If you saw the words “sex positive” in the title of this article and immediately had some sort of an averse or negative reaction, keep reading because this is precisely why an exhibit like this exists. ‘SECRET GARDEN: The Female Gaze on Erotica’ is being hosted at one of our fave galleries, Untitled Space NYC, and runs until July 30. If you are in the New York City area, get yourselves to this exhibit before it ends!
We have featured a couple of previous Untitled Space exhibits because they have a strong focus on feminist messages, highlighting the work of especially female artists, and are an unapologetic voice of resistance under a hostile Trump administration, which seems to be getting worse and worse for women and minorities every day.
SECRET GARDEN is a group exhibit featuring the work of female identifying artists exploring figurative works of nudes and erotic art. Curated by Indira Cesarine, whose own work has been seen in previous exhibits as well as this one, the collection of works include painting, drawing, photography, printmaking, pottery, sculpture, collage, mixed media and video.
The exhibit title is inspired by the book, “My Secret Garden”, published in 1973 by sex positive feminist author Nancy Friday who was instrumental in addressing taboos revolving around female sexuality in the early 70s and an important figure of the feminist sexual liberation movement. Through historical works of pioneering feminist artists such as Betty Tompkins and Joan Semmel, to that of emerging contemporary female artists such as Andrea Mary Marshall, Myla Dalbesio, India Munuez, Katie Commodore, and Leah Schrager, SECRET GARDEN presents works by taboo shattering artists who fearlessly address sexual themes in their art and celebrate freedom of expression.
What makes an exhibit like this so important, especially given the current political climate in the US where women’s bodily rights and representations are being stripped away and silenced by regressive policies, it is powerful to see messages around sex and sexuality specifically from a female gaze.
We are used to living in a culture where women’s bodies and sexuality is confined to a patriarchal binary: the madonna or the whore. It is either “acceptable” to tell women to hide their bodies away in shame, or be objectified by an outside source (e.g., the advertising industry). As soon as we see women setting their own boundaries and identities around sexuality (think: Beyonce, Madonna, Lena Dunham, and many more) all of a sudden it becomes controversial. We need a sexual revolution that allows women to see themselves as whole autonomous beings, where bodies are not objects of ridicule, shame, assault, or the patriarchy.
So when you hear the phrase “sex positive”, that is what it means. And despite America having a rich history of revolutionary movements lead by women, there is still a long way to go. Along with the legalization of birth control in the 1960’s came a profound shift in attitudes towards women’s sexuality and the freedom of sexual expression. The sexual revolution celebrated the erotic as a normal part of life, and denounced conservative attitudes that it should be repressed by a patriarchal society, religion or state.
From a feminist perspective the movement focused on a woman’s right to choose her sexual partners and preferences free from outside interference or judgment. As women’s sexuality was redefined, many artists of the era, including Betty Tompkins and Joan Semmel, addressed these themes in their works, and fought against censorship and oppression. Since the inception of the sexual liberation movement women have been faced with polarizing views on sexuality, including pornography and erotica, and it’s place within feminism.
Through the highly documented feminist sex wars, which many historians believe attributed to the decline of second wave feminism, came the rise of the sex positive movement, which embraced women’s sexual freedom as central to women’s liberation. While the women’s liberation movement is often been equated with sexual liberation, the fight continues against the double standards that inhibit women from enjoying their sexuality freely and without judgment.
Curator and artist Indira Cesarine outlines exactly why SECRET GARDEN is timely and relevant.
“I feel it is an important time to present an exhibition of female artists who are resisting oppressive structures and climates by championing sex positive feminism. With the new political right, we have ushered in a conservative era, which attempts to challenge many liberties we have grown accustomed to including women’s reproductive rights and the legality of birth control. The importance of censorship–free, sexually liberated art has regained significance as women today continue to battle for equality and freedom of expression,” she said.
The artists of SECRET GARDEN explore works that challenge stereotypes, celebrate femininity and reclaim sexual independence. The female perspective on the theme is at once visible through the subtle details as these artists define in their own terms the language of “erotic”. They engage a dialogue of sexual self-empowerment that pushes social and political boundaries with artworks that exemplify a new wave of women’s sexual liberation in art.
Be sure to check out Untitled Space NYC before the exhibit ends on July 30.