Marcella Cruz uses artists work in Let Me Be an Object That Screams to think critically about the role of women reclaiming their identities both within the art world and within society, and in how artists challenge social norms that assume gender-specific responsibilities. After visiting the exhibition Let Me Be an Object That Screams curated by Matt Morris, Karyn Sandlos ART 101 class dove deeper into the relationships between subjects and objects using the exhibition as a catalyst for conversations.
SCREAMING OBJECTS | OBJECTS SCREAMING
Artists use the tools of representation to question or complicate subject/object relationships by blurring the lines between what the two mean and represent. But how do artists take images and materials that are commonly considered “objects” and create subjects out of them? How do subjects become objectified? In a recent Gallery 400 exhibit, Let Me Be an Object That Screams, artists Nona Faustine, Catalina Ouyang, Oli Rodriguez and Jovencio de la Paz force audiences to question the social worth of the presented images and figures depicted in their work, and create an altered perspective of what each representation is.
When speaking on the idea that artists take images and materials that are commonly considered “objects” and create subjects out of them, consider the following. In Sturken & Cartwright’s book, Practices of Looking (2017), there is an image of a Guerilla Girls poster that says “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into The Met. Museum? Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 83% of the nudes are female” (p. 123). Upon viewing the Gallery 400 exhibit entitled Let Me Be an Object That Screams, Nona Faustine, as a female artist, represents the female form in her works with a sense of empowerment. Taking control of her own image, she subverts the norm of men having control of a woman’s body in the art world. Not only is Faustine a woman, she is a black woman of a “plus sized” proportion that appears nude in her own images - this alone is bold when considering the “ideal” female shape in America is often, if not always, very thin and delicate.
By making herself the object in her images, as she does throughout her White Shoes series, Faustine furthers the thought of subjecthood. The images of herself nude in front of historical spaces with hidden or forgotten slave trade history such as Wall Street, Tweed Courthouse, and Lefferts House let her objectify her own physical image to further the subject, which is the unjust history of race relations in the United States. Even further, Faustine complicates history by getting her audience to question what the past truly is, especially as a society currently re-evaluating our stance on race relations and the treatment of people of color in the current state. How far have we truly come from the history alluded to in these photos? Faustine transitions from the objectification of female bodies through the male gaze and the art world, to a stance of controlled object hood of her own body in her own artwork. She uses her body to comment on society. In The White Shoes series, there can be no power exercised over Faustine’s perspective of herself, especially as she often decides to place herself in the center of each image. Faustine is the catalyst for further inquiry.
Catalina Ouyang, the reprisal of Marco (Pedestals), 2017, performance
Another common stance amongst artists is to take images and objects commonly known as “subjects” and objectify them. Consider the work of Catalina Ouyang. Upon viewing her work titled the reprisal for Marco (Pedestals) at Gallery 400, I was highly struck by the portion of the experience where young, white men were made pedestals. In juxtaposition with Nona Faustine’s method of objectifying herself, Ouyang decided to objectify the common subject - a white male body. Sturken & Cartwright (2017), referencing the work of Foucault point out, “... power is enacted not by or upon individuals but through them in discourse” (p. 101). This quote can be brought to understanding how the artist Ouyang’s work is an example of power being enacted through discourse. These young, male performers received a small portion of the experience of what it is like to be objectified; in contrast, a woman can be seen in this position frequently. The young white male performers were taken from their common reality of subjecthood and then objectified by becoming pedestals in the very environment that would usually embrace them - creating a new subject/object dynamic.
Oli Rodriguez and Jovencio de la Paz, "I want something more than my husband and my house.”, digital video (still), and accompanying text.
Image courtesy the artists.
Continuing to think about the male figure’s position in the art world, we can consider Oli Rodriguez and Jovencio de la Paz’s collaboration, I Want Something More Than My Husband and My House. As an audience encountering this work we are forced to question the worth of the ideal home when the element of sexuality is brought into perspective. In Sturken & Cartwright (2017), John Berger is quoted as saying “men act, women appear” (p. 123). Berger used these words regarding men historically being in the active role as artist, and women being models. This quote speaks to this art piece in terms of role switching and worth. Rodriguez and de la Paz flip the script by using a piece of monumental feminist literature to stir a point about non-heteronormative homes and lifestyles, but they also make the female perspective the backbone of this piece, which is quite unusual. In a way, they objectify themselves to further the importance of this quote in history, and then continue to modernize the perspective. The object is unconventional desires, the subject is feminist ideals and the idea that a “normal” home does not exist. They use the inevitable gaze of the art world to speak on a feminist platform, essentially using their gender to bring attention to all non-binary and heteronormative perspectives.
Fortunately, there is no right or wrong way to approach the idea of subject/object relationships. Artists use various methods all the time to switch which ideals meet which stereotypes and criteria. By forcing the viewer to question the worth and magnitude of subjecthood and objecthood, we further complicate the relationship between the two, and perhaps encourage those who view art works to consider more than a binary perspective.