A labyrinthine collection of female images in various photographic styles does not quite capture Matuschka's autobiographical retrospective. The walls of the pocket Sohn Fine Art Gallery pack iconic photos across the 40-year span of her career. Light filters from the picture windows and the open door into the two white rooms, lending a clinical feel to the place. Tucked into a corner next to some jewelry cases hangs the famous Beauty out of Damage, as though it were just another photograph in the series, one amongst her many important works.
Looking back at these highlights from her career, it becomes apparent that Matuschka's portraiture begins to show agency, only after she gained notoriety for the photograph of her breast cancer scar. In so many of her photos, her self-image is passive. Even in Beauty out of Damage, the artist's face is turned away from the camera, as though she hides from both the camera's gaze and her wounding. As cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the somber image becomes a political statement, and its critical reception read the image as representing “agency.” Although a passive positioning of the body, Matuschka's image ironically shifts from her identity as model, photography assistant, and object, to one that actively expresses with the intent to raise cancer awareness.
I remember my own encounter with that photograph, its strange androgyny teetering the line between classical art and pornography. As a young adult, I felt ashamed of looking at the image, wanting to turn away. The fine white dress, tailored to fit her body with one side cut away, underscores the missing breast and hideous gash of a scar. Her ultra-thin body could have been a young man's: a missing aureole, the ribcage taught. Her hair bound in a white sash heightened the ambiguity. Blurring the lines of male and female, her turned face seemed to convey the very shame I felt. To maintain power and movement within society one must uphold the hegemonic norms represented by clearly defined gender roles. I understood clearly the image's power of questioning what constitutes the larger categories of “woman,” “female,” and “femininity.” Questioning the norms was not only shameful but also dangerous.
Just coming into my own womanhood at sixteen, I knew the seductiveness as well as the burden of femaleness wrapped up in societal projections represented by the breast. I hated the neighborhood workmen catcalling to me as I walked past them. As a girl, I had wanted to be a boy, to be a dancer, to play lacrosse, and these breasts and the definitions of girl and female limited me not only physically but also socially. My mother dressed me in boy play-clothes except on Sundays when I wore stiff dresses for church. I neither fit in with the boys nor with the girls: the boys teased me with the moniker “Tomboy,” and the girls shunned me from their bathroom make-up sessions and gossip. Not to lapse into any kind of self-pity, this portrait is meant simply to give you a sense that I could identify with this image in a very poignant and non-dismissive way.
Matuschka's photographs speak to me of some of these issues. I see a young woman who struggled to conceive of herself as an artist in a male-dominated profession at the same time trying to make money as a model and an artist. In her early work, there is a tension between intimacy and exposure that appears to castigate the self. I feel compassion for this young photographer who takes her own body, which others have used for its object-value of classical Western beauty and expressiveness, and explores and investigates her body from a detached photographer-like perspective. I find it difficult to see the agency in using herself in this way, and see it rather as an expression of what modeling can do to the psyche. The photographs mitigate a conflict between seduction and authenticity as expressions of power. And the difficulty of woman developing her own artistic perspective from within the confines of societal definitions of “woman.”
I will begin this discussion by way of a poem by Anne Sexton. “Barefoot,” from her collection Love Poems, tells the tale of a morning between the speaker and her lover on holiday at the beach:
Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer body.
Immediately, the speaker focuses on her body as an object of love and desire from an exterior perspective. She moves up her legs from one body part to another with a kind of innocence mixed with seduction. The reader is likewise encouraged to observe her like an eye moving across her body focusing on certain body parts disconnected from the rest.
And what's more, see toenails and
prehensile joints of joints and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes.
The observation is child-like and harkens to a time of childhood games. Her image is synonymous with "nature," a classic metaphor for woman: toes are like the roots of a plant. In the following lines, with the introduction of the listener, the speaker's tone changes to one of seduction, predicated on mystery and secrecy.
Further up, my darling, the woman
is calling her secrets, little houses,
little tongues that tell you.
Perhaps a euphemism for the woman's sexual parts...The relationship becomes clearer as the poem progresses.
There is no one else but us
in this house on the land spit.
The sea wears a bell in its navel.
And I'm your barefoot wench for a
whole week. Do you care for salami?
No. You'd rather not have a scotch?
No. You really don't drink. You do
The sexual division of labor represented in these lines is quite classic: Sexton's speaker claims the essential role and function of the submissive lover, a “wench” as she calls it, serving him imaginary food, with her body ultimately ending up as that food. Through this conventional love-relationship, the speaker offers her body up for the listener to imbibe. The reader too can experience “woman” in this way.
The gulls kill fish,
crying out like three-year-olds.
I am, I am, I am
all night long. Barefoot,
I drum up and down your back
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark.
Sexton conflates the mature acts of sex and the hunt with childhood play. The gulls when they kill sound like children at play, and the listener of the poem chases the speaker as in child's play and “pierces” her, clearly a reference to sexual intercourse. But her identity too is wrapped up in the play. She cries out “I am” three times as though clamoring for self-assertiveness. While the speaker may be the metaphoric food of the poem and a sexualized object, her body too feels “hunger” or desire for sex. She finds sexual expression in being the object of the hunt and power in being sexualized, and looked at, pursued.
In Matuschka's work, I am drawn to “Doll House” (1987), a photograph from her Ruins series, developed on the occasion of a song she wrote for her band “The Ruins.” The song details a failed love relationship which neglected to account for the “ruins.” A black and white still, the artist appears amongst gauze papier mache and mannequin body parts, suggesting cast off parts of the self that are hollow and disembodied. Her face is expressionless, almost emotionless like a doll waiting to be played with or just having been cast aside, already played with. The body parts are fragmented but also sexualized. Once pursued, the character in this photo is now alone, one of the many aspects of ruination in the house. Whereas the house represents the mind, these multiple and disparate selves are always already caught in the act of being cast off: in this doll house, the “dolls” are strewn about the decrepit rooms, unengaged in the play, and unaware of their complicity in the process. The dolls are acted-upon, created of multiple variants of the female body. A fishnet-clad leg hidden in the interior-most room is mysterious, seductive, but to access that self, one must walk over the deflated chest and face-mask of another self, laid out corpse-like in the doorway.
|Doll House (1987), Matuschka|
Her work holds similar thematic connection to Cindy Sherman, another New York-based artist working at the time she was living and working in New York. Not only are the seemingly auto-biographical photo-plays of the female artist a similar strategy in their work, but also are the questions that surface in their photography around “woman” and “femaleness.” Sherman's “Doll Clothes” (1975) echoes this preoccupation with the female as a model who is dressed up either to be played with or to be playing a role:
|Doll Clothes (1975), Cindy Sherman|
Both Matuschka's and Sherman's biographies include the professional title Model: a body to be looked at and photographed by others. However, in Sherman's work, clearly the artist is the agent of her profession, actively pulling at the clothing she will wear. She is no naked muse. Her career suggests this trajectory, as she dresses up in various roles calling viewers to question preconceived notions, myths, fables, values, or held beliefs about society and culture. Matuschka's career had a different path. In a May 2013 interview with Charles Guiliano, she tells:
“The great story is how I got into photography in the first place. I was with friends skinny dipping in a pond when I was about 16. A Hell’s Angels type group of motorcyclists came and we all jumped into the water. It turns out instead of Harleys they rode Hondas. A guy came up with a camera and asked if he could take a few photographs. I said yes under one condition can you send them to us? I posed with my hippy friends and I stood out like a statue. Once they saw the photographs everyone wanted to photograph me. I posed and learned to print before I took my first picture. I became a darkroom assistant to the photographers photographing me.”
Modeling became a way for her to support herself, educate herself, and to maintain ties in the art world.
One shockingly similar photograph appears in both of their collections: that of the dead woman. Sherman's Untitled 153 (1985), which appeared in Time Magazine's best world photographs from 1980-1990, and Matuschka's Framed (1988) from her Ruins series. In both pictures, the dead women are hollow-eyed, cast off into the natural landscape. Their bodies call out for the the viewer to create a narrative around them. Sherman's body is covered in dirt as though her dead body blends into the mossy landscape. Matuschka's dead body appears to have either broken through or been shoved through an artist's canvas; she is wrapped up in plastic film and a fragmented, gauze body part lies at her side. But the viewer knows these are images of the artist who is obviously not dead, but rather playing the role of a young woman who has been murdered. The cultural reception of Untitled 153 as well as Beauty out of Damage underscores a societal preoccupation with the maimed or dead female body.
|Untitled 153 (1985). Cindy Sherman|
Sherman's Untitled 153 operates on the level of myth and fable, while Matuschka's Framed operates on the level of a construction, a meta-textual conception of the artist within the confines of the art world. Sherman is framed within the photo, her body emerging off the image somewhere off camera, but Matschuka's body is fully shown, framed inside a frame. Both images suggest something about the dead woman, the ideology of the quiet, passive, cast off body of woman with which the woman artist must contend in order to create her own work. Helene Cixous writes: “We need a dead woman to begin.” The artist must confront the passive in order to gain agency, in order to become active, initiating into the masculine art world. However, even as the photographer's body breaks through the conventional canvas in Framed, she is still a painted object of desire, packaged, wrapped up, constrained, lifeless.
A few of Matuschka's cartoon drawings reveal this struggle within the modeling industry and in the art world. To be a female artist and model is to confront the sexism therein as well as to play the various roles that others desire to photograph.
Their pioneering efforts in breaking through the gender barrier in art, while different, offer viewers a way of understanding the ways in which the woman artist must confront the ideological limitations of “woman” as well as her own complicit relationship within the social power dynamic. Their early work, the focus of this article, was largely influential for appearing to reflect the accepted ideological norms; however, with that positive reception their careers shifted and solidified, and their work can be viewed as important as it also resists those norms, interrogating “woman” and later “gender” and “cultural identity” as a social constructions.
Matuschka's A Body Biography, a 40-year retrospective of her autobiographical photographs, is currently on display at Sohn Fine Art in Stockbridge, Mass from now until July 1, 2013.
Cindy Sherman's 35-year retrospective through MoMA is currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Matuschka's website: http://matuschka.net/homepage.html#photo
Cindy Sherman's interactive exhibition on the MoMA website: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/about-the-exhibition/
Guiliano, Charles. "Matuschka Maimed, Claimed, and Famed: A Life and Career Defined by an Iconic Image." www.berkshirefinearts.com
Sexton, Anne. Love Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.