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Cindy Sherman offers, instead of her romantic self-portraits celebrating the infinite play of female mutability, a muscle-bound plastic man-doll covered with hair. The great Alice Neel has a painting of a blue-jeaned hippie, probably because the gallery couldn't get her brilliant portrait of the fantasist Joe Gould with three penises—even I find that one funny. I track her down on the internet and learn that she first came to public attention when she was just 24—and still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute—for paintings about suffering from scoliosis as a teenager.And then I see it: a giant erection lovingly encased in a fist and painted in luscious expressionist sweeps of red and white paint. There are no other colors, just black and white turned red and white by minimalism and lust, which suddenly seem like a perfect match. "I needed to know what was wrong with me," she explained at the time.Behind the desk, there's an image of a beach hunk in a smiley-face T-shirt, followed by a Diane Arbus photograph of a "male primitive" with tattoos all over his face. Betty Tompkins is represented by one of her blurry sex close-ups, at once romantic and clinical.The worst is a yellow carcass by Louise Bourgeois that looks like a cross between a melting penis and, as one critic put it, a "smooshed-up kebab" on a carving post. Grace Graupe-Pillard supplies a lovely realist portrait of a young artist staring into his cell phone.Now artists like painter Nicole Wittenberg are challenging the status quo—to stirring and gorgeous effect.(at the Cheim & Read gallery in New York City) and finding yourself confronted by mirror images of the reductive crap men have been throwing at women for centuries.You can find women reading, women sleeping, women working or women falling in love.We have paintings of women's backs in alluring nude portraits along with innocent portraits of women with children.
A miniature parrot flies around, occasionally coming to rest, like inspiration, on the artist's shoulder.
Traditionally, you do it by accentuating the lights and darks, which Nicole does in a kind of brutal way." And he's impressed with her decision to portray sexually aroused men, a subject that is "actually underrepresented in Western painting in any century," he says. The outraged crowds at the famous Salon des Refusés show of 1863? You can paint all the odalisques-reclining-on-a-couch you want, but the movie rule applies: no "pickle."Despite the frankness of our exchange, the promised studio visit keeps not happening.
"People think everything's been done, but that's not true." Wittenberg, Salle goes on, "dares herself to do precisely that which scares her."I find Wittenberg's email address and write her. Finally, she hints at the reason: "I must mention, a dick painting may be the most impossible thing to sell, ever."That surprises me. I wonder if all the sex talk makes it more unlikely.
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