A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but what about a Woman? Last week, legendary feminist artist Betty Tompkins opened a show at FLAG Art Foundation entitled “WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories” which features 1,000 small scale paintings of words and phrases used to describe the female identity. The project began years ago when Tompkins circulated an email in which she asked for help “developing the vocabulary” about women. The response was surprising, with over 3,500 words and phrases submitted in seven different languages. The four most common words were Mother, Slut, Bitch, and Cunt.
Tompkins read 500 of the words aloud at a performance in Vienna in 2012, which then prompted her to create the series of 1,000 paintings to be exhibited as a whole. Each painting features either hand painted or stenciled text on top of images of diaphanous female figures or paintings done in the style of “old-boy painters” like de Kooning, Pollock, and Richter. The sentiment of the paintings ranges quite a bit, from those voicing admiration (“Queen” “Divine” “Gift”), to those both pejorative and reductive (“Tits on a Stick” “Shrew” “Cock-tease”), to those that are downright repulsive (“The only thing that could make her more beautiful is my dick in her mouth”).
The series forms a border perimeter around the gallery walls in a random grid pattern like unevenly laid bricks. Some of the text may elicit a smirk, but the overwhelming takeaway is the disturbing narrative built around the female gender. Words and phrases reduce women to their physical qualities, or comment on their role as either caregivers or sexual objects. These descriptors are nothing new, but that is precisely what makes them so troubling. Have we really not come any further than Sluts and Mothers?
WOMEN Words is on view at FLAG Art Foundation (on the 9th and 10th floors of the Chelsea Arts Tower) through May 2016. To learn more about Betty Tompkins, check out her iconic “Fuck Paintings” or other works from her career spanning over four decades.
All images courtesy of Betty Tompkins and Flag Art Foundation.