The New Museum is taking a deep dive into the role of gender in contemporary art. With an emphasis on the word “contemporary.”
The vast majority of “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” opening today, consists of pieces from after 2010, with a sizable contingent from this year. The exhibit was curated with the goal of creating a snapshot of the current moment of “political upheaval and renewed culture wars,” a seeming reference to the increased prevalence of right-wing populism.
Since the cultural prevalence of the male-female binary view of gender is fracturing into an ever more complex tapestry, the exhibit can call on entertaining variety.
Mickalene Thomas’s “Me as Muse” is a sculptural video exhibit piece that aims its crosshairs at the exotification of non-European women. It uses distortions to displace rolling flesh of assorted depictions of African women. These include a painting of the “Hottentot Venus,” a woman from South Africa, brought to London in the 1800s to display her curves and enable the European onlookers to fill in the African continent with their own repressed sexual fantasies. In an audio recording, Eartha Kitt recounts running a gauntlet of sexual violence throughout her childhood; she was conceived when her mother was raped by a plantation owner’s son. The piece gradually reveals the full naked body of the artist, which is photographed above.
Meandering through the show was a piece of performance art, a big man in a bear costume. The bear, named Gnomen, carried a bowl of buttons and instructed people to tell a secret to a button and pin it to the bear. Nayland Blake is a tall man, and the addition of a bear costume appears to add a few inches. He seems to remain fully silent while in costume. When you indulge the pins in their instruction, he gives a thumbs up. It’s unclear how this piece connects to the overall theme of gender.
“Crossing Object” is one in a series of performance pieces that will unfold over the course of this exhibition.
The gimmick of Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photographs (photographed above) is to remove the capacity for identification that is usually the point of photographing someone. By combining lighting, a shallow depth of field, and the pose of the photographer, the artist has obscured their identity, gender or otherwise.
The photos of “Edge of Twilight,” taken over several years in a women-only RV park in New Mexico, were striking for how they were not striking. Amidst room upon room of outsized emotion, the ordinariness of these photos made them stand out. Which is not to say they were bland; they were all elegantly shot and visually interesting. The modesty of the dwellings and the simplicity of their rock gardens served as a reminder that for all the dividing lines of gender, humanity is mostly similar.
Correction: The original version of this post misidentified the title of the exhibit and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.