From the titillating seraphim and cherubim of early church frescoes through the whole contentious history of nude painting, up to Allen Jones’s sculptures of women as objectified sex objects, and Manet’s Olympia, male artists have never fought shy of expressing their fantasies as visual art. In the 21st century, 40 years after feminism first attempted to subvert the laser implacability of ‘the male gaze’, contemporary art and eroticism find themselves in an oddly ambiguous relationship, with innumerable women artists addressing the subject in new and often startling ways. Emma Underhill guides us through contemporary art’s sexual labyrinth.

Sex in art has been around for centuries. You can see it in prehistoric fertility goddesses. Roman sculptures, the Karma Sutra, or in paintings from the Renaissance. In fact, anywhere you look in art, you’ll find images of sex. What’s shocking is that it’s only really been since the ’70s that female artists have used pornographic or sexually explicit images in their work. Liberated by ’60s feminism, certain artists reclaimed ‘ownership’ of sexual imagery, specifically pornography, in order to push a political message. Now, the politicised sexual agenda has become more subtle and fluid. What seemed radical in the ’60s is too cut and dried to resonate in today’s multifaceted cultural and political landscape, and has been superseded by a more liberal, nuanced and sophisticated visual debate.

Porn is often still regarded (as it was by radical feminists half a century ago) as demeaning, one-sided and exploitative, a realm in which women are objectified and become ‘victims’ of an industry created by men, designed purely to sate the ‘male gaze’. There is a subsequent, post feminist view, however, which regards porn as empowering for women who, in certain circumstances, are able to control and exploit their own sexuality.

There are a number of artists (most of them women but not exclusively) who, over the last four decades, have explored and celebrated female sexuality and, in so doing, have made statements that arguably have had more societal impact than the radical political actions of the early feminist artists. Instead of shouting about how offensive pornography is, these artists have chosen to use it in their work. The advantage of pornography as a source material is that while it fetishes the female form, is also had an edgy, disturbing quality; it’s cheap and sleazy, yet somehow lends itself perfectly to performance, photography and the visceral nature of expressive drawing and painting. Whether images are lifted from porn magazines or are based on personal experience of fantasies, doctrinaire political contemporary art is.

Marlene Dumas, 'Fingers' (1999) Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London
Marlene Dumas, ‘Fingers’ (1999) Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

The evidence of post-feminism in art can be traced back to Lynda Benglis who, in November 1974, took out a double-page advert in Artforum magazine. It featured Benglis posed as a pin-up girl- wearing nothing but a tan and a pair of white-framed sunglasses- holding a giant latex dildo at her crotch. Benglis, along with other feminist artists at that time, felt underrepresented in the patriarchal art ‘establishment’, and attempted to confront the sky creating works that parodied typically male dominated-genres such as abstract expressionist painting, or minimalism. She also created a series of magazine ads that satirised Hollywood and the pin-up girl style. The series culminated with the controversial Artforum ad promoting her solo show at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. It provoked extreme reactions from the art establishment- including Artforum’s own Rosalind Krauss, who attacked the work as ‘exploitative’ and ‘brutalising’. Others claimed it was sensationalist propaganda, thinly veiling the artist’s insecurity and lack of confidence. Interestingly, Benglis’s peer and sometimes collaborator, Robert Morris, took out his own ad in the same issue, where he was pictured wearing hardcore S&M gear. No one raised so much as an eyebrow.

Cosey Fanni Tutti is one quarter of industrial band Throbbing Gristle (which she co-founded in the mid-’70s with Chris Carter, Peter Christopherson and Genesis P-Orridge), she also performs with COUM transmissions; makes mail art, installations and gallery shows and, for a while, pursued an alternative career in the sex industry. From the 1973 to 1980, a key aspect of her practice was to genuinely ‘perform’ as a glamour model pose for softcore and hardcore magazines, do strip-tease and act in porn films, all as part of a desire to experience new and alternative personal challenges. Through these ‘performance’ or actions she presented an antidote to the rather didactic feminist viewpoint. In 1976, a series of her Magazine Actions, in which she posed as different glamour model personas such as ‘Tesse from Sunderland’, were included in an art exhibition by the COUM Transmissions called Prostitution, shown at the ICA in London. They prompted such scandalised reactions in the national press and in feminist publications that the ICA removed them from the main exhibition. The artist replaced the works with press clippings documenting the furore.

