Face Study III, 2010
The artist Jessie Thatcher is a woman.
In fact, she is a young woman — I’m guessing in her early 20s.
When I last riffed on a submission from this artist (Submission No. 12) I assumed that she was a young man.
Does it make a difference?
Here’s the strange thing. As soon as I found out that Jessie Thatcher is a woman and not a man (this occurred a few days after I posted), I felt a pang of fear that I had been too skeptical, too negative, too critical, because I thought she was a man.
But then I reread what I had written: as far as I could tell I hadn’t been influenced at all!
In my riff I had noted possible hairs, shadows, crevices…
I had observed, too, how these features are invariably broken up, spliced, blurred, reconstructed…
Jessie Thatcher’s work, some of it quite sexually suggestive, had interested me by the way that it pushes the limits of how we perceive information visually.
See if you agree, but I think that, despite my fears, I showed little to no skepticism about “Mr.” Jessie Thatcher’s motives in Submission No. 12. It was not that I was unaware of the precariousness of “his” position — a young man exploring the contested territory of sexuality and the female form. It was just that… as I riffed… my concerns, in this regard at least, seemed to melt away.
So what does all this mean — my fear that I had been biased against a man (qua man), my relief at finding this fear unwarranted?
For one, I believe it suggests that when I am riffing I am, sometimes at least, able to overcome the more socially conventional, steamy, conflicted, neurotic parts of my personality.
I did not let loose on this imaginary Mr. Jessie Thatcher. I did not reflexively write off “his” work as puerile or sexually groping or chauvinist. I didn’t dismiss his work, thank god, because of unexamined feelings of jealousy (the dull resting-place of many middle-aged men when considering the work of younger men). I did not write into “his” work memories of my own younger self.
So that is good, right? Three cheers for riffing! Three cheers for all of us when we do something single-mindedly, with a clