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Weekly Update – Seriously Pleasurable at Slought


The big news about Solitary Pleasures at Slought is not the graphic content showing masturbation, although there is plenty of that.  The news is that two powerful works by 70s era feminist artists Carolee Schneemann and VALIE EXPORT create a zone of inquiry about taboos that is well beyond the titter and haha stage usually reached when the subject of onanism comes up.

Carolee Schneemann and cat, image from the artist’s slide presentation.

Schneemann’s “Infinity Kisses – the Movie” (2008) is a silent slide show of photos of the artist being kissed by her pet cat, Vesper.  The photos are blurry, close-cropped and somewhat garish, echoing the low aesthetic appeal of pornographic images.  They’re also sensual — the artist, seen close-up, her mouth open and eyes closed, receives what are obviously pleasurable kisses from her pet.  But beyond the erotic intent, these documentary photos — taken over a number of years — raise issues about solitary practices in general.  Schneemann is dignifying what’s done in private and suggesting a human need for secret rituals and practices.   No matter what you think — Is it cute to kiss your cat or is it sickening? — what’s shocking here is the thought that this solitary pleasure, and others as well, might be ok or even an important part of the human experience.

EXPORT’s black and white video in the vault, “ Man, Woman, Animal” likewise suggests there’s something almost holy in human private practices. The film, made with her then-partner Peter Weibel, is an almost clinical portrayal of a woman masturbating.  The artist, nude, seen from the waist down, sits in a bathtub with a stream of water directed at her private parts which she displays for the camera.  The camera zooms in on the water and the private parts, and the sound of moaning in the background suggests the pleasure of the experience.  The full-frontal and accurate portray is shocking.  Yet, as in the Schneemann piece, there’s a level of dignity suggested.  There’s nothing to snicker at here.

Steven and Billy Blaise Dufala, Free Wall, drawing

Additional EXPORT and Weibel videos, and photos, drawings, sculpture, videos and installations by younger artists round out the show.  Notable are Gabe Martinez’s photo series of heterosexual men’s feet curled up at moment of climax after masturbating.  The pictures rise to the level of Schneemann and EXPORT in intent and sheer documentary impact, although there’s a Charlie Chaplin-esque mischief about the curled toes, too.  A selection of erotic drawings by Stephen and Billy Blaise Dufala, available as giveaways, suggest how art, being itself a solitary pleasure, has always sought to actively engage the viewer.

image: Gabriel Martinez, “Self-Portraits by Heterosexual Men/2007 (Rocco)” chromogenic print 20” x 30” 2007

Above the serious art, the walls are peppered with photocopies of antique porn images and quotable quotes about masturbation that are hand-written on torn spiral notebook pages.  The higgledy-piggledy wall ensembles are kitsch comic relief from the seriousness elsewhere.

Things done in alone have often resulted in great leaps forward for mankind.  Shakespeare didn’t write with a team; Einstein didn’t think up his equation brainstorming with math buddies.  Leonardo created Mona Lisa in private, with himself and the sitter alone together in the presumably silent studio.

In his essay for the show, curator Kevin Richards talks about the demonization of solitary pleasures — especially masturbation — characterized to this day as unhealthy addictive behavior.  But really, as Freud said (quoting from the show’s wall text) “The only thing about masturbation to be ashamed of is doing it badly.”

Two wonderful podcasts on the Slought website bring you lectures by Carolee Schneemann and curator Keith Richards, recorded at the opening.  Both are important to understand the broader intent of the show.

Solitary Pleasures, to April 21. Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut St. 215 701 4627

Read this story at PW.