by Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi
OK, here we go! Another art opening! Beating Washington, DC traffic, armed to the teeth with the most effective weapon in driving, the honking with an extra topping of the infamous hand gesture is used to win a battle over the perfect parking space. Finally, a quick glance at the car mirror to check out the self, and that glance sets off to transform into the spectator’s Gaze at the art opening reception. Over a free glass of wine or beer, the opening becomes the perfect place in the art world to exhibit oneself to the important others and to participate as a spectator of other’s exhibitions of themselves. And finally, despite the difficulty of viewing the art work through such engaged crowd, I manage to look at Susan Jamison’s new paintings and my wonderings begin!
Like an old master, Susan Jamison paints with egg tempera on panel to depict dream like imagery that draw on old myths and fairytales while questioning gender conventions. Her, one might imply, overtly Feminized paintings suggest fantastical narratives by bringing together a wide range of visual imagery that draw from Renaissance female portraits, botanical illustrations, Persian miniatures, scientific manuals and medical texts from before or just after the turn of the twentieth century, and many animals that have their roots deep into religious and cultural symbolism. Jamison repeatedly depicts idealized nude female characters, with bald heads that are exposed with under skin veins. Their bodies become lusciously decorated with pink and fuchsia ornate patterns that remind one of tattoos, arabesques, and delicate embroidery. The suggestion of the dream-like notions of the paintings is emphasized by the ever shut eyelids of the protagonists of her paintings. Despite their seeming passivity, they appear to be calmly aware and engaged. What I have mentioned so far are common denominators of Jamison’s paintings since my initial introduction to her work in 2006; however, in “Swallowtail” representing her most recent body of work at Irvine Contemporary gallery in D.C., this Roanoke, VA based artist portrays a more mature side of her protagonists. If her previous paintings innocently hinted at desires and fantasies of these bald-headed women, her new work takes on a confrontational eroticism that resemble Kama Sutra manuscript imagery. And, yes, they are not alone! These women are in action with other idealized men and their everlasting erections.
Upon discovering this highly erotic imagery, I find myself less comfortable at focusing on paintings for long and more aware of my surroundings. Am I panicking to be a victim of the “male gaze” while gazing at the sexual paintings that portray females like me in pleasurable action? Could these women be another way of depicting “poster babes” as my friend K suggested? If that is the case, is my avoidance to glare at these paintings a sign of my fear to partake in the female gaze and thus to reveal my subconscious maleness to myself? Oh, boy! Am I confused in my head! I wonder if Jamison’s attempt is to question the gender conventions of our society or if she is nearly giving in to the stereotypes by objectifying her women. This idea of objectification in conjunction with the constant depiction of her protagonists in their profiles draws one to the tradition of early Renaissance bridal and profile portraiture. These profile portraits depicted an idealized woman, adorned with jewels and luxurious outfits in one passive pose. Patricia Simons in her essay on the representation of women in Florentine portraits, "Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture," argues that the idea of the “gaze” became overpowering when male-driven patronage and reception lent itself to the representation of women as “chaste, submissive, and decorous possessions”. Depicting a 15th century Florentine women from a frontal pose would have been against the societal norms of the time since it would have suggested her awareness and participation in the act of gazing. Therefore, the idea of the “male gaze” was an asymmetrical act. All this make me question the true identities, hopes, and desires of these women lurking beneath such forced passivity. There is hardly anything personal that one might excavate from such portrait paintings.
Consequently, can one presuppose a fixed parallelism between Jamison’s and the Renaissance female portraits? Are these fantastical nude women, unwillingly offering themselves to be consumed as our objects of desire? Or on the other hand, from a feminist stance point, can the role, right, and power of creation fluctuate by genderizing the maker of the artwork? If so, then the grandly male-dominated Florentine artists’ portrayal of women can be read as a peripheral representation. Through gender divisions, the master painters, mastered the role of “otherness” and could not pass beyond the object hood of their subjects. However, the idea of “otherness” or being an outsider reverses in Jamison’s position as a female artist. She gains the license to enter the feminine world of her subject and penetrates the women beyond that external objectification since she belongs to that world herself.
If the Renaissance portraits hid the identity of the sitter under the gender conventions of the time, Jamison draws from today’s gender conventions to shed light on the feminine world of her subjects. One might assume the shut eyelids as a symbol of passivity and submission; however, the transparency of the female heads in relation to the closed eyes, operate as a meditative gestures and an assurance of an internal projection of these women. There is a proud insistence on feminization in these paintings that seem to embrace that otherness as a vital quality of that feminine identity. The accumulations of all elements in these paintings express the protagonist’s dreams, desires, and memories. Amusingly enough, it is the phallic male figure that becomes objectified in these paintings in such instance when penises, dismembered from the male body fly with butterfly wings to feed the female desire. So, I would like to ask: who is the real victim of the “gaze” in these paintings?