On May 4th, Big Medium opened “Terri Thomas: Pillow Book as Inheritance” at their Canopy location. From the outset, I was not quite sure how to engage this show. A combination of found glass objects, paintings, sequin suit wearing cats on the prowl, and the bust of a large peacock greet the viewer in a glittering menagerie with overt symbols of feminine sexuality. Beyond the painted imagery of partially erotic female nudes, and an open labia, dildos are hiding the crystal sandbox, and some of the glass objects are clearly intimating more than just an aesthetically pleasing thing to look at. But this is not another one of those post-feminist shows that overtly praise the vagina and castrate the penis. Instead, the artist claims that the work meditates from a personal vantage on concerns of duality, subject-hood and object-hood, coupled with societal ambivalences and contradictions regarding feminine sexuality. To do to this, she has appropriated the historical form of a Japanese Shunga Pillow Book, which is an illustrated manual for sexual education often passed down from mother to daughter, updating it with “the visual language of euphemism, kitsch and pun.” I didn’t see this, and I had the slight concern that this was one of those artists that way overthink the work, and end up burying a rather simple point in esoteric theories and language.
Now for a confession: I missed the artist talk, and my friend who had attended said she spoke very sophisticatedly about her work, fielding questions with clear and informed explanations. Given her subject matter, that’s to be expected. Any artist working today with potentially provocative themes better do his or her homework or else run the risk of looking like a shock-hack. But as my friend and I discussed the show, also reflecting on how we were educated about sex via the internet, late night cable TV, and the old scrambled Playboy Channel, we realized that in fact the work was almost perverse but not. What would have been taboo years ago was commonplace and regularized, and what was so shocking about it all was how un-shocking it was. Beyond other interpretations that possibly could evaluate the work as latent narcissism (all the painted figures are the artist herself), or on its technical skill (every object was highly crafted), I found myself thinking about our culture’s desensitization of sexuality in the contemporary where there are constant sexualizations of almost everything. Is there any promiscuity left?
However, this was my take, and my friend had a different one, as did the elderly man I saw walking through the gallery shaking his head in what I could only assume was disgust. Subsequently, I was left considering the diversification of our interpretations. Perhaps this is the real undercurrent of the exhibition. While the work may claim its existence in a very narrow space between pornography, kitsch, euphemism, popular culture, and personal instruction, it evokes popular culture’s confusion, and often disagreement, regarding the exposure to, and education of, sex. The work was not about what the artist claimed, or what my friend, the old man, or I saw, but was about revealing the differences of our opinions by way of prompting conversations. I saw the old man talking to several people about the work, and my friend and I spent some time going over what we considered its meaning to be. In short, it compelled us to talk about sex, which as a culture, is the one thing we should probably do more of.
Posted 7th May 2014 by Arnold, H.C.