By Paul Gessell
The so-called “male gaze” encompasses art created by men, usually for men. The subject of the art is often women.1
A famous example of the male gaze is Edouard Manet’s painting Dejeuner sur l’herbe from 1862-3 in which two clothed men are seated on the ground having a picnic with a nude woman. Another woman, in the background, is just in her underclothes. Clearly, the world Manet is showing in this painting is ruled by men.
So, what about the “female gaze?” How different is that world? Is that a world in which clothed women ogle nude men?
Olivia Johnston, one of Ottawa’s most talented young photographers, has curated an exhibition called Gaze: A Female Perspective at La Petite Mort Gallery. The works are by 12 female artists under the age of 30 who either live in Ottawa or have some connection to the city.
Johnston has curated several superbly organized photography exhibitions, most notably at Exposure Gallery. However, the multi-media Gaze is a disappointment.
Most of the works are timid, tentative, lacking finesse and only mildly interesting. Most are unusual portraits of women. Surely, there are young female artists in Ottawa who could have produced stronger material.
The boldest work is Johnston’s own Frans 1, a very arresting larger-than-life photographic portrait of a young man with heavy-lidded eyes and a nasty wound on his forehead.
What is this young man’s story? Is he drugged or in some pain? What is that wound all about? How does he manage to be simultaneously charismatic, beatific, and disturbing?
This is the kind of photograph that will never bore. You could stare at it for hours on end and conjure up different narratives.
While perusing the exhibition, be sure to check out Jennifer Stewart’s Silent Stories. A woman’s photograph is superimposed on the middle of a framed image of a generic human target. Nearby headphones transmit the voices of real women telling their own stories about their experiences with violent men.
Another of the more interesting works, something both sad and touching, is by Magida El-Kassis. Entitled Letter to Samuel, El-Kassis shows the enlarged image of the back of a post card sent to her from a penpal named Samuel in an American prison.
The post card is a scene from the ancient Mayan city at Chichen Itza in Mexico. (An enlarged version of the front of the post card is also on display.) Samuel writes he visited the place once and that Magida should also go there one day. One can’t help but feel that Samuel would visit Chichen Itza again, albeit vicariously, if only Magida would only go.
“The role of the female in society is complex and muddled,” says Johnston’s curatorial statement for Gaze. “Slung between assigned selves, she is often not able to take ownership over her life, her body, or her psyche. The navigation of identity throughout girlhood and into womanhood is a difficult process, affected a great deal by the confused role that society expects her to fill. Indeed, with the arrival of the digital era and widespread use of the Internet, concepts of beauty, sexuality, and femininity seem to be more convoluted than ever for their primarily female audience.
“Nevertheless, for the young, female artist, this negotiation of identity can be eased by the practice of artmaking, providing a means of exploration and expression throughout the process of coming of age. The voices of young female artists provide for a unique set of interpretations about the world, enriching the continuous conversation that comprises human existence.”
Gaze: A Female Perspective. La Petite Mort Gallery, 306 Cumberland St. Until February 2.