Can statements concerning representation become so platitundal that they no longer bear worth saying? If so, would the resultant silence represent substantiated social progress, or simply a change of social tides, if not a wholesale decline into the perversity of a “suffering olympics”? Is it possible that we have progressed past certain social ills, or is it much more likely that certain issues have simply gone out of style, for no other reason than that we’ve deemed others to suffer worse fates? At its core, these are the questions that plague London-based gallery Lychee One’s most recent exhibition, “Monster/Beauty: An Exploration of the Female/Femme Gaze,” exhibted from their East London outpost until October 31st.
Located on a quiet avenue just east of the London Fields Lido, Lychee One is fitted as one might expect a smaller, if well-known, contemporary art gallery to be: its single room is painted an unobjectionable white, while hueless strip lighting illuminates the room from above. These details would certainly fade into the blur of recollection otherwise, but they prove important in any description of the show; the space exudes an institutionality, or the trappings of institutionality, that is both immediately perceptible and tough to shake. To be clear, this in itself is no criticism, and perhaps speaks to the stature of the artists on exhibition: the museum-worthy combination of work by artists like Zanele Muholi, Sophie Thun, and Alina Szapocznikow, show-stopping in its own right, may well suffer in less traditional spaces.
But in light of this, despite the seemingly ideological bent of the show, one begins to question the guiding principle of an exhibition that insists on showing these artists together, necessitating the sparest of interiors in order to facilitate the pairing of styles that otherwise appear disparate. Could it be that the artists’ reputation came first, and their work second? Following this train of thought – that which demands coherency within the curatorial selection – only leads one further down the rabbit hole, drawing larger questions that extend beyond aesthetics. Yes, Zanele Muholi’s contribution to the show – Gamalawo, Frankfurt, Germany (2019), a portrait in which the decorously dressed sitter’s dark skin silhouettes their features against the muted grey tones of the silver gelatin print – sits uncomfortably alongside Sophie Thun’s vaguely lurid and humorous photograms, in which the artist aligns self-portraits to suggest a kind of autoerotic doggystyle, but this aesthetic imbalance is only cast in starker clarity when one considers the artists’ biographies. Muholi’s work has received significant attention for their portrayal of South Africa’s Black LGBTQIA+ population, a community for which they have been a tireless and fearless advocate, while the Austrian Thun’s often self-referential work represents – and exists within – much different (read: leavened) social and artistic mores. Turning once more to the show’s theme – an exploration of the female/femme gaze – the viewer must recognize that the very institutionality that is demanded by aesthetic considerations is doubled by a rejection of nuance and intersectionality. The traditionality of the space, intentionally or otherwise, gestures too towards an lack of conceptual ingenuity, leaving the viewer holding nothing but a loose bag of signifiers that limpidly signals the common, if not insipid, thesis that all of these artists, despite their astounding differences, identify as either women or femme-presenting.
Yet, however uninspired this theme may seem, is its representational task in highlighting the work of women and femme-presenting individuals still worthwhile? In other words, however used some of us may be to female and femme-presenting artists being both of canonical stature and contemporary global repute, is it still imperative to acknowledge the historical disparity in artistic acknowledgement between men and women? If the answer is yes, Lychee One’s exhibition has been a runaway success, despite its flattening of several historical or biographical differences, which both could be considered collateral damage if in service to much greater ends. But if the answer is no – if even the show’s very premise proves recourse to an outmoded binarization of gendered self-presentations – then the progressiveness of the enterprise has fallen flat, no more than a vacuous theme suggesting less of a desire to have a conversation in earnest, and more of an attempt to be as moderate, and thus inoffensive, as possible.
More likely than not, such questions prove unanswerable – surely, we as viewers must hold the coextant truths that women/femme people are both well-represented in the art world and continually done a disservice in our hands. As such, “Monster/Beauty: An Exploration of the Female/Femme Gaze” is at once boring and necessary, telling us what we already ought to know, but that which we have yet to fully commit to memory.