Negotiations 10: Les Demoiselles

From January 25 until March 3 of this year, Cindy Workman is exhibiting twelve new works—inkjet prints all—at the Lennon, Weinberg gallery in New York City. I have been a fan of hers for several years, and the current series is in my opinion some of her finest work to date. She is an artist at play in the world, and the stuff is arresting, provocative, curious, charged, and suffused with what I can only describe as a kind of tempered joy. The opening is on this Thursday, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. Do not miss this show.

She has entitled it “les demoiselles,” and I got the sense from looking at each print that Ms. Workman had chosen to break Picasso’s large canvass into its constitutive elements, so that what we get is a series of neo-cubist portraits, in which many surfaces are present at once, and the cumulative effect of which is a larger portrayal—and hence, interrogation—of contemporary female identity, what it is and how it is constructed and experienced. Layering drawings of idealized girls taken from the envelopes of sewing patterns on top of or behind soft-core porn shots from the 1950’s, and then blending them into a single composition, Workman creates images that are simultaneously familiar and jarring. These women are sexualized in ways familiar to us all, but inappropriately so. One is attracted and repulsed at the same time. Imagine looking at what appears to be a little girl, only to realize that she is a woman who, in her attempt to look like a sexy little girl, has had too much plastic surgery—and you begin to get the idea. (Conversely, imagine that you are looking at what appears to be a voluptuous sex object, only to discover that you are seeing a little girl in a sailor’s outfit…)

Breasts are prominent in these works, in part because for Workman they are a source of identity for women and in part because their exposure renders that very identity exposed. Workman isn’t just asking you what it means to have breasts; she is asking you what it means to be a breast-having-object, what it means to be an object whose existence depends on having breasts and what it means to want to be such an object: what it means to be a commodity whose consumer appeal is proportional to the heft and shape of one’s breasts. Workman, however, is not making anti-porn, anti-consumer agitprop. There is nothing hectoring or scolding in or about these pieces. The subjects know that you are looking at their breasts, and you are invited, even expected to do so. The result is art as a kind of reportage, an art that talks about things we can’t otherwise talk about.

In “les demoiselles,” Workman continues her practice of collage, but this time the background is stripped out. This, to me, is where things get very interesting indeed. The subjects appear in color fields (the artist described one to me as “Indescribable pink. Pinky-mauve. Dirty-bright pink.”)—hues in which they are suspended and from which they are irretrievably separated. They will never again dress in the colors that surround them. This composition of containment lends to the subjects an auratic, glowing, elevated status—they have become archetypes of sexualized femininity—but that very elevation cuts them off from the world in which they appear and exist. That woman surrounded by pink, hovering in pink, one feels, will never again experience pink. She has exchanged for her elevated status the very quality that made that status possible; it is lost to her, and she to it. She is eternally lonely, and these works are a profound meditation on the contemporary condition of loneliness.

After looking at each print, I had to admit to Ms. Workman that she had put my back-brain and my super-ego in conflict. I found the work sexy; I knew I shouldn’t, for many reasons; but I couldn’t help myself. I practically apologized for that. She just laughed. That’s part of the point, I realized. And then she said it for me: “That’s because men are more visual, and women are more cerebral.” Indeed. This show makes that clear, and brilliantly so. Touché, Ms. Workman.