Skip to content
Female Artists Using Vagina Iconography Win in Chelsea

Close-up renderings of bodies covered in sheer fabric and delicate porcelain vases depicting bums, breasts and skin account for some of the best (and most challenging) art on view in Chelsea.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that feminists were fighting over who got to bear the feminist mantle. Back in the ‘90s, we debated whether Lisa Yuskavage’s soft-core figurative paintings critiqued misogyny, and the so-called radicality of women artists in Marsha Tucker’s 1994 New Museum show “Bad Girls.” The root question in many of these controversies: does female appropriation and subversion of male fantasy constitute actual agency?

More than twenty years later, women exploring female sexuality are reframing that question altogether. Two shows in Chelsea exhibit the exhilarating results of that work, through two totally different methods. Jessica Stoller’s “Spread” at PPOW uses fine porcelain to flaunt as treasure what women have been told to hide—their body, their age and their sexuality. Just one block away, Katarina Riesing’s painting show, “Razor Burn,” at Asya Geisberg employs repeating v-shapes within her close-ups of the female body to evoke voyeuristic unease. Both exhibitions demonstrate that now more than ever, women, not men, are defining the terms of their art and how it will be viewed.

The female perspective might be most aggressively articulated at PPOW where Stoller combines traditionally women-centered craft mediums with fine china. Spread sparsely across the exhibition space, her porcelain figurines and vessels formed as delicately rendered bums, breasts and skin are topped off with flourishes of flora and fauna. The show’s centerpiece, Bloom, presents a full garden of elements from the natural world that allude to female genitalia, birthed from between a woman’s legs. In the center, a platter sits above all else, as if to indicate a gift to the gods.

A full lifecycle spins out from this piece. A series of wall-mounted nipples, some adorned with hair resembling branches, speak to the nurturing aspect of womanhood; nearby, a vessel in which a bum gently parts vaginally shaped lace alludes to sex and birth. Death is never out of sight; a ceramic quilting hoop frames aged skin that’s been quilted and uses flies as fasteners.

That sounds pretty gross, but nearly every piece in the show manages to transform taboo into trophy. That’s not to say it doesn’t disturb. Untitled (Harpy), a vessel with claw feet and a woman’s torso uses snake tentacles to throw pigs, goats and babies, into its basket shaped mouth. This piece, perhaps more than any other, falls into the Yuskavage-type debate over appropriating a male-centered vision for its negative depiction of women as half-human monsters. But that doesn’t bother me, for the same reason that the debate over Yuskavage’s paintings seemed pointless—art that ignores other genders tends to be boring.