Materials can embrace an exploration of texture and form and signify political intentions. Barbarie Rothstein produced sculpture in a wide range of media, including polyurethane foam, branches and vines, wax and plaster. These mediums open up vast possibilities to aid her exploration concerning the human form, space and the unconscious. Like Chicago and Wilke, Rothstein is immediately concerned with means of expressing internal thought and female bodily experience, as she states as such:
The thread that has run through my work from its very beginning is the mystery of internal spaces. Whether hinted at through the cracks and crevices in the human anatomy and the natural world, or expressed through the interiors of shelters and other kinds of enclosures, this concern has been a constant. While male artists, too, have dealt with images of outer/inner or actual enclosures, I see this imagery in my work as stemming from female bodily experience. This is my link to Feminism.
Jerry’s Piece is a sculpture by Rothstein made of polyurethane foam and fabric dye. The strong shape and curving folds suggest a clear outline of the vagina. The isolation of this shape alongside the jagged, triangular forms that protrude outward installs the piece with kinetic energy, as if it were a live, animate, breathing creature. Initially, these forms appear aggressive, invoking the masculine myth of the Vagina Dentata, the angry and dangerous toothed vagina. This myth is important in psychoanalytical terms, as it is thought to express men’s unconscious fears associated with the Freudian castration complex, the fear of penile loss. Women are controlled and contained by this terror myth, refused the right to natural human emotions such as anger or aggression. However, I believe Rothstein is actually inverting and reclaiming this myth from the patriarchal realm and a deeper investigation of this sculpture is needed. Undeniably, there appears to be a row of white, sharp teeth in the centre of the piece, these cover an inner layer of long, rounded purple foam forms which connote a tongue. Therefore, the combination of these inner and outer layers creates a mouth, a portal for communication and expression, an articulation of thought and speech. Women can speak of their deepest, most intimate experiences from their innermost private place, the source of their erotic knowledge. They can also use this knowledge to dispel social and cultural myths. The dynamic interchange between the organic softness, pliability of the material and the metaphorical association of meaning articulates the complexities of these cultural implications. Jerry’s Piece is not passive and silenced; it asserts an expression of inner strength that does not hide behind a shameful Pudica pose or a blank, idealised projection of masculine fantasy. Women have powerful human emotions- both aggression and desire, they have ‘teeth’ and mouths that could bite but also speak; these qualities make them real and human.
Polyurethane Foam, Fabric Dye
72″h x 36″w x 18″d
By researching these artworks from the 1970s in this three part blog piece, I aimed to communicate how they engage with the deeper political agendas of second wave feminism. Chicago and Wilke were prominent and iconic figures in this movement, and whilst Rothstein may not be as well known, her sculpture shows how a wide-range of artists were communicating and responding to this feminist intervention. All three pieces resonate on two levels- firstly, they are content driven, questioning what is it and how it feels to be an object, not a subject, in the traditional story of art. They are not simply vagina for vagina’s sake. They refuse to accept this litany of patriarchal thought, they respond to the omission and absence of women in this thought system and explore issues of identity, sexuality, menstruation, erotic experience, power and knowledge creatively and actively, through a variety of skills and materials. They create a new position for women in the art world as a creator whilst disputing the narrow-minded legacy that the art world has ingrained within our culture. There is an undeniable articulation of aesthetic beauty in each of these works- the bold contrast of colours and clean graphic lines inChicago’s lithograph the soft, rippling waves of sensation in Wilke’s latex and the strong, organic presentation of forms in Rothstein’s foam sculpture. This art created in this feminist intervention can be aesthetically-pleasing as well as political and challenging, positive and deconstructing. Secondly, and for me most importantly, these images create a framework with allows a complete reversal in the way in which our culture views women. They resonate on a deeper, emotional and personal level that questions what psychological effects are conditioned in the structuring of cultural binaries and notions of femininity. Young women should not be anxious about their bodily functions, suppressed of their erotic desires, denied their natural emotions or be made to feel inferior. How can it be healthy that such negative connotations of fear and loathing are placed upon the female sexual organs? These three works show an alternative, they seek to eradicate this loathing and replace it with a celebration. Pride. Even with a distance of forty years, the potentiality of these works of art to deconstruct, to challenge, to repute, to inspire, to unleash and to grow, can only remain a positive and powerfully liberating force.