Imogen Cunningham Revisited

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Imogen Cunningham was a pioneer in many ways, notably as a woman who photographed nudes, male and female–including herself, in the early 20th century, when America’s Victorian hangover mandated that art school models wear masks to guard their reputations.

BOT03 (1) The stunning new book Imogen Cunningham (TF Editores/DAP) is the largest collection of her work to date, spanning her nudes, street art, industrial photos, botanicals (which echoed Georgia O’Keefe and presaged Robert Mapplethorpe), and portraits of artists and writers from Man Ray and Gertrude Stein to Frida Kahlo and Martha Graham.

Though she collaborated briefly with Dorothea Lange, Cunningham was not interested in “the invasive approach” of photojournalism. But she took some fabulous celebrity photos. When she appeared (at 93, shortly before her death) on the Tonight Show in 1976, she told Johnny Carson that Vanity Fair, for whom she worked in the ’30s, once hired her to shoot ugly men, including Cary Grant. “Do you consider him ugly?” Carson asked, and the audience roared with laughter when she replied, “No—he convinced me that he wasn’t.”

Bobbie-LibarryCunningham worked until her death. Her posthumously published monograph, After 90, chronicled the elderly, including the tattooed circus attraction Irene “Bobbie” Libarry (83, at right) in a nursing home. It was one of Cunningham’s last portraits, taken months before she died, and I’ve read that it was one of her favorites. Oddly it’s not included in this book (though a touching photo of Libarry’s tattooed feet is).

imogen_cunningham_ishvani_hands_1962I wish this collection featured fewer of Cunningham’s double exposed allegorical photos, which haven’t aged well, and more of her artists’ portraits, which have. Even so, this visual bonanza–200 images, all on view at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm—is spectacular, confirming how fresh and sensual her photos were–and are.



Facebook’s Accidental Breast Cancer Activism

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

bafaro front

This photo of a post- mastectomy tattoo from Bodies of Subversion went viral on Facebook this week after Custom Tattoo Design in Ontario posted it and Facebook repeatedly removed it for violating its nudity policy. In reposting it, Lee Roller of CTD wrote, “We feel this woman is both brave and strong so [we’re] going to post it anyways and ask for your awareness and support. Please like and share this photo quickly to show your support for this and many other women who have lost so much.’

Odd that Facebook considers a woman without breasts indececent (she shows nothing more than a shirtless man would) or, for that matter, naked: her tattoo itself is a beautiful shirt. The image has been shared (as of April 22) almost 400,00 times and inspired 200,000 likes and over 60,000 comments, along with a slew of news articles internationally. And Facebook has evidently relented:the photo remains up. Seattle artist Tina Bafaro did the tattoo on Inga Duncan Thornell after her bilateral mastectomy. Here’s what it looks like from behind:

Photos courtesy Tina Bafaro, from Bodies of Subversion 3.

Playing Indian

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

A few weeks ago, No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” video (featuring Gwen Stefani as a white Indian bound and writhing for the delectation of hunky hostiles) revived a centuries-old tradition of captive fantasy art just in time for Native American History Month. There was John Vanderlyn’s 1804 “Murder of Jane McCrea,” John Mix Stanley’s 1845 “Osage Scalp Dance,” Erastus Dow Palmer’s full frontal “The White Captive” (1857-8, allegedly inspired by Olive Oatman), and this priceless lesser known piece, “The White Captive,” by Astley D.M. Cooper:

A California artist with a drinking problem and a penchant for painting semi-clad ladies, Cooper was an erratic talent (but you have to hand it to him for this 4 x 8 foot piece of sheer high concept brilliance). Though it was painted in 1902, his captivity scenario is positively postmodern: the natives look like they could be Indians from a whole different continent, and the chubby little devils—wearing angel wings and carrying spears, tomahawks, and bows and arrows–merrily menace a blissed out androgyne who’s about to get roasted and float to heaven.

This painting always struck me as a little late in the day for captivity fantasy art. But No Doubt has extended the timeline by over a century. After hearing from outraged viewers (and receiving an open letter from UCLA ‘s American Indian Studies Center), Interscope pulled the video and the band issued a formal apology (as did Victoria’s Secret for dressing this model in leopard skin panties and a floor length Indian headdress):

One particularly offensive aspect of the No Doubt video, the AISC letter noted, is that one in three Native American women is raped (primarily by non-Indians). Perhaps as penance for singing “Do You think I’m Looking Hot?” in redface during Native American history month, Stefani should read Louise Erdrich’s The Roundhouse, a novel about the rape of an Ojibwe woman, which just won the National Book Award. It was written, said Erdrich, to honor “the  grace and endurance of native women.”


