In “On Sexuality,” the pioneering early art of Helen Chadwick and Penny Slinger took double-barreled aim at consumer society’s reproduction of traditional gender roles. Dating mostly from the late 1960s and the ’70s, the photographs and videos on display exploded stereotypes of mass-marketed femininity.
Slinger’s preferred method is the photomontage. Prints from her landmark work, 50% The Visible Woman, 1969—published in 1971—were displayed throughout the gallery. They suffuse female sexuality with flashes of body horror. In The Larval Worm, 1969/2014, the art-ist poses nearly naked with pixie-cropped hair. She extrudes a monstrous glistening worm from her mouth. The Surprised Tin Opener, 1969/2014, is another black-and-white self-portrait with an image of a fake severed finger superimposed on it. These subversive feminist reappropriations of Surrealist tropes are not the kind of fantasies you’d find in Playboy.
Slinger’s juxtapositions operate as a kind of shock therapy. She takes patriarchal binaries—virgin/whore, goddess/monster—and scrambles the sum of their parts, creating an unnerving emotional pressure. You Are Always Poking, 1969/2021, depicts a bejeweled woman wearing a knight’s helmet as a phallic snake rears up. The Safe Period, 1969/2014, shows pregnancy as a kind of body snatching: a woman lies naked in a bath, with a medical-textbook image of a fetus in the womb collaged over her midriff. From the left-hand frame, a hand creepily emerges, as if trying to touch the unborn child.
In subsequent works, both shame and innocence are shunned at the altar. In A Rose for the Bride, 1973/2020, Slinger poses as a human wedding cake, complete with bridal veil. A slice has been removed, leaving her crotch exposed save for a red rose between her legs. Throughout, the artist pictures the clichéd materials of female objectification—lace, chain mail, flowers—and recombines them within contrasting and often uncanny contexts. In The Fetish, 1969/2014, snakeskin conjures a reptilian satire of fashion magazines.
Similarly, Helen Chadwick, whose career was cut short by her death in 1996 at the age of only forty-two, was fascinated by the beauty of abject matter. The centerpiece of the exhibition was Domestic Sanitation, Chadwick’s 1976 degree show performance. In the thirty-minute video, the artist and three other women appear in a mock infomercial. Dressed in lace-up latex outfits emphasizing their buttocks and decorated with tufts of fake pubic hair, they vacuum and dust in an unnerving pantomime of housewifery. Trapped in a domestic dungeon, they push around a red gurney and perform exercises. We hear slick advertising patter recruiting “beauty advisers” and a radio discussion about “the woman’s role.” In Chadwick’s series “In the Kitchen,” 1977, she poses in costume as household appliances: stove, fridge, washing machine. Her androgynous nakedness is frequently on display, both bound by and bursting free from these modern “conveniences.”
In Ruin, 1986, Chadwick twists her unclothed body away from the viewer to hide her face, the gesture a rejection of the submissive female nude of art history. Her other hand rests on a skull, a memento mori connecting the body with inevitable decay and death. Phallogocentricos, 1995, a screen print, shows the gendered body melting into something epicene. A vortex of white and green stripes swirls into the central image of a deformed human fetus, displaying a penis-like growth and vaginal opening above its mouth. Rather than indulge freakish titillation, Chadwick finds something tender in the idea of what human flesh can embody.
Her lithograph Font Fuck, 1992, blends ideas of the holy and the profane. It’s an image of a baptismal font filled with strawberries. A phallic pestle looms above, preparing to pulverize the fruit. Chadwick reconfigures the contrast between softness and austerity, reverence and play, and questions what pleasure feels like. What disturbs us and what we desire may not be so distinct after all.
— Daniel Culpan