Mystical, delicate, ethereal; bold, brash, satisfied; abstract, symbolic, organic; seductive, whimsical, dangerous; empowering, funny, unsettling; intergenerational, inclusive, intimate; erotic, personal and political — featuring work by pioneering women artists from art history and today, A Woman’s Right To Pleasure offers a radical perspective on what it’s like to be female.
Currently the inspiration for a major show at Sotheby’s in Beverly Hills, before it was a hybrid exhibition, A Woman’s Right to Pleasure was a best-selling art book from BlackBook featuring some 80 artists and contributions from a host of writers. Like the book, the related exhibition explores how the female experience is inherently political, pushing back against the ways in which the power and freedom represented by female desire is objectified, shamed, and feared by various aspects of patriarchal society. The idea is that when women assert themselves in the Pleasuredome hierarchy, kingdoms tend to topple.
It’s not that men aren’t welcome in this equation, in fact there are some men in the show being very, um, attentive to their partners, courtesy of painter Alexandra Rubinstein — it’s that many women artists have each in their individual styles, mediums, and contexts felt called to undermine what Art History terms “the male gaze.” This can be understood as how the complex web of social and economic forces which have determined patriarchal social structures have expressed in, among other ways, the prevalence of museums filled with pictures of naked women made by men. Partly because women artists were rarely valued or platformed and partly because even if they were to be, it’s not as simple as a switcheroo wherein women would get to paint naked men and call it even — assuming that’s what women even wanted to do, which mostly it is not.
It’s when women turn such a gaze on each other and on themselves that the resetting of the power dynamics of desire become truly progressive and culturally subversive. But also, when women assert their right to claim and source their own pleasure and bodily autonomy — not to mention equal pay and more space on gallery walls and in executive conference rooms, or being able to walk down the street alone or, you know, be on Twitter — it can attract a five-alarm misogyny backlash. Well, those folks are not going to like this glorious project at all, not one bit.
“The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade only further solidifies this reality. In this context, pleasure is not only radical,” writes project director Alexandra Weiss, “it’s imperative.”
The remarkably eclectic array of art includes explicit work that deals with the reality of women’s bodies (Marilyn Minter, Cecily Brown); abstract work that explores the fractal visual source code of everything (Louise Bourgeois, Loie Hollowell, Georgia O’Keefe); witty and romantic work (Jessie Mackison, Emily Marie Miller); surrealist (Leonor Fini, Katherina Olschbaur) and diaristic (Nan Goldin) work; and work by several artists with no fucks left to give and a flair for the dramatic (Tracey Emin, Penny Slinger, Mary Beth Edelson). In painting, sculpture, photography, performance (documentation), and collage, and importantly across all the waves of feminism and even from the decades before the movement claimed that moniker, A Woman’s Right to Pleasure not only makes the case for equality in the libido as much as in everything else, it does so in leading by example.
“The idea was simple,” Weiss tells L.A. Weekly. “To create a space where women artists could share their experiences for themselves; we wanted the works in the exhibition to really embody the many, complex realities of being a woman. So, when it came to curating the exhibition, we wanted to explore it through all mediums and angles. To do that, we turned to the longstanding BlackBook model: bringing together seminal artists with younger artists who are shaking up the industry, plus a few unexpected names. That meant including artists like Judy Chicago, the literal godmother of feminist art, and Tracey Emin, whose radical documentation of her own sexuality has made her an iconic modern voice; and younger talent like painter Alexandra Rubinstein, who examines contemporary womanhood, exploring its relationship with celebrity culture and social media, and Iraqi-American artist Hayv Kahraman, who looks at gender and body politics from a diasporic lens.”
Originally the book and exhibition combination project was meant for BlackBook’s ersatz New York gallery, but Covid put the kibosh on that plan, which after a lot of enthusiasm for hosting the project, ended up at Sotheby’s Los Angeles location. “Working with Sotheby’s, we wanted to amplify these voices to an even wider audience,” says Weiss. “And they really understand the power of art as a unifying force for social change. So, our relationship with them was really synergistic — it just made sense. They have a great team spearheading these initiatives and together, we wanted to create something radical.”
A Woman’s Right To Pleasure contributors include: Nina Chanel Abney, Marina Abramović, Ghada Amer, Judith Bernstein, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Judy Chicago, Renee Cox, Vaginal Davis, Tamara De Lempicka, Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin, Mary Beth Edelson, Leonor Fini, Nan Goldin, Loie Hollowell, Jenny Holzer, Hayv Karahman, Jessie Makinson, Marilyn Minter, Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Katherina Olschbaur, Meret Oppenheim, Alexandra Rubinstein, Faith Ringgold, RIP Bambi, Jenny Saville, Carolee Schneemann, Tschabalala Self, Cindy Sherman, Penny Slinger, Mickalene Thomas, Betty Tompkins, Ellen Von Unwerth, Carrie Mae Weems, and many more. Essays, excerpts, epigraphs and commentary are by Erica Jong, Roxane Gay, Kathy Acker, Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, Natasha Stagg and Stoya, Simone de Beauvoir, Eve Ensler, Betty Friedan, Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, Naomi Wolf, and others.
Editor’s note: The disclaimer below refers to advertising posts and does not apply to this or any other editorial stories.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.