Hula Divas: Aloha America

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

From the 19th century to the 1950s, Hawaiian hula dancers performed for guests at home and foreigners abroad, establishing what author Adria Imada calls “imagined intimacy” between the U.S and the Aloha State as we made it safe for democracy, tourism, and the exportation of sugar. In Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire (Duke University Press), Imada traces the practice from its island origins (a “highly venerated, selective and restricted” dance that was both sacred and secular) to its kitschy reincarnation in the age of dashboard dancers.

Hula dancers, 1893

Drawing intriguing comparisons to both the Maori of New Zealand and Native Americans, Imada explains how Hawaiians protected their rituals by exporting and adapting them. “Hawaiian women,” she writes, “though frequently displayed as imperial objects, were not passive commodities….they improvised tactics to subvert colonial scripts that insisted on primitivist eroticized roles, asserted hula as a legitimate practice, and presented themselves as modern Native women and cosmopolitan tourists.”

Smartly theorized and well researched as it is, Aloha America is written in a rote, relentless academise that drains the life out of the dynamic subject it seeks to celebrate. And so a dance that was, by one 19th century account, “so amorous that the ladies [in the audience] turned aside their heads,” is here a “sexualized discursive formation” that involved “performative stagings” in the service of “the erotics of empire.” The history’s solid, but what a shame the story doesn’t swing.

Pinkwash Blues

Monday, June 11th, 2012

The new film “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” tracks the degeneration of breast cancer advocacy from activism to “pinkwash” consumerism. But one pink product has finally run its course: the ribbon tattoo. “I haven’t done a straight up pink ribbon on a survivor in years,” says veteran tattooist Mary Jane Haake, “unless it is incorporated into the body of a butterfly or some other design.”

Pink ribbons are also her most requested cover-up. “After awhile,” says Haake, “[women] don’t want to be a ‘survivor’ who is asked about the ribbon in the grocery store line and have to relive their cancer experience over and over. And even if you put it on your body where the public doesn’t see it, you don’t necessarily want to look at it first thing every morning while you brush your teeth.”

post-reconstruction tattoo by Mary Jane Haake

As the founder of Dermigraphics in Portland, the longest continuously running tattoo shop on the west coast, Haake was one of the first artists to cover mastectomy scars with decorative imagery and to tattoo nipples and areolae on women after reconstruction. When she started in the late ‘70s, she got about one such customer a year. Now she does one every day—many on women in their twenties and thirties.

Post-reconstruction tattoos done to conceal scars and to “fake” nipples and areolae have been common since the 1980s, though New York tattooist Charlie Wagner was attempting them back in the 1940s. Their quality improved after the Breast Cancer Recovery Act of 1999 allowed physicians to add tattooing to their reconstruction services: surgeons soon discovered they weren’t good at it, and artists took over.

“Today,” says Haake, “the tattooing—whether decorative or reconstructive—is covered under the breast cancer recovery act and paid for by insurance, so tattooers themselves are able to bill insurance companies for their work.”

Good Hair Day

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Coiffures of Chelsea, art fair weekend:

Fred Wilson, “Reign” (2011). 2012 Pulse Art Fair.
His glass bead extensions hang from a cardboard globe.

Ruth Marten,”Tress.” 2012 Pulse Art Fair.
Before she became a full time illustator/artist, Marten
worked as one of the first female tattooists in New York.
She currently has a show at Hosfelt Gallery.

Sheila Hicks, “Menhir” (1998-2004). Sikkema Jenkins
& Co. Hicks has been making fiber art for 50 years. This
piece is made of linen cord.

Black Beauties

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

 Abebi and Donna Gibson; Coco and Breezy Dotson

One of the few well-known black tattooists in the U.S., Miya Bailey is worried about the plague of scratchers defacing African-Americans across the country, Lil Wayne being the limit case for bad body art. In the documentary “Color Outside the Lines” by Artemus Jenkins, Bailey introduces a generation of black artists rectifying this problem. To stand out on dark skin, they explain, tattoos need to be large, with bold lines and what artist Russ Abbott calls “a readable silhouette.” New Orleans veteran Jacci Gresham shows her decades-old Ed Hardy tattoo to illustrate how a detailed piece that might have worked on white skin didn’t quite cohere on her. And self-described “token white” artist Brandon Bond says that 90% of white tattooists don’t take the time to figure out how color works on black skin.

The artists also discuss the difficulty of breaking into this white-dominated trade (Julia Alphonso, below, apprenticed three of the Atlantans here after other white shop-owners turned them down) as well as the domestic turbulence this all-consuming, travel-heavy profession can cause. D.C. artist Chris Mensah says his success as a tattooist doesn’t compensate for the time he’s lost with his children, and his regret is palpable.

