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Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. There are various ways people interpret femininity and masculinity in education, religion, politics, social environments, the work place, and art. The effect of these interpretations can cause gender issues that often result in discriminatory stereotypes.
This essay will be looking at the work of female contemporary artist Janine Antoni, identifying and discussing the gender issues that are evoked through her art. In particular her artwork addresses the learned behaviours and social expectations associated with the female gender from a western culture perspective. The aim of this essay is to examine five of her artworks and achieve a clear understand of the issues raised in them.
Antoni's artwork focuses on everyday routine. She converts regular daily tasks such as eating, sleeping, washing and dressing into forms of art through process and material. According to Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo (2003, p165) 'The body, what we eat, how we dress, the daily rituals we attend to the body is a medium of culture' This imposition of culture is often a tool of oppression for women. Antoni uses these mediums of culture to explore women's identity and the supposed ideal representation of the female gender.
Fig1. Janine Antoni, 'Butterfly kisses' 1996-1999, Covergirl thick lash mascara on paper, (75.6 x 76.2 cm) Antoni mocks the conformist stereotypical female preoccupation with make-up in her artwork 'Butterfly Kisses' [Fig 1]. To create the piece she applied CoverGirl Thick Lash MascaraÂ® to her eyes and then winked 1254 times with her left eye onto a sheet of paper. She then winked another 1254 times but with her right eye onto another piece of paper. In western culture not only are "butterfly kisses" a soft tickling of eyelashes on the skin that young children enjoy but also batting ones eyelashes is the cliché act of feminine flirtation. In this work she transforms the common daily female routine of applying makeup into a laborious repetitive process.
Women wear make-up because they want to appear more beautiful, in order to feel better about themselves and to impress others. This routine of applying makeup becomes a ritualistic exercise, where women can end up feeling inadequate without a mask of cosmetics. Antoni's arduous representation of make-up expresses how the female gender is pressured into conforming to a false impression of beauty. Everyday people are bombarded with idealised images of beauty by the media, including advertisements pushing women to wear make-up.
'Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the west it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.' Wolf (1991, p12)
Fig.2. Janine Antoni, 'Gnaw' 1992, Installation of chocolate and lard 24 X 25 X 24c Inches each. Antoni explores the female genders obsessive attitudes towards beauty and the negative effects of these pressures in her artwork Gnaw [Fig2]. Antoni started with a pair of 600 pound cubes one made from chocolate and the other made from lard. She interacted with each block in the same way, using her bare teeth biting into the surfaces chiselling away mouth size pieces. She then spat out every bite continuing this process until she had reached the limits of her endurance. Antoni's repetitive act of consuming and then purging acts as a social metaphor for bulimia.
Chocolate is a direct source of pleasure that tends to be very fattening and lard is something that would be very unpleasant to consume but is an established ingredient in the cosmetics industry, where it is used to make lipstick. Antoni's self harming display shows the repercussions of a society where the female gender are put under heavy amounts of pressure to be slim and buy cosmetics to be desirable.
Antoni recycled the masticated chocolate waste by vacuum moulding it into heart shaped chocolate trays. The discarded lard was used as a base for 300 sticks of shiny red lipstick. These were arranged in a glass display case in a mock boutique shop within an art gallery space; this work came to be known as the Lipstick/Phenylethylamine Display [Fig3]. Phenylethylamine is a chemical found in chocolate and is also produced in the brain of a person in love. In the display of chocolate boxes and lipstick Antoni is creating a language of desire and beauty. The two gnawed blocks were displayed in the same gallery space presented on marble pedestals as sculptures. Both of these visually opposing forms refer to the constructs of femininity.
Consumption, decay and self-harm juxtaposed with the decorative beauty of cosmetics and romantic, heart shaped chocolate boxes epitomizes the female gender issues relating with beauty and body image. Women's desire for beauty so that they will be loved creates the pressures to control body fat. This can result in women developing eating disorders such as bulimia.
According to art critic John Berger women are objectified by both men and themselves.
Fig.3. Janine Antoni, 'Gnaw' 1992, Lipstick Display-lipstick made with pigment, beeswax, and chewed lard removed from Lard Gnaw and heart-shaped packaging tray for chocolates made from chewed chocolate removed from Chocolate Gnaw.
"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the relations to men and women, but the relation of women to themselves.The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." Berger (1972, p47)
This quote has been true throughout history and is still extremely dominant in today's western society. When women look at television advertisements designed for women to buy cosmetics, they are looking at themselves the way a man would see them. Judging their appearance and feeling the pressure of this form of idealised beauty in western culture.
