Becky was the first artist I ever wrote about. She was the brilliant, nonconforming valedictorian of our drab suburban high school, and when we went to the same college, I reviewed her beguiling photographic portraits for the campus newspaper. That was 11 years ago. Last week, I stayed with her in New York, where I went to navigate the sea of contemporary art at the Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show. Becky stayed home. She is an unhappy, financially struggling, full-time mother of two, contemplating whether she should simply lower her expectations. She is no longer an artist, and art is no longer in tune with her life.
I didn't notice the disconnection until I saw the late Hannah Wilke's nude body in a solo retrospective in the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts booth at the Armory. As a naked feminist at a contemporary art showroom where power brokers in toupees roam the aisles shopping for museums by barking, "Find out what the rest of the board thinks and call me right away!" the late Wilke stands out.
In one photograph, she sits on a dirty floor scattered with handguns, legs spread and wearing only pumps. Her signature sculptural shape was a sort of fortune cookie reminiscent of a vagina, and she'd adhere tiny vaginas to her body like scars or measles. In 1976, she performed a mock striptease behind Duchamp's Large Glass in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her last nude self-portraits, when her body was bloated with cancer and oozing from surgery, are touching, tough, funny, and revealing as ever. She insisted on femaleness as a particular subjectivity with its own history and conditions, as did her '60s-era cohorts.
Maybe it makes sense that I saw few direct descendants of Wilke at the Armory or the biennial. Only about a quarter of the artists were women and everyone's art was flashy, clever, dark, decorative, and profane, favoring ambiguity over activism, and fantasy over realism. That may be for the best; plenty of the work worked. But femaleness, or life as a woman, was off the table except in the most oblique or allusive ways. Apparently pregnancy and child rearing are not interesting subjects for urbane artists and audiences, despite their raw potential for violence, power, conflict, and gore.
The 33-year-old provocateur Chloe Piene comes within range. In addition to her bilious skeletal drawings in various Armory booths were two horror videos at Galerie Nathalie Obadia of Paris. Shoulder Bite offers an attractive woman in a corner. As she turns her head slowly to look over her shoulder at us, big teeth emerge over her lips and she transforms into a monstrous predator who has cornered her kill instead. Who Slept with Who was shot in an abandoned prison, where a woman is ravaged by an unseen force—the camera? herself?—and left alone, trapped in filth, a gaping wound in her abdomen referencing death and birth. Like so many women before her, and like Becky, she's wondering: How did I get here?