? Probably say that those people don’t fit their aesthetic. Which is legitimate if the mags can own up to the fact that they also function as gatekeepers.

  10. Johannes

    I think it would be interesting if they could find a way of dealing with them. I don’t think these journals are exactly as close-minded as you seem to suggest. Or they don’t have to be.

    Also, Lara, I don’t believe that desire works that simply – that there is a hetero gaze and a homo gaze etc. I’m also not sure desire makes the best art. In my own writing I don’t generally write out of desire, if I do it’s out of a revulsion with my own desire. When I’m writing, desire makes me sick.

    Johannes

  11. Lara Glenum

    O I agree with you, Johannes. I didn’t mean to imply that desire is in any way monolithic or homogenous–nor was I suggesting that art should/does stem from an experience of desire. I was just cueing to the fact that these mags mostly present the work of straight boys, often white. And these mags are cover-to-cover saturated with what often amounts to hetero male softcore (the ads especially). Josef’s right.

  12. Johannes

    And that might in fact be what leads to the boring stuff./Johannes

  13. Johannes

    It also seems to me that the woman in this picture – like many of the women in this culture – is not very sexual, is almost prepubescent… So is it actually jerking off that is called for? Or is it the desire for some kind of purified sexuality?/Johannes

  14. megan

    Great post – thanks for this, Josef. Josef/Johannes, are you familiar with RUE MORGUE? i think it’s a great example of a magazine that performs the sort of critical “closeness” that you’re talking about, with a similarly subcultural/’lowbrow’ genre (horror films). i think the way it does this is by casting a broad net for ‘horror’ – covering both avant-horror (the natalie djubergs, if you will) and the lowest of the lowbrow. but i don’t know, even these terms are elitist, i find myself trying to avoid scare-quoting everything.

  15. Johannes

    Thanks, I’ll be interested in checking that out./Johannes

  16. Josef Horáček

    Why elitist? It really depends on how you use the terms. Here, lowbrow is not so much a value judgment as a descriptor of a particular genre. And yes, thank you for the tip.

  17. Carina Finn

    johannes, I think critical closeness is the perfect term, & maybe the only way to really talk about djurberg (<3!) or trecartin — letting theory act as a sort of mesh, the critical mode-as-screen, opens up the work & lets it leak & meander through the writing rather than setting the Writing up in opposition to the Art, seems a) appropriate & b) fun

  18. Lara Glenum

    >>Or is it the desire for some kind of
    >>purified sexuality?

    I keep misreading this as “putrified sexuality.” And somehow I totally love this misreading. (Pre)pubsecent girl bodies as doubles for corpses. The desire for inert flesh. Dead subjectivity. Horror, indeed.

  19. adam strauss

    I like this, and feel it meshes with much of my experience of writing out of and/or towards desire: “In my own writing I don’t generally write out of desire, if I do it’s out of a revulsion with my own desire.” I think this point is interesting too because it to a goodly degree gells with Petrarch in his essay The Ascent of Mount Ventoux.

  20. The Theory of Lowbrow/Lowbrow as Theory:Some Speculations on Art Forum, Juxtapoz, HiBrow, LoBrow, and Camille Rose Garcia - Montevidayo

    […] 2011, under Uncategorized I just wanted to add a few words to the lowbrow debate which is going on around Josef Horacek’s post. The point has been raised that lowbrow needs (more) theory, and/or needs critical distance. I […]

  21. Elizabeth Caffey

    I have noticed some other bothersome things in the genre. Often there are sexualized young girls. Mark Ryden is the prime example(and most famous). The whole movement claims to subvert the history of art through the use of art forms usually excluded from high art such as children’s book illustration. So, he takes the classical fine art painting compositions( reclining nude for example) and inserts a childrens book looking character in the pose. The Snow Yak show is what comes to mind, specifically the painting Sophia’s Bubbles.
    Was I the only person who said WTF?! out loud or was everyone just worshipping at the alter?
    What exactly is he saying? It is dressed up with arcane symbols to imply some mysterious meaning beyond the viewer.