Antoni explores female identity further in her sculptural work 'Lick and lather' [Fig4]. Using the dental mould alginate for its quality to pick up fine detail, Antoni cast a classical portrait bust of herself. She then made a mould from this so that she could create seven busts made from brown chocolate and seven busts made from white soap. She then interacted directly with each of the busts, licking away the chocolate busts features and lathering her hands over the soap busts in the bath, wearing away her self image.
Janine Antoni explains the notion behind 'Lick and Lather' in an interview with Art:21 "In terms of the classical bust, an issue that my work deals with a lot is the idea of woman and beauty. And thinking about how women have been depicted traditionally in sculpture and trying to take that on...The thing about the classical bust is it's usually reserved for depicting men and usually very powerful men. And then when we see women in classical sculpture they depict hope and charity and love. I was particularly conscious of that when I made the bust and thinking about this act of erasure of this specific personality." Antoni, Art:21. (2001).
The dominance of men through art history is explored in this work. The marble busts of men in the past were depicted as powerful through the sculptor where as the women were simply viewed as objects of beauty. Antoni's act of smoothing away the distinct feminine features and deforming the face can be seen as and act against the idealised symmetrical faced, perfected features of beauty constructed by western society.
Fig.4. Janine Antoni, 'Lick and Lather', 1993, self portrait Sculptor s one made of chocolate the other of soap.
Antoni explores themes of male dominance in art history in her performance piece Loving Care [Fig5] This was created when she dipped her hair into a bucket of Loving Care-brand hair dye and then gradually mopped the floor of the Anthony D'Offay Gallery in London. In this piece she combines the chore of mopping with dying ones hair. She uses her hair like a large paintbrush to create large brush strokes over the floor, parodying the masculine gestured painting tradition of abstract expressionism.
Fig.5. Janine Antoni, 'Loving Care', 1992, performance piece at the
D'Offay Gallery in London. Referencing the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock from the late 1940s.She uses her whole body to move around the gallery floor, similarly to the work of Pollock who lay large canvases down on the floor and worked into them by dripping and pouring paint. Before the 1960s women artists were struggling to compete in a male dominated art world. Antoni's mopping action can be thought as women's work. The role of the women traditionally in history was in the house working on mundane chores such as cleaning, while the men were out creating masterpieces.
Antoni dominates the gallery space pushing the spectators away as she stains the floor with her hair. Dipping her hair into a bucket of semi-permanent hair dye in the same shade of dark natural black her mother uses to cover up her grey. She is acknowledging that her learned constructions of femininity have come from her mother.
Fig.6. Janine Antoni, 'Mom and Dad', 1994, Three silver dye bleach prints, triptych, edition 6/6, 24 x 19 7/8 inches (61 x 50.5 cm) each.
In her photographic work Mom and Dad [Fig6] Antoni makes her parents dress up as each other complete with makeup and wigs. In this work she is not only challenging the construct of gender identity but also married relationships. In this work it is evident that it expresses how clothes, hairstyle and make-up forms gender constructs. Looking at the three prints the viewer can identify which person is Antoni's mother and which is the father, distinctly by the naturally softer feature of the mothers jaw and the more broad prominent jaw of the father. Antoni dressing her parents up as each other makes the gender constructs of male and female formed by clothes, makeup and hair style more obvious,. In drawing the viewer's attention to these she raises issues about both the male and female gender.
However the work also tackles the identity within relationships and how marriage can possibly cause loss of identity, where both partners become the same person. This loss of identity it specifically associated with the female relinquishing their name to take a man's and a more submissive role in the home after marriage.
From analysing the artwork of Janie Antioni it is clear that the dominate gender issue raised in her work is that of female beauty. The biased representation of women in society and the social constructions of what is considered feminine are pressurising women into conforming to an 'ideal' beauty and image. Western society's consumerist culture views women as objects, forcing women to look at themselves with criticism with damaging repercussions. Antoni's work also explores historical gender issues through the traditional role of the woman in the home. Her work explores the loss of identity within marriage and the negative representation of women through art historically. She also evokes issues of consumerism and social packaging and how in society more effort is put into how everything looks than what its really about. Through the use of process and material Antoni successfully explores these themes. Using her body as a medium to explore western cultures everyday routines she exposes the oppression of the female gender by society.