the secretions we keep secret: on liquid language and female consciousness in contemporary art

I was in fifth grade when I got my first period. I came home from school, cracked open my textbook, grabbed chips from the pantry, and started simultaneously munching and working on problems #8-24, even only. As my mechanical pencil scratched away, my focus was interrupted by a quiet warm moistness in between my legs. I put down my pencil and walked over to the bathroom, where lo and behold, I found a red poppy emblazoned in the lining of my underwear. I peered between my thighs into the toilet bowl where a drop of blood began to flower in the crystal clear water. Entranced, I watched my blood taint the pristine toilet water in soft silky ribbons. Finally I wiped, pulled up my pants, and waddled to my mom’s study. “I think my butt is having a nosebleed,” I said in Taiwanese. We walked to the bathroom together and I showed her the poppy flower stain on the seat of my underpants. She pulled out a baby pantiliner from the medicine cabinet and gave it to me. “Sorry,” she said, as she rustled the top of my head.

Eight years later, in art school, I would find a rising grin on my face whenever someone labeled my work as “visceral.” I aimed for visceral because I was searching for something to identify with, something that speaks of shame and base humanity. At the time, I didn’t quite know it, but I was beginning to embrace these buried subjects and uncommon conceptions of femininity.

As a female artist, my work is linked to my experiences – as a daughter whose gender disappointed her grandparents, as a subordinate whose sexuality is shamed and silenced. These experiences are not personal, rather they are continually perpetuated upon the female sex. Since ancient Greece, we’ve seen female genitals erased to Barbie-like blanks whereas their male counterparts are accentuated with detail and accuracy. In our patriarchal culture, female sexuality has become symbols of shame, synonymous with irrationality and chaos. [1] At the same time however, an unrealistic sense of female sexuality is also desired and objectified – women are no longer human but clean and smooth commodities made ready for consumption, much like the ancient Greek vulva-less statues. When held to such ideals, women are driven to wax, to bleach, to surgically alter, but what is gained by submitting to patriarchal paragons? [2]

I’m interested in artists who subvert these perverse ideals of feminine beauty and virtue, who wholly accept their femininity, who accept that as daughters and mothers, we bleed, we lactate, we get wet. We’re taught to be ashamed of our bodily fluids, but our fluids sustain life.

Having read the art criticisms of Chris Kraus, I became immersed in the recent article written by Leslie Jamison on the author, published in the New Yorker. The article includes a review on one of Kraus’ books, I Love Dick, where the art critic, David Rimanelli, describes the book as “not so much written as secreted.” Secretion, Jamison states, “evokes the book’s bodily admissions… as well as the liquid language often applied to female writing about the self: gushing, vomiting, purging, bleeding.” As I read this sentence, I realized female visual artists also create works in the same liquid language. This repeating fluid imagery made clear to me why I felt such an urge to create “visceral” work in college and why I was drawn to certain female artists.

There’s an unapologetic quality to the works of Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois, and Jeanne Dunning. They readily embrace the bodily and are unafraid of the fluids that society is uncomfortable confronting.

In Marlene Dumas’ Head Rest (2001), the female figure embodied in watered-down pigment is soft and suggestive. The same words can be used to describe depictions of Rococo women. Unlike them, however, Dumas’ female is not rendered realistically, though she feels much more real than the women in Boucher and Fragonard’s paintings. [3] While their women’s rosy cheeks and plush lips are carefully manicured onto the canvas, Dumas’ figure simply exists, she is secreted by brush, birthed from water and pigment. She feels loose and viscous, but her stance is rooted and unashamed, her being a collision of gray and pink ink.

Similarly, Tracey Emin takes the female form and simplifies it to the most honest and essential strokes. Hers is not perfected – a quick movement of the brush to outline the woman. In Untitled (Purple Virgin Sketch) (2004), Emin draws a mysterious female figure, who is both flimsy yet bold, fluid yet straightforward. The darkest point in the picture lies in between her legs, and only from there does the viewer make out the most defined stroke on the page – her leg and foot. It is from this dark purple epicenter that one sees the woman. From the soft individual hairs to the larger scribble of unidentifiable pigment, perhaps either shadow or bodily fluid, the densest parts of the minimal picture reveal and highlight the subject’s gender. Here the figure is presented unabashed by her what society deems her darkness, by her fluidity and her fluids.

Like Dumas and Emin, Louise Bourgeois creates watercolors in a liquid language. Her paintings freely bleed between lines. They are not confined nor restricted by feminine idealizations, but rather they wholly embody the feminine in form and technique. The Good Mother (2007) features matronly breasts that envelop the page. Rendered in a deep red, they drip and bleed into the damp paper. Her nipples barely graze the child below. The child shares the same blood red pigment; it is an extension of the mother. Arms and legs outstretched, the child’s wavy limbs bleed into the wetness of the paper and the wetness of the mother that embraces it. The picture is neither polished nor pretty, but its depiction of mother and child speaks to a truth that is tucked behind doors. This is the “good mother,” an image frequently occupied by the clean and pure, Virgin Mary, [4] but unlike the common icons of mother and child that saturate our society, Bourgeois’ mother is essentialized to breasts and blood. The liquid element of female bodies, of bleeding and lactating mothers, is not hidden but celebrated in The Good Mother.
Using the same liquid language, Jeanne Dunning photographs subjects that both draw and disgust. In The Blob 3 (1999), the female subject lies on white sheets embracing the oozing viscous blob that extends from her body. She lies with her eyes closed, seemingly tranquil, even as the viewers’ initial reaction may be one of recoil. As viewers, perhaps we’ve been conditioned to react with repulsion at bodily fluids, especially those that are distinctly feminine. Dunning’s photograph, however, has the viewer questioning the flesh-colored substance that extends from the subject’s body. We become entranced by both its familiarity and its foreignness – familiar because we understand it as a fluid that we may secret and keep secret and foreign because we have never seen it publicized outside our private realms. Are we uncomfortable? And if so, why is the female being photographed so at ease compared to us, the viewer who recoils in disgust? These questions raised by the secreted fluid direct our attention to our source of shame. The image becomes unsettling when the woman whose fluids we see is not embarrassed like we expect. Rather, Dunning’s subject is calm – calm because she accepts her liquid extension, calm because she is comfortable in her skin.
The natural secretions of female bodies are often kept secret because they are identified with dishonor and disgust. But by embracing and re-appropriating these symbols of shame and repugnance, the artists, Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois, and photographer, Jeanne Dunning, celebrate the female body in all its forms. Inspired by the artists who came before me, I sought to create work that felt honest and bodily. I yearned for the visceral because it represented to me my femininity that society saw as ugliness. Finally I understand, I was fighting the reaction of shame and sorrow and embracing the initial awe and fascination that I encountered when my blood first hit the water.
[1] By our patriarchal culture, I am referring to both Western culture at large and Eastern Confucian culture.
[2] These thoughts were inspired by Syreeta McFadden’s reflections upon visiting the Greek and Roman Galleries in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, published in the Guardian.
[3] I’m thinking of Francois Boucher’s Diana Leaving the Bath (1742) and Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing (1767).
[4] I’m picturing Italian Renaissance painter, Raphael’s Madonna and Child (1503).

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