There is a question that museums and galleries often do not address or answer; should a work be able stand on its own, without the artist's or curator's point of view?
If a viewer sees a beautiful image, and then learns the artist was a belligerent and violent drunk would it change their perception of the work?
If you truly loved a sculpture, and then the artist told you they were inspired by a crap they took, would you still enjoy the piece?
Kate Millett's exhibit iOppression and Pleasure/i at the Pierre Menard Gallery (which runs until April 12), presented a clear answer to that question.
Her art appears confident, elegant and meaningful. And yet, when one hears her speak, as I had the unpleasant experience of doing on March 29, the quality of her work diminishes right before one's eyes.
Millett's exhibition expands from subtle to obvious. The first room of the gallery hosts a series of simple and linear paintings by the artist.
Each one is stunningly minimalist in its design. A few effortless strokes complete the paintings, each made up of only their own unique curves, scribbles and dots. The images are simple in color, most in black ink, some in red and blue. At first glance the paintings very closely resemble Japanese calligraphy.
However, instead of making marks with strict discipline and constraint, the lines are soft and freeing in their semi-circular strokes and are easy to follow with the eye. It becomes clear that each individual contour is representative of the natural beauty of the curves of the human body in its most simple form.
A closer look reveals a connecting theme in each painting, a theme that tells us these curves have a gender.
As small circles curl into the middle of each painting, one realizes that the design represents a clitoris. Millett is a renowned feminist author, and there is no doubt that these paintings have much to do with her theory of sexual politics on which she has written many books.
The smaller room of the gallery reveals more delicate and swooping lines, most in a simple "W"-type curve representing the female derriere.
These paintings bring to mind those of the renaissance, where soft paintings of women's behinds adorned almost every portrait and were widely celebrated. It is hard to focus on the beauty of these ultra-minimal paintings though, because a photo of a very large, very naked and very unkempt vagina acts as the elephant in the room, and it is a double print.
The beauty of the female figure is stripped from this piece, and it is not because this woman in the photo hasn't had a wax in a long time. In Millett's other paintings, she makes a strong and clear point that women's sex organs are gorgeous and are nothing to hide from the world of art in a very meaningful way.
This photo, however, seems obvious and out of place. It doesn't inspire or shock. Instead it demeans the audience. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style and subject of photography, and graphic photos of women's body parts have been displayed before in beautiful ways, the magnificence of it seems to be lost in this case. This photo, juxtaposed with Millett's uncomplicated and symbolic paintings, seems to dumb down the exhibit, as if this photo alone was the condescending friend in the room patting you on the head and saying, "Get it? These are vaginas."
Kate Millett is a tiny, hunched-over elderly woman. Her sassy and, at times, cranky demeanor makes her look like anyone's profanity-and-cigarette-loving great grandmother.
The forum was set up as a conversation between Millett and Catharine MacKinnon, also a well known feminist, in which MacKinnon would ask Millett questions about her work and then they both discuss the answer. Unfortunately, this basic run-of-the-mill interview never took place.
MacKinnon asked good questions, and had the 20 person audience on the edge of their seats as they awaited the replies. MacKinnon asked about how visual art forms relates to Millett's many writings, and wondered how we think of the relationship between content and form today.
Millett, however, decided not to answer any of the questions. Her thoughts became tangled with tangents. She spoke about how worrying about second-hand smoke is ridiculous, and about her farm in upstate New York.
MacKinnon, along with artist Heide Hatry, the curator of the exhibit, begged her to stay on topic, but Millett had no interest in talking about the importance or relevance of her work at all.
She in fact downplayed it most of the time, reusing the phrase "art fart!" and often stating "this is just fun and funny," when referring to the exhibit. Millett also liked to weave politics into almost every sentence, claiming that most of the wars in the world were started because of art, and that World War II certainly was because Adolf Hitler was a frustrated artist.
Millett did manage to think up a few gems, such as her thoughts on painting and sculptures. She said "I'd rather show you a picture then tell you what I mean." She went on to talk about her appreciation for sculpting when she spoke about how a two-dimensional picture is hard to think through because "it is not just verbiage. it's only skin deep like beauty, but a sculpture you can fall over.."
All of these moments of clarity were cheapened, however, by her incessant rants and complaints.
When she did talk about women and their struggles, her speech sounded very old-fashioned, and made it hard to believe that she is a renowned feminist when she said things like "[men] have all means of production, including the guns."
Some members of the audience even tried to reiterate the questions asked by MacKinnon, only to get more unsatisfying answers.
Millett's talk bordered on infuriating. Her speech ended when someone brought up the war in Iraq, to which Millett replied, "Enough of this suffering. Lets have a little fun." This is one instance in which the artist actually marred the beauty of her work with the distaste of her attitude and words.
The absurdity of Millett's speech wouldn't have been so frustrating had she not tricked us all into appreciating her artwork-artwork that she clearly does not seem to take as seriously as her fans and colleagues.?