FRP: An Induction

What is the Feminist Responsibility Project? And why is Beverly Semmes in charge of it? By the time Semmes emerged as an artist, the first wave of Feminism had already subsided, transformed from a political form of activism to a cultural form of reference. Semmes is part of a generation who made their mark during the early 1990s with a Feminist take on Minimalist art of the 1960s. Think of the monumental, monochromatic, mostly metal, always hard monoliths of such artists as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Richard Serra. Now apply fabric, fashion, the body, craft, appetite, desire, excess, because that’s exactly what Semmes—along with such peers as Janine Antoni, Polly Apfelbaum, Kiki Smith, Jessica Stockholder—seemed to be making sculpture with, for, and about.

For instance Semmes’s Red Dress, 1992, now in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. As big as the wall, and attached to it by a hanger, this gargantuan velvet gown cascades to the floor, where it pools and pushes us out of the way like a coming tide, a red tide. Get it? The metaphors and imagery of Beverly Semmes’s art typically flow in this direction: from the female body and out into the landscape. Dresses are to be seen as vessels, as Semmes’s pots made of out glass and clay demonstrate. Like cartoon images of “making a pot,” these sculptural objects are gruntingly physical embodiments of the touch, the craft, the pleasure, and work that goes into building even the most elemental of forms. Whether it’s pots or dresses, Semmes’s works are environmental in sensibility and scale, billowing, icy, earthy, aqueous, or luminous, depending on material and color, which are always superabundant and sensational.

There is also a performance aspect to Semmes’s work. The dress sculptures can appear as costumes, worn by gallery attendants as part of an exhibition, or by models in Semmes’s photographs and videos. The latter are usually family members and friends. (Getting people you care about involved with your work is always important.) Semmes too performs on occasion. She sometimes dons wig and sunglasses to deliver a talk, or, even, while working. As an artist-in-residence at Pilchuk Glass School, Semmes must have struck a glamorous note, hanging around the glory hole (as the firey center of the foundry is called) in a patently 70s get up.

The seventies was, of course, also the heyday of Feminism, which brings us back around to the original question. The Feminist Responsibility Project—or, to use the artist’s acronym, FRP—makes its debut here at Rowan College in the form of a gallery installation with video, sculpture, photography, and two performers. The immediate impression is of a set-up so highly stylized and strange that is must stand for something. But what? The floor is covered in a foamy sea of white chiffon fabric, in the midst of which two women in voluminous gowns sit on chairs, facing one another. One woman’s gown is striped, the other’s a kind of canine camouflage, all-over-dog print. As identified by their attire and other insignia, the women are characters, the “Puritan” and “Super Bitch.” They are doing a picture puzzle, spread out on a table between them. Beside each woman a plastic dog sits like a sentry. Overhead hangs a beautiful chandelier, handcrafted of clear molten clay; it is lusciously globular.

There are pictures on the walls. A projection covers one (like Warholian wallpaper, a picture that moves) with a video of a woman’s feet, kicking a potato over a frozen lake. The potato, painted pink, messes the ice and makes a dull thudding noise that fills the gallery space. On the other walls hang a series of pictures that come straight from the core of Beverly Semmes’s Feminist Responsibility Project.

Over the past eight years and shown for the first time in this exhibition, Semmes has been diligently collecting and correcting images from what she refers to as “gentlemen’s magazines.” This is a ladylike (Semmes hails from the South with roots in Arkansas and Alabama) reference to her sources: vintage Hustler and Penthouse magazines, the pornography of which she has masked with strategic coats of paint. And if the five FRP works included at Rowan are anything to judge by, this project is much less straightforward than it may sound. For one thing, despite Semmes’s “corrections” it’s completely obvious that we are being confronted with shots of classic American porn. Splayed, spread, sucking on things, the women are more masked than concealed by paint-jobs that only amplify their objectification. Now things get tricky and funny, too, since the female objects on view are now simultaneously crude consumer objects of male desire and highly crafted feminist works of art. Focus on the painted parts and you see these silhouettes, the scale and shapes of which look a lot like Semmes’s sculptures: tactile, over-sized, sensual, scatological, enveloping, grotesque, humorous, basic. If you grabbed any one of these painted forms and set it on the floor, you would see one of Semmes’s pots or dresses. Masked in color, all of Semmes’s forms specify the body as something elemental with a hole in the center.

The provocation of the hole lies at the center of the FRP installation. Note that the female attendants sit inside an erogenous “O” of fabric on the floor. (And of course, in porno-parlance, women are just holes.) So what is the puzzle that the Bitch and the Super Puritan are piecing together? It’s an FRP image that Semmes sent to a company in Germany that will turn any picture into a jigsaw puzzle. Speaking of puzzles, now seems like a good moment to introduce some of Beverly Semmes’s own notes about her installation. The use of fabric and craft, she writes, are intended to reference first wave Feminist art practices with their infusion into the mainstream of women’s work and decoration. The potato-kicking feet are flat-footed Freudian phallic symbols. Doing puzzles together is a favorite way of passing time with her mother.

Like any sacred ceremony or mystery play, Semmes’s installation—with its fetish objects, icons, and acolytes—looks just sanctimonious and serious enough as to appear a little ridiculous to those of us who stand outside of it. Is this how Feminism looks today? Would only a bitch or a prig challenge the common wisdom that women have achieved equal opportunity as well as control over their own bodies? Has anyone been paying attention to Congress’s gambit to slash support of Planned Parenthood? Or, on a lighter note, has anyone read Tina Fey? The most successful woman in comedy has been writing about her experiences coming up with the guys who dominate her profession. From an essay in The New Yorker, here is one of Fey’s more pithy observations: “I have a suspicion—and hear me out, because this is a rough one—that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Caustic, funny, fearless, I love this quote: it’s the Feminist Responsibility Project at work.

Taken as a whole, Beverly Semmes’s FRP is a kind of camp. It disrupts the normal flow of pornography by strategically amplifying the awkward and obvious construction of the pose, the gaze, the exploitation, and the bodies that make it work. And it calls to order Feminism, along with social issues and political responsibilities that, in so-called Post-feminist culture, we may not care to embrace. Beverly Semmes’ FRP shows us that Feminism retains the super bitchy, pure crazy power to prove that we are no way near finished with the project.