A new art show at the Fortnight Institute is flipping the script on a persistent imbalance in the art world. While men still dominate the major museums, massive retrospectives, and money-makers of the art market, most of the weens found at DICKS (on view now through December 4) are actually nailed to the wall.
All but one of the eight participating artists are women, and each artwork included in the show (paintings, photography, and sculpture) is strikingly phallocentric and jarringly figurative. DICKS is so literal in its approach to the ding-dong (arguably the most hilarious feature associated with the male anatomy) that the show was announced without explanation. The title, and a glimpse of Betty Tompkins’s contribution, Dick Painting #3, said it all.
In a room full of schlongs, how does someone like Tompkins stand out? Or better yet– how does she top her own body of work, already replete with unflinching, unadorned close-ups of human sexy-parts? According to the artist, you take some serious risks: “It’s sort of like the most dangerous work I’ve ever done,” she said.
More than a third of her 24-by-24 inch painting is taken up by an erect penis: a veiny, unnaturally straight shooter, overlaid by a grid. At first, it seems like an obvious reference to dick-sizing and our culture’s obsession with penile measurement, but there’s something else lurking beneath that toxic-ooze green, and the blurry but precise viewfinder aim that screams night vision goggles. Is Tompkins putting herself in a sharpshooter’s shoes and aiming her weapon squarely at this immense dongle? Maybe. But at the conscious level, anyway, Tompkins is pretty lighthearted about the whole thing.
“For some reason this whole thing is striking me as very funny,” she laughed.
Tompkins is unfazed as ever when it comes to her work: massive, almost soft-focus paintings that offer unwavering studies of sex. For the last 50 years, she’s taken the standpoint of the voyeur and sourced many of her provocative images from pornography. In doing so, she flattens much of the baggage that usually comes with anatomical shots of intimate body parts and sex acts, and lends a certain beauty to otherwise coarse money shots, however blush-worthy some of her paintings might be.
It wasn’t until recently that Tompkins’s work got the attention it deserved (in fact, when we first spoke with her, she recalled an incident when some of her paintings were thrown in “art jail”). “I’m in an interesting position, where it’s sort of like my whole game has opened up again,” she said. While this has allowed her to bring her work out in the open and into the art world that shunned her for so long, Tompkins still has to contend with detractors.
“I look at these dicks and they make me laugh every single time,” she said. “But somebody just asked to be removed from my mailing list because my work is ‘revolting.’”
When it comes to penis paintings, clearly Tompkins popped her cherry long ago. But with her new “Dick Paintings” series (which includes paintings on both canvas and paper) she’s taking a slightly different approach to the male sex organ. “I’ve done dick paintings before and drawings, but they were always very, very clearly attached to the body, of which you could see quite a bit,” she explained. “When I did these, I went in the total opposite direction: they’re disembodied dicks. And it makes me laugh, because here’s this thing.”
It’s true, the floating phallus implies something completely different than the dick in action. It’s almost as if the organ has been stripped of its power. To be completely frank, without something to stick it in, the penis is just a lonely, floating worm. You can laugh at him, sure, but it almost feels sort of cruel. He just looks so defeated, so… sad.
Of course the green hue, in all its weirdness, just makes the peen look even more clownish. According to Tompkins, however, that wasn’t her intention, necessarily. In fact, the idea to do an entire series of “green dicks,” as Betty calls them, came from John Cheim, the art collector and owner of a Chelsea-based gallery, Cheim & Read. “He told me that the hardest things to sell were green paintings,” Tompkins recalled. “And I said to John, ‘Oh, I see some green dicks coming up.'”
And this goes beyond just painting in green. Tompkins said that the whole process behind “color standing as a formal element on its own” is a new one for her, and requires total precision. In a way, it seems like Tompkins is putting up roadblocks for herself.
Still, her excitement is palpable: “I’m 71 years old and I feel like everything is up for grabs. It’s the most exciting feeling when you’re in your studio and you know you can fail.”
While Tompkins’s “Dick Paintings” breathe new life into the style of her “Fuck Paintings,” they present a less obvious parallel with another recently-completed series, Women Words. It took more than a decade to complete the massive project, a 1,000-strong series of miniature paintings that took the countless catcalls, insults, and patronizing pet names women have to deflect every day (from “cunt” to “a sight for sore eyes”) and laid them over appropriated versions of canonical abstract works by famous male painters.
Part of what made Women Words so striking was seeing these catcalls and insults out of their original context. By plucking these words straight from the mouths of men and women who feed into the patriarchal machine, appropriating them and then placing them in isolation, Tompkins stripped them of some of their power. Suddenly, it was easier to look at these words in a new light, and in a way, Tompkins castrated the misogynist perpetrators, and cut their weapons down to (a tiny) size.
With the “Dick Paintings,” it seems like Tompkins is doing something similar. By taking the penis out of context, and disarming what is often used as an instrument of destruction, and a weapon of control and violence, it’s placed in a vacuum and exposed for what it really is: an awkward, dangly hunk of flesh.
It’s hard not to draw a line between these “Dick Paintings” and the ongoing presidential race, which has reinvigorated the kind of sexist and misogynist rhetoric that almost, almost felt like it was in remission. With the sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump as well as the clear-as-day “locker room talk” video in which he bragged about groping women without their consent, in addition to his repeated verbal abuses of women, it can sometimes feel like we’ve been thrust back about 100 years.
“With this election that’s going on, it’s brought all of this embedded, latent misogyny that’s in our society right out into the open,” Betty said. “I could never have anticipated this. I think our entire gender is so aware of this election, no matter who they’re voting for. It’s never been clearer in my life how misogynist our society is, it’s never been clearer how embedded it is. I’m sure in the depths of his mind, Trump thinks he’s paying these women a compliment when he gropes them, he’s saying ‘I approve of you.’ It’s so totally wrong and hideous.”
Tompkins denied any intentional connection between her “Dick Paintings” and the current cultural shift toward a revitalized, explicit form of misogyny. But there’s something to be said for the push-and-pull between the two forces. While Trump and his alt-right followers unleash deeply embedded hatred, Tompkins’s work isolates the instruments of male violence, and reveals both the explicit tools of misogyny and the subtle patriarchal arrangements that reenforce the subjugation of women for what they really are: an illusion of absolute power.