Miya Bailey and his mentor, Julia Alphonso

At a screening at Complex magazine last week, Bailey and Jenkins discussed the film, five years in the making at shops and conventions. “We just wanted to make our moms proud,” said Jenkins.  Afterwards, the mother-daughter team above (top left) showed their stuff—both Bailey pieces—as did the twins Coco and Breezy Dotson (top right), sunglass designers with big hair, blue lipstick, and a collection of matching tattoos. “We get a new tattoo every time we travel together,” they said.  Which just keeps people guessing which twin is which.

Post-Pictorial Tattoos

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

  tattoos by Roxx TwoSpirit

The new edition of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (Powerhouse Books, fall 2012) will follow nicely on the heels of the latest Harris Poll revealing that tattooed women (23%) now outnumber men (19%) in the U.S. Trends I’ve been tracking: a depressing dearth of black women artists; a large contingent of standout lesbian artists, a high number of young women who’ve had no trouble breaking into this male-dominated profession (by comparison to the battle-weary pioneers of my 1997 edition), a surge of tattooed ladies in literature since the ‘90s, and a continuing indifference, by the gallery world, to the post-millennial explosion of new tattoo techniques, genres, and talent (male and female).

The British artist Roxx of 2 Spirit Tattoo (in San Francisco) is not only one of my favorite new tattooists in the book, but also one of the most thoughtful about design, aesthetics and placement. “I don’t think [tattooing] needs to be so pictorial and illustrative,” she says. “I really think that if people want to get pictures they should just get them on tee shirts and paintings. Using the body as a blank piece of canvas–as wallpaper–seems to cheapen the art and the body.”

Oatman Redux: Hell on Wheels

Monday, December 5th, 2011

If tattooed Eva on “Hell on Wheels” seems to have stolen Olive Oatman’s chin tattoo, it’s because she’s based on her, as the HOW blog explains (with a quote from The Blue Tattoo). Eva’s Oatman has been tweaked: she’s a prostitute, which Oatman never was; she’s blunt and outspoken, which Oatman never was; and in 1865 when the show is unfolding, Oatman was a national celebrity, newly married to a wealthy Michigan cattle rancher and living in Texas during what she called the happiest period of her life. Eva’s the latest of more than a dozen tributes Oatman has inspired in art, film, theater, fiction, t.v. and music over the last 150 years, from Elmore Leonard’s “Tonto Woman” to Phantom of the Black Hills’ “Olive Oatman,” a song that, come to think of it, would work beautifully on Hell on Wheels. What’s AMC waiting for?

Ceci n’est pas une vagina

Monday, November 7th, 2011

The only shock induced by Damien Hirst’s “vagina” tattoo, slapped on the (fall/winter) debut cover of Garage magazine beneath a calculated-to-thrill removable sticker, is that the artist missed his mark. If this were a vagina tattoo, Hirst’s butterfly (applied to volunteer Shauna Taylor’s vulva and extending to her thighs), would be something to behold, since it would be located internally. Hirst’s grand gesture lands him in the growing ranks of vagina tattoo misnomerists, whose handiwork, spanning Homer Simpsons (plural), a hippie dude with a fuzzy beard,  and a cat with a bowtie, outshocks him, hands down.

Gender is conspicuous for other reasons in this feature, called “Inked,” for which name artists (all male) design tattoos applied by name tattooists (all male) on nine volunteers (mostly male). Of the three female subjects, one appears topless for no reason relating to her tattoo; a second is the spread-eagled Taylor, who aspires to “give birth through a Damien Hirst artwork.” Here, just as in the tat mags, men make the art, and women strip down to display it.

Art magazines have always been hostile to tattooing, and even here, in the rare instance where high and low find a cultural intersection (Garage is an art/fashion magazine), the class divide is reliably enforced. Well known Artists create designs executed by tattoo tradesmen, because, of course, the latter aren’t really artists (Dr. Lakra excepted). And the artists don’t try too hard, since this art doesn’t sell. Hirst at least gave some thought to design and placement, even if he chose the single most predictable image a woman can wear. But if Jeff Koons was going to attempt what looks like a pinup straddling a dolphin giving birth to a blow-up doll, would it have killed him to get some help with his draftsmanship?

Just one artist, John Baldessari, rises to the challenge of adapting his art to a new medium. His piece, “I WILL NOT WEAR ANY MORE BORING TATTOOS” appears on the arm of a man wearing a boring tattoo. It echoes Baldessari’s 1971 piece, “I will not make any more boring art.”  It mimics the handwritten all- caps typeface in Kenneth Cole’s aphoristic ad campaigns (a nice touch in a fashion magazine). And it serves notice to his fellow “Inked” participants, who made boring art that became boring tattoos.