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Like Lynda Benglis, Andrea Fraser is an artist who shines a spotlight on the mechanics of the art world, as she performs the roles of curator, tour guide, or celebrity artist to explore the emotional demands upon, and the relationship between, art world players. Her performances highlight the psychological dependency between collector, artist, gallery audiences, curator and what each of these protagonists wants from art, emotionally rather than economically. In ‘Untitled’ (2003), shown for the first time at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, Fraser literally prostitutes herself, creating a film in which she, the artist offers an anonymous art collector, the opportunity to pre-buy the work, and have sex with her. Fraser’s galleries was tasked to find a willing collector who had to be interested in having sex with women, unmarried, and who would pay the alleged sum of $20, 000 for ‘the work’. The resulting video is a no-frills, 60-minute-long, unedited movie, shot in an innocuous hotel room with a static care, and, like Andy Warhol’s Blowjob (1963), it is less about pornography and more about presenting an objective portrayal of the act of sex. It also called into question the co-dependent relationship between artist and collector, and again, like Benglis, Fraser has been criticised for being sensationalist, and also of putting herself at unnecessary physical risk. The work highlights the rather perverted desire for a collector to ‘know’ the artist, and pushes Fraser’s exploration of art world power systems to its logical conclusion.

Cecily Brown’s painting ooze with carnal pleasure and desire. They echo the language of macho, abstract expressionism, but have a distinct femininity; the fragmented images encapsulate a confident sense of female sexuality, and are a celebration of the visceral possibilities of oil paint. Brown’s early paintings predominantly pink and red, played on the notion of being ‘pretty’ and ‘swishy’ (historically, derogatory adjectives used to dismiss the work of female artists). At first glance these paintings are not overtly pornographic, you are simply seduced by the lusciousness of her technique and gestural brushstrokes which blur figuration with abstraction. But, as you explore the image further, copulating couples, genitalia and writhing body-parts emerge. Much of Brown’s source material is derived from pornography, and yet her paintings are not so much X-rated explicitness as a celebration of flesh, encapsulating passion, sensuality and sexuality in an orgy of abstract expressionist imagery.

Liz Neal’s explosively sexual paintings and installations have the kind of rude-and-crudeness found in the margins of a teenage boy’s notebook. They combine weirdness, non specific fluids, sex, and body parts with a raw kind of dignity. The work exudes decadence; nothing is off limits; her paintings and sculptures appear to be literally dripping with bodily fluids through her use of paint and other viscous materials. Her titles are unequivocal; for example ‘Spunk Chandelier’, made from strings of silicon that are seductively opulent and repugnant in equal measures. Her canvases often escape the stretcher frame and are pinned directly on the wall at different angles, giving them an untamed energy, a feral fuck you to the perceived conventions of a traditional painting exhibition. Neal creates porn for any sexual orientation, with busty page three girls, sitting alongside a naked Adonis or reclining ‘home fatale’. But she’s not just offering instant gratification, as she throws in curious intrusions from other places such as an image of Big Mac, a tin of spam or a Sun newspaper logo. Undiscriminating, and open to all, her world is one who you can explore your filthiest fantasy, if you were so inclined; but you’d have to be prepared to get your hands really dirty in the process.

Liz Neal, 'Horny Boy II' (2009) Courtesy the artist and Sartorial Contemporary Art
Liz Neal, ‘Horny Boy II’ (2009) Courtesy the artist and Sartorial Contemporary Art

The American art-superstar Jeff Koons first contacted his ex-wife, Hungarian porn queen-turned unlikely politician, Ilona Stalla (aka La Cicciolina), after seeing photographs of her in top-shelf magazines. Having catapulted to fame with his Banality show in 1988, Koons pursue the idea of turning himself into a movie star- specifically a porn-star- beginning by creating a billboard poster image as if promoting his new porn movie. La Cicciolina’s renown as an erotic star in Italy had led her (in her some gloriously counterintuitive, Italian way) into politics. She was even elected as an MP and formed her own ‘Party of Love’. She was as famous as Koons in her own right. Koons hired her, her studio and photographer to make an image of the two of them having sex. This evolved into a series of photographs and sculptures and, as the work developed, so did a relationship between the couple.

If girls like her work it’s because she says what they’re thinking, for men it’s it because it’s dirty.

According to Koons, the bizarre Made in Heaven series is about removing the Catholic guilt and shame of sex. The images are extremely stylised, kitschy and saccharine, while at the same time leaving nothing to the imagination. These photographs are certainly not staged, and present, in magnified focus, the most intimate details of the couple’s coital escapades. Koon’s relationship and subsequent marriage to La Cicciolina was short-lived, and their divorce, and the custody battle over their son, became as public as their sex. The Made in Heaven images were dragged into the argument, with La Cicciolina claiming, to some extent, authorship over the images- part of her professional ‘body of work’.

Having appropriated her skills as a model and her tools of the trade (her sets, costumes, cameraman and props) as the ultimate ‘readymade’, Koons’s approach to making these images began with the same unsentimental objectivity that is evident in other areas of his work. The images therefore escape any potential ‘seediness’ or misogynistic connotations, and, in fact La Cicciolina seems to come out on top, so to speak; her participation in making these images was typical of her professional oeuvre, and she was therefore able to maintain an objective relationship with the work. Koons, on the other hand, lost his objectivity an power as his sexual and artistic fantasy become reality and he fell in, and out, of love.

Tracey Emin, 'Good Smile Great Come' (2000) the artist, Photo: Stephen White. Courtesy White Cube
Tracey Emin, ‘Good Smile Great Come’ (2000) the artist, Photo: Stephen White. Courtesy White Cube

Marlene Dumas often borrows images from controversial sources to make her paintings, whether pictures of young naked children, newspaper images of death and torture or photos from pornographic magazines. And yet, far from being sensationalist, her paintings have an incredibly sophisticated beauty undermined by a disturbing sense of knowingness. The women in Dumas’s ‘erotic’ paintings are not portrayed as victims of the male gaze, rather, they have the same confident nonchalance so familiar of magazine cover-girl poses; slightly intimidating yet alluring at the same time. Dumas’ watercolour washes and painterly gestures echo the language of expressionism, and references to art history often appear in her titles; for example, Manet’s Queen or Newman’s Zip. Whether a painting of Osama Bin Laden, an oversized naked child, or a masturbating woman, Dumas’ images maintain a strong sense of critical objectivity which leads you to question what you think about the original source material; exploitation or liberation? Victim or aggressor? There are two sides to every argument and each of Dumas’ paintings is at once disturbing and beautiful; innocent and perverted.

There’s a paparazzo shot of Tracey Emin on a night out wearing a Fawcett Society T-shirt with the slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ printed across her chest. This sentence is pretty much the caption that should appear whenever Tracey is out in all her full cleavage-revealing, Vivienne Westwood-clad glory. Emin has often denied that she is making work from a purely feminist standpoint, yet her success and straight-talking have made her a shining role model to young girls and earned her the respect of formidable older women. If girls like her work it’s because she says what they’re thinking, for men it’s it because it’s dirty. A lot of the text and images in Emin’s art contains subjects that constitute male fantasy, but because her work is autobiographical, it somehow bypasses the notion that it could be offensive to women , if the same phrases or images (for example when Emin talks about bukkale, anal sex and ‘sober’ sex), were presented by men it would carry entirely different connotations. Erin’s work, like that of many contemporary female artists, isn’t about presenting a romanticised or idealised image of sex; she has described every aspect of her experience in a variety of media, from pleasure, pain, longing, abuse and aggression to nymphomania and masturbation.

Tracey Emin,  'The Hole Room' (1999) the artist. Courtesy White Cube
Tracey Emin, ‘The Hole Room’ (1999) the artist. Courtesy White Cube

Once, the very shock value of such subject matter being articulated by a woman would have invited shrill moral censure, if not the attentions of the constabulary. Today, it’s a legitimate part of a universal artistic vocabulary; whether that constitutes a belated victory for radical feminism, or for the wider plurality of liberal, post-postmodernist thought, is a question perhaps best left to students of Gender Studies. For now, this is what a feminist looks like.