From the left hand of Titian's Venus of Urbino to Mel Ramos's Val Veeta, painting and sex have had a wonderful history together. The Freudians have described the paintbrush as a proxy phallus, and art historians have argued that Rubens painted his women as he did because there was a certain masturbatory pleasure embedded in the application of layer upon layer of paint. Hell, even Susan Sontag argues that what we all need is an erotics of art. And if Sontag says it, you know it's got to be worth thinking about.
For this reason, I am utterly compelled to point you all in the direction of a painter I know, Alla Bartoshchuk. Now, Jerry Saltz says that I should offer the following disclaimer: I know Alla, she was one of the students at the Memphis College of Art, where I teach, and I own some of her work. So, if you want to judge me and claim that my criticism is corrupt, that's fine. I don't care because good painting speaks for itself. I am simply the messenger.
At any rate, the painting that greets you at the beginning of this post is one of her most recent works, which she just posted today, Fertility, 2010. I would like to extoll its virtues for a moment or two.
Firstly, pomegranates are just plain pornographic, second only perhaps to figs. And the role that they played in the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto simply elaborates the tense sexuality embedded in the history of this one fruit. Moreover, Pluto's plight, where he was unloved by women and had to take his, ahem, wife by force speaks volumes to the danger inherent in such iconography. The devil's deal, if you will. Pluto was, after all, the Lord of the Underworld.
Looking at art is an act of forceful possession. Optical, yes, but if Laura Mulvey teaches us anything, it's that all looking is an act of possession, often of an explicitly sexual kind. And that the subject of this painting is a young woman, the eternal cipher of fecundity and seduction, I can't help but think that we're looking at one apotheosis of Mulvey's construct of gendered taking.
Now, watch the juices drip for a second. Look closely. Luxuriate in them. Don't be afraid. Looking at art is already a quasi-sexual, optically masturbatory act that we are all complicit in, whether we want it or not. Nobody's going to judge you. And if they do, they're hypocrites. This is the same reason why Wayne Thiebaud's cakes are so infinitely wonderful. The fusion of subject matter and viewing pleasure, the way that whichever neuron is responsible for the pleasure of looking is that same neuron that governs the pleasure of a sugar high, or any kind of arousal.
Now, doesn't that juice look like blood? There's a sinister side to all of this, a threatening side. Women dripping with blood generally calls upon one of two situations. Violence or menstruation. Or, if you're a Freudian, both. The good Doctor tells us that all men are roving the earth in mortal fear of having their own personal Bobbitt experience. Vaginas are nothing more than absent penises, and the first sight of this absence is the most terrifying realization any young male might have, doubly frightening when blood issues from the wound. That's why we used to make the women go live in tents outside of the city for that one dangerous week of the month. This woman, with those drips running down her arm, simultaneously pure paint, and pure menace, looks as if she's just come from the kill. That pomegranate drips like the severed head of Medusa, which only complicates the gendered danger in play. And then she offers it to you, as if to ask that you too participate in this vampiric ritual. Oh, dear.
So here we are, caught in between. The pleasures of paint. The violence of emasculation. The nubile, stolen daughter of the goddess of crops. The God of blackened death. The pleasure of looking at beauty. And the puritanical guilt of lingering too long.
As a painting, it's nearly perfect. It's both beautiful and terrifying. And that it's both simultaneously only redoubles its potency. What more can you want?