By Jillian Steinhauer
October 16, 2018
So much of the discussion of sexual violence in the public realm centers on narrative and a quest for the truth, on what happened and didn’t, and who was wearing or drinking what. Visual art, because it doesn’t prioritize narrative or truth, liberates its makers. It frees them up to have different kinds of conversations that make clear how painfully limited the prevailing ones are.
This became clear on social media during the Senate testimony by Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Mixed in with the political commentary during Dr. Ford’s retelling of her sexual assault, I saw something unexpected: People — mostly women — sharing images of Baroque paintings, namely the two versions of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rendering of the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes.
Gentileschi (1593-1653) was an exceptional artist. She was the first woman to be accepted into Florence’s prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, and Caravaggio’s only female follower. She was raped, when she was 17, by her painting tutor, Agostino Tassi. When Tassi refused to marry her (the only way to restore her reputation), her father took him to court. The young Gentileschi testified against her rapist and endured torture to prove her honesty. Tassi was sentenced to exile, though the punishment was not enforced.
In the wake of the rape and trial, Gentileschi made two paintings of Judith cutting off her enemy’s head. Both are intensely physical, and the second is especially gory; you can almost feel the resistance of flesh to blade. Scholars have noted that Judith looks a lot like Gentileschi, and Holofernes a lot like Tassi, making the paintings self-portraits of a rape victim’s revenge. During and after the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings — in which the judge denied Dr. Ford’s accusations against him — people shared images of the artworks with and without comment. Beyond the rage was a hunger for interpretations of sexual assault from the point of view of survivors.
“Is there a way to talk about sexual assault that doesn’t dwell on the brutality of the act itself on women’s bodies in a way that is treated as action or eroticized?” the artist Naima Ramos-Chapman asked at a recent symposium at John Jay College, in association with the exhibition “The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.” The show, on view through Nov. 3, features 20 artworks dealing with rape, all made by women, some by survivors like Ms. Ramos-Chapman.
Its curator, Monika Fabijanska, an art historian, began researching the exhibition in 2015, after seeing an image of Carolee Thea’s sculpture “Sabine Woman” (1991), which depicts a group of men constructed from chicken wire surrounding and assaulting a woman (it’s in the John Jay show). She asked Ms. Thea where the work had been shown, and the artist said it had never been displayed publicly.
“I was thinking, ‘Why have I never seen anything like that?’” Ms. Fabijanska said. “Or, if this wasn’t shown, maybe there are other artworks that were not shown, that we don’t know.”
As Ms. Thea acknowledges in the catalog for “The Un-Heroic Act,” times have changed. Rape appears more frequently in culture, but often it is treated as a graphic plot point (think “Game of Thrones”) or as some kind of precursor to romance, rather than a subject worth considering on its own.
The feminist writer Susan Brownmiller labeled this phenomenon “heroic rape,” a term Ms. Fabijanska’s title upends. In art history, men made paintings of mythical and biblical rapes — of Europa and the Sabines, for example — that glorified and aestheticized sexual violence, with the women shown as nude, erotic objects, sometimes coy and smiling.
By contrast, women are the authors and subjects in “The Un-Heroic Act,” and their treatment of rape focuses on effects and feelings rather than flesh. The artists “are trying to show the complexity of what happens with the human psyche after such an act, rather than present the drastic scene,” Ms. Fabijanska said. In this way, they’re direct descendants of Gentileschi, who is represented in the exhibition by Kathleen Gilje’s fictional underpainting that maps her interpretation of the Baroque artist’s rape experience onto Gentileschi’s 1610 rendering of “Susanna and the Elders,” which depicts a naked, distressed Susanna trying to deflect two whispering, leering men.
The show does contain some of the elements we’ve come to associate with the topic: blood and nudity, notably in Ana Mendieta’s reenacted “Rape Scene” (1973); and testimony, as in the text accompanying Jennifer Karady’s dreamlike photograph of a female soldier who was raped in the United States military and Bang Geul Han’s mesmerizing animation of survivors’ tweets after the release of the infamous Donald Trump “Access Hollywood” tape.
But there’s also, surprisingly, abstraction. Sonya Kelliher-Combs’s “Guarded Secrets” (2015) is a collection of cell-like sculptures made from sheep rawhide and porcupine quills that look both delicate and threatening. Senga Nengudi’s “R.S.V.P. Revisited — Underwire” (1977/2004) tacitly suggests violence by twisting stuffed pantyhose into circles and pulling them through metal coils to form breastlike bulges.
Even when the works focus on the artist-survivors and their stories, the approach is markedly different from the spectacle of watching a woman testify in public. In the unnerving video “Electronic Diary Part III: First Person Plural” (1988), Lynn Hershman Leeson confronts her childhood abuse through the use of metaphors and psychoanalysis, and by whispering, repeatedly, that she was told never to talk about it.
In Ms. Ramos-Chapman’s film “And Nothing Happened” (2016), which is just as unsettling, the rape is discussed only briefly and clinically, as one more moment that makes up the quotidian aftermath of survival: A disembodied bureaucratic voice offers to assist the subject (played by Ms. Ramos-Chapman) by paying medical and counseling bills. Meanwhile, a mother’s touch feels like an intrusion.
“The Un-Heroic Act,” in its nuanced way, reflects a world in which sexual violence is simultaneously traumatic and ubiquitous, singular yet commonplace. It demonstrates what art can do so uniquely: move beyond the negotiation of facts to an embrace of deeper truths, and new conversations about them.