June 29 – July 28, 2018
By Lauren Fournier
I just did a painting that said I’m going to Jackson Pollock all over her face! I thought it was hysterically funny. It’s got an art reference!
– Betty Tompkins to interviewer, Elliat Albrecht, 2018
I walk into WAAP’s glowing white space, located on ground level on Vancouver’s East Hastings street, feeling relieved to have arrived. It’s been a high-anxiety day for me, as walking around the downtown eastside neighborhood where I used to live and work holds such weight for me. And while a big part of me just wanted to bail and go home, I was determined to make it to this opening. After kindly declining the friendly offer of wine by the gallery staff, I gravitate toward the painting closest to me. It’s a tiny canvas of electrified primary colours, neon blue and yellow and a lipsticky coral pink. Am I reading that right? It says JIZZ JAR. I feel a weird thrill like I’m in the kind of space that feels more comfortable in its honesty than contemporary art spaces tend to feel. There’s a conceptual immediacy to Tompkins’s paintings—something straightforwardly feminist that, in its brazenness, is refreshingly disarming in the space of a clean white cube.
Women Words at WAAP marks the first time that NYC-based artist Betty Tompkins’s work has shown in Canada. Tompkins, best known for her Fuck Paintings (1969-)—photorealist renderings of penetrative views from pornography— began Women Words in 2002, when she put out a call for people to send her words or phrases “used to describe women.” To this day, Tompkins still paints each word she receives, creating a cacophony of “women words” that are as celebratory as they are unsettling. The history of feminist conceptualism meets the largely male-dominated, painterly histories of abstract expressionism in Tompkins’s paintings, which have, like her work historically, been met with some hesitancy both by the mainstream and by other feminists. With the current climate of #SlutWalk and #MeToo, this exhibition finds new resonance and relevance: patently historical in its media and themes (think 1960s-70s, “second-wave”), it also finds a home in the current feminist context that is publicly calling out sexual harassment and loudly resisting the pernicious hold of rape culture through naming it as such.
From the action-painty splashing of reds, greens, and black on yellow in the piece that reads HYSTERICAL to the vertical rainbow smears on the work reading SHREW, the paintings in Women Words bring me, as a female-presenting person with a history of sexual and gender-based trauma, the somberly satisfying feeling of being seen. Stencilled in all-caps, the text is the blank space in an otherwise paint-saturated canvas or notebook page. In some works the paint is smeared, in others drippy; some are thickly brushed, others textured with ornate patterns like lace—a gesture to baroque femininity that adds to the general “excess” of these pieces. Visually unique, each becomes a complicated character in this accumulating body of work.
As one reads through the works in the space, it becomes clear that these “women words” are, more accurately, words to describe women as hyper-sexualized beings to be penetrated. Some make this case more straightforwardly—BOTTOM BITCH, EASY LAY—others more metaphoric—LOVE SOCKET, SAUSAGE HOLDER, UNE COCHONE. Given the curatorial strategy of displaying the paintings-on-paper in a grid, these more “negative” words create a context in which other more “positive” or “neutral” ones, like HIPPY CHICK, A VISION, or SWEET SIXTEEN feel suspect–even creepy. Of course, much of the point of Women Words is that all of these labels are up for problematizing: and that, what works for one woman—who might see “Slut” as an empowering term of self-identification in the context of movements of reclamation like Slutwalk—might be offensive or wounding to another.
The curation of Women Words at WAAP differs from its maximalist displays in the US (FLAG in NYC (2016) and Gavlak LA (2017) included all 1000 works), with Wil Aballe arranging the works—48 in total—fairly sparsely. This is an effective move, allowing for a more controlled space to really take in each of Tompkins’s difficult pieces without feeling sensorially and emotionally overwhelmed. The expansive space between the tiny canvases on the west wall contrasts nicely with the close proximity between the works on paper on the east wall: the paintings on paper, placed in a grid, invokes a sense of unity between women standing together in their various forms of abjection. There is room for me to absorb each work and the weight it possesses—so much affective baggage—without feeling incapacitated. Most potent in Women Words is the tension between the loudness of the painted word—both its connoted meaning (when read in relation to “women”) and its all-caps rendering—and the physical smallness of the works themselves in a gallery space that, curated somewhat sparsely, gives each “word” sufficient space to breathe. Tompkins’s canvases are not so small as to be infantilizing (in that infuriatingly twee way: I think of the woman artist-as-miniaturist trope seen in films like Tiny Furniture and Synecdoche, New York); rather, their capacity to hold space despite (or because of?) their size is startlingly evocative.
While works like JIZZ JAR hail the viewer into a space of unabashed, 1990s-feeling feminist explicitness, the nude body itself—so central to the impact of Tompkins’s Fuck Paintings—is absent, save for the single, medium-sized painting on canvas hung on the lavender focal wall: a soft painting of creases, somewhat abstract, it centers thighs and a vulvic fold. In place of the female body, the exhibition provides a series of signifiers for a perverse—mainstream?—conception of womanhood: the effect, for the viewer, is one of questioning such interpellating grounds for gender identity in the first place. The painting at the back, anchoring the space in a strange softness, is contoured and cushy, like a sentient body that feels pleasure and pain (and everything in between). This gesture to the sexual body—a velvety view of the vulva from behind that, while close-up and de-contextualized, is too softly rendered to be pornographic—reminds the viewer of a cis woman’s body that, in a space of violent, violating calls, stays present and nude. Is she here because she wants to be? Has she been coerced into staying? This ambivalence around sexual agency reverberates through the exhibition, just as it does in the lives of so many women, both past and present.
It is exhibitions like these that remind me of the ways that “contemporary art” can really speak to those from diverse backgrounds, even as contemporary art spaces continue to often be perceived as insular and intimidating by “non-art-going” publics. It occurred to me, as I walked through the space, that many of the people living in Vancouver for whom this work might have the most impact are not connected to Vancouver’s contemporary gallery scene, let alone its commercial art spaces. I thought of young twenty-something me, walking home along East Hastings after working at a harm reduction site, navigating catcalls from men and the question “Are you working?” asked by a passerby under his breath. I thought of the numerous times I’d been sexually harassed and assaulted in Vancouver when I studied and worked there in my early twenties, from having my ass grabbed at Commercial Drive JJ Bean while I waited for my coffee to witnessing a man masturbating in front of me while I tried to eat my lunch in Brittania Park. I would have loved to see this art show back then. I thought of my sex worker friends in the city, and my radical sex-positive friends who host Rent Cheque, an amateur strip night at the Astoria Hotel located one block away from WAAP’s space. I thought of all of my friends who, like me, are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and who come from working-class backgrounds with little to no exposure to this thing called “contemporary art.” This work was for them—for us— and I wondered what it would take for them to see it. I wondered if something was lost from the work being shown in a commercial gallery space. Or perhaps there needs to be a larger shift in contemporary art and the art market toward works that are explicitly politicized—to gendered, racialized, or otherwise intersectional ends—when it comes to who feels welcome in art spaces (and who materially benefits from being a part of the “art market”).
Although I found the exhibition at WAAP affirming, and an effective example of a contemporary “feminist” art show that bridges the politics and aesthetics of early feminisms with pertinent feminist issues in the present, there is a complicated ambivalence at the heart of Women Words. The question remains as to whether the act of reclaiming language—including hate speech—is an efficacious or ethical act: indeed, this is a contended issue within communities with histories of marginalization and oppression, including Queer and Black communities. I think of Dan Savage, writing his Savage Love column in Seattle and asking those writing in for advice to hail him as “Faggot”—something he did in the early 1990s in an effort at reclaiming this word that, to this day, queer men remain divided on. The word “Dyke” and its reclamation in the Dyke marches, stands as another example. This issue divides people: some find the act of reclaiming the language once used to hurt them to be a reparative act, while others believe it simply perpetuates the violence of the original utterance. In Women’s Words, Tompkins’s puts all these words out there for the viewer to decide how they feel. While I found the exhibition affirming, others might find it confusing, frustrating, or triggering. In my view, the display of the works and Tompkins’s use of form are a generative way of processing the linguistic violence that has been, and continues to be, used to reduce women to something less than the living, breathing, thinking, pleasure-feeling, complex human beings that they are.
As I move towards the exit, I see a small table with index cards, pushpins, and markers where Tompkins has invited visitors to contribute their own words for the project. Some index cards are already pinned to the wall, with visitors quietly contributing to this Calle-esque participatory practice of community building through art. I take a deep breath and think about a word that’s been used to describe my female friends and I during that tumultuous time that I lived in Vancouver. There were the obvious words—WEIRD, CRAZY BITCH, CUTE—that I’m sure Tompkins had already painted, and I wanted to provide a word or phrase that Tompkins’s might not have heard yet. Finally, it came to me, and I grabbed a pen and scribbled it down in secret. In a winking homage to my close friend in Vancouver, and as a reference to our shared history of trauma in Vancouver, I wrote the words TWISTED SISTERS in all caps and pinned it to the wall.