criticismExhibitions
Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The Opposite of Sex: Betty Tompkins Paints Porn


Betty Tompkins: Virgins at P.P.O.W.
March 30 – May 13, 2017
535 West 22nd Street (2nd floor)

Betty Tompkins: Small in the Viewing Room at Marlborough Contemporary
April 19 – May 20, 2017
545 West 25th Street

Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #4, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of P.P.O.W.

Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #4, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of P.P.O.W.

In her 1989 book Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, Linda Williams identified a key impulse behind the consumption of porn. This was the desire to see everything, particularly something that cannot be directly shown: the inner state of ecstasy in the bodies of the performers. This desire cannot be fulfilled — and thus becomes endlessly alluring — because of the ways in which the personhood of the performers is diminished in the production of pornographic media: subjects become objects, bodies become organs, and pleasure becomes theater. In her paintings on view in two concurrent exhibitions at P.P.O.W. and Marlborough Contemporary, Betty Tompkins looks at porn from a feminist viewpoint, not to praise as “liberating” or condemn it as “exploitative,” but to explore this very particular way of visualizing sexuality. She intensifies the feelings of objectification and fragmentation found in her source material and follows them to their logical conclusion, producing works that are so pornographic that they have been drained of any trace of humanity or sensuality.

P.P.O.W.’s main gallery is dominated by canvases depicting sexual acts ranging from Instagram-friendly kissing and toe-sucking to explicit portrayals of genital penetration. Starting with pictures culled from vintage and contemporary pornography, Tompkins strips away layer after layer of residual humanity in her appropriated images until there is nothing left to move the viewer at an emotional or physical level. Her canvases eschew expressionistic brushstrokes or textural “skin” in an airbrush process that eliminates human touch from the equation. Her strict grisaille palette drains the arousing colors from flesh leaving it numb and detached. These distancing gestures are compounded by the size of her work, particularly the seven-foot-tall “Fuck” paintings. These bodily fragments are so far beyond life-size that they become alien, lacking the emotional resonance that comes with work that maintains a human scale. The coldness of these works is not a deficit: it creates an internal contradiction, resulting in paintings that are at once explicit and unarousing.

Betty Tompkins, Pussy Painting #26, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. Image courtesy of P.P.O.W.

Betty Tompkins, Pussy Painting #26, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. Image courtesy of P.P.O.W.

In the room behind the “Fuck” paintings is a wall with a grid of nine “Pussy” paintings. While each is still slightly larger than life-size at sixteen inches square, they present the viewer with an intimate (or, at least, less alienating) experience that Tompkins’s monumental works barely approach. They are more colorful, if only marginally, than her larger works: around the edges of each painting a colored ground can be seen peeking out. Tompkins’s airbrushed grisaille is tinted by these background colors, like blood flowing under the skin. Each panel depicts the genitalia of a different anonymous female performer. While each woman’s vulva is just as individual as her face, each of these combinations of lips, folds, and hair serves as a marker of physical uniqueness that offers no clues to the personality of sitter herself, something that could have been expressed by the parts cropped out of the frame and out of the image.

Installed in the rear gallery at P.P.O.W. is a series of works on paper. The bright colors that were hidden behind the surface of the “Pussy” paintings are in full view in this room, with each piece consisting of wisps of smoky black on top of a vibrant ground intersected by a penciled-in grid. On one level, this grid is a tool for the artist, a method of enlargement as old as painting itself. In these pieces, Tompkins’s thin airbrush technique leaves this organizational structure visible, fragmenting the depicted body parts into even smaller bits. At the same time, the grid provides an armature for the image, a structure that pulls the fragments together. Tompkins breaks the body apart and reassembles it in a contradictory oscillation that gives these works a tension not present in the paintings on canvas.

Betty Tompkins, Sex Grid Painting #2, 2016, Acrylic and pencil on paper, 19 1/2 x 41 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of P.P.O.W.

Betty Tompkins, Sex Grid Painting #2, 2016, Acrylic and pencil on paper, 19 1/2 x 41 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of P.P.O.W.

The process behind Tompkins’s use of grids and framing devices is shown in greater detail in two, small framed pieces situated near the entrance to her show in the viewing room at Marlborough Contemporary, Collage #2 and Collage #3 (both 1970). Neither being much larger than a trading card, they started out as pictures clipped from porn magazines. With layers of masking tape, Tompkins framed a section of each image focusing on the genital action between the two figures. Within this frame, a precise grid of centimeter-scale squares serves up the image for use in a future painting. These preliminary “sketches” reveal the extent of Tompkins’s editorial process: the faces of the performers — though barely recognizable in the grainy photos — are excluded from the frame and the grid. The cropped and gridded area, about the size of a postage stamp, is the embryo of a “Fuck” painting that may or may not have been completed; the remainder of the image is evidence of what has been discarded in the creation of such works. The high numbers, meanwhile, in titles like Cunt Painting #29, hint at the presence of a larger body of work than can be shown in Marlborough’s back room. The viewer of these works is offered a quick peep, teasing something that, like the elusive ecstatic spark identified by Williams, cannot be shown in any kind of totality.

Tompkins’s paintings are pornographic but not sexual: what she depicts isn’t sex but a commodified simulacrum of it, an artificial replacement that originated with the “Porno Chic” of the 1970s and has been amplified by the proliferation of pornography online. In this world of hyper-sexuality, intercourse is a mechanical process carried out between disembodied organs. There is no visible evidence of physical pleasure for any of the participants: the messy secretions or fluids that could testify to some kind of ecstatic state are absent or edited out. For “dirty” paintings, they are suspiciously clean. Similarly absent is the climactic “money shot” — external ejaculation on a performer’s body — that signals the end of a scene in most pornographic movies. Tompkins’s work depicts perpetual penetration without resolution, an act that could continue forever. There may be an occasional change of positions or orifices, or even a climactic buildup of tension, but climax must not be mistaken for satisfaction: there is always another anonymous participant ready to tag in and another void to be temporarily filled. Tompkins’s paintings are never satisfying, and therein lies their power: they depict the very impossibility of depicting sex.

Installation view of Small by Betty Tompkins at Marlborough Contemporary. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Installation view of Small by Betty Tompkins at Marlborough Contemporary. Image courtesy of the gallery.


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