one of my latest, favorite exhibits just closed: women words, phrases and stories: 1,000 paintings by betty tompkins at the flag foundation. there the walls were full of various sized paintings covered in words that describe women. i felt a lot of synergy with the artist and her process as she is at heart a collaborator. i even had the chance to attend a special event in the exhibition space, where betty allowed women from all backgrounds to get up in front of the group and read out the words on the walls. it was empowering and magical.
more about this exhibit below (from the flag website):
in 2002 and 2013, tompkins circulated the following email: “i am considering doing another series of pieces using images of women comprised of words. i would appreciate your help in developing the vocabulary. please send me a list of words that describe women. they can be affectionate (honey), pejorative (bitch), slang, descriptive, etc. the words don’t have to be in english but i need as accurate a translation as possible. many, many thanks, betty tompkins.” the response was overwhelming, with over 3,500 words and phrases in seven languages submitted, equally split between men and women. in 2012, tompkins was invited to create a performance in vienna where 500 of the words and phrases were read aloud. inspired by that performance, the artist then set out to create 1,000 individual word paintings, intending the series to be presented en masse once complete. on january 1, 2013, tompkins created the first painting slut (#1).
throughout women words, tompkins layers stenciled, freehand drawn, and pressed-on text over imagery, which includes lace overlays, gauzy close-ups of the female body, and a sampling of styles from what the artist refers to as the “old-boy painting” network – de kooning, fontana, guston, morris louis, newman, pollock, and richter. derogatory, reductive, and dismissive language such as venus, piece of ass, and the only thing that would make her more beautiful is my dick in her mouth, seem to reveal that women are often still viewed through the lens of desire or reproach. is such language the result of love, fear, control, or anger? tompkins does not offer answers, presenting women words in the same straightforward and non-judgmental approach as her renowned fuck paintings.
tompkins’s oeuvre has never demurred from provocative subject matter; the artist’s ongoing fuck paintings (1969-1974; reprised in 2003) center on tightly cropped photorealistic images of sexual intercourse. according to the artist, “my first husband had this great collection of porn and i was looking at it one day and thought: if you take out the heads and legs—all this boring stuff—and get down to the money shot, this is beautiful…really formally beautiful.” highly sexualized imagery and language have since become ubiquitous in mainstream culture and have shifted the context and reaction surrounding the fuck paintings, once dismissed as too explicit and because of tompkins’s position as a female artist with a sex-positive attitude. it wasn’t until the paintings’ presentation at the lyon biennale in 2003, that the work received an extraordinary reception and established tompkins at the forefront of first generation feminist art.
* photos are by genevieve hanson, nyc -- all images are copyrighted by betty tompkins