Betty Tompkins: Some Sex, Lots of Talking, 2021
Gavlak Gallery, Los Angeles
through August 14
In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.Susan Sontag, On Photography
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Betty Tompkins recent thought-provoking paintings and conceptual text based works on vintage fashion magazine pages harkens back to the electrifying late nineteen sixties and seventies when second wave feminism was percolating, along with the splintering of the once monolithic art world into many “isms.” Photorealism held sway then and Tompkins was creating enormous achromatic photo-realistic paintings of heterosexual intercourse – images sourced from her husband’s black and white pornographic magazine collection (a quaint notion now when pornography is readily available and in living color on screens everywhere.)
In those controversial images she focused on tightly cropped images of genital penetration as seen from the man’s perspective. While Chuck Close became famous painting with his achromatic large-scale portraits, Tompkins work was largely unacknowledged, though arguably equally significant. She was never really invited into the feminist circle as her source material was verboten and out of step with feminist values. Today, when pornography is everywhere and less stigmatized and those who participate are called sex workers, her work looks prescient and completely in sync with contemporary feminist theory.
In her current show at Gavlak Gallery, there are three achromatic soft-focus spray-painted acrylic paintings, continuing her interest in celebrating all things sensual and sexual, and calling them exactly what they are. “Sex Painting #7”, 2020, Acrylic on canvas 40 x 30 inches on canvas, zooms up on lips sucking on painted toenails. Perhaps it is the use of black and white, coupled with the soft focus that makes this image seem so nostalgic (could be the cover design for Lolita!). Even “Fuck Painting #62”, 2020 Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, an almost abstracted view of missionary position interracial sex, is rendered not only inoffensive but gorgeous in its tonality. And “Cunt Painting #30”, 2021 Acrylic on canvas, 58 x 60 inches, is positively elegant. Tompkins intentional use of vernacular words does remind me of George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven words that you can’t say on television – “fuck and cunt” were on that list then and are still powerful though often overused now.
If the paintings of photographed sex acts looks harmless, the Women Words series demonstrates just how damaging words are and questions the progress that women have made in the last 50 years. Remember that Virginia Slim slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby?” Well, the question is, have we? To answer this question, Tompkins pulls pages out of vintage fashion magazines and books appropriating and altering famous images by Helmut Newton, Avedon, Brassai and Weegee by filling in the outline of the female figure with bubble gum pink text. The almost indecipherable text seems to be overheard conversations, inner musings or charged thoughts from the viewpoint of misogynistic men. In 2002 and again in 2020, Tompkins asked the public to send in words describing women and that is where the text originates, though without a script provided by the gallery, the viewer must struggle to make sense of the words.
Torn casually out of a magazine (dated 1975) a fashion shot of a well manicured man and women on a yacht in Cannes shows them in profile with the Captains hat jauntily on the women’s head. This work is entitled “Women Words (Helmut Newton #16)” 2019 Acrylic on book page 14.8 x 10.6 inches. Tompkins clever use of this bucolic scene of wealth and privilege lures the viewer in. The Pepto-Bismol pink text jammed into the contours of the woman says the following in all caps (which in Twitter means one is yelling): THE BEST THING TO HAPPEN IN THIS WORLD WHAT’S THE MATTER, SWEETIE? SHE IS A WALKING PAIR OF TITS. SLENDER ANKLES. Another piece, entitled “Women Words (Weegee #6)” 2019, Acrylic on book page, 11.4 x 9.1 inches, is a scene of a female (covered in pink text) arm outstretched in a dark, dank room between performances. The all-caps text reads: BAE CLEVER COLD AS A WITCH’S TITS IN A SNOWBANK DON’T GET TOO SMART WHORE. The words sting like a poisonous jellyfish, sneaking up on you and taking your breath away. The colloquial “bae” is shorthand for babe, baby or sweetie, a phrase that can be either affectionate or condescending depending on who is saying it to whom.
The most chilling text (especially in this #metoo moment with the vast level of sex abuse in the Church, Olympics, and Bill Cosby walking free) is from “Women Words (Avedon #13)” 2019 Acrylic on canvas, 12.6 x 9.5inches, I NEED ANOTHER DOSE OF YOU HE WANTED ME TO KNOW THAT NOTHING HAPPENED BECAUSE I WAS UNDERAGE I DID NOT ENTER YOU. Was this a young girl so drunk that she had to rely on his word about what might have been a rape scenario? And its sorry/not sorry tone is astounding. Talk about a mixed message. This hostile confession is printed on a 1948 post-war soft-focus Paris shot with the Eiffel tower in the background. Cropped so that the model is off the page and only her full skirt (very 1950’s) and high heel are visible in this image of what the feminine should be.
The negative power of these words is undeniable in all eleven of these images, the pink words jumbled and forced into the contour of the female model like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters trying to wedge their big feet into the glass slipper (and yes, in the original grim fairy tale, they cut off their toes trying to fit into the shoe). Each contains hostile, condescending, insulting stories – YOU SHOULD SMILE MORE… YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT… IT WAS JUST A JOKE LADIES… WEAR MORE SKIRTS… GIVE MEN SOMETHING TO BE INSPIRED BY….DON’T SEND THE WRONG MESSAGE…DON’T WORRY YOUR PRETTY LITTLE HEAD- though only bits and pieces are clearly visible.
The juxtaposition by Tompkins of paintings sourced directly from pornographic magazines (which were considered “dirty” and often hidden underneath counters in shops) with works literally pulled from fashion magazines, (which are cultural touchstones, often aspirational, showcasing the “beautiful people”) contributes to the power of the show that never preaches to the viewer and is not a polemic about sex and the sexes. Instead this small, but mighty exhibit highlights Tompkins as an important maverick artist whose savvy explorations of our mixed-messages about sexual relationships are as trenchant as ever.
1700 South Santa Fe Avenue, Suite 440, Los Angeles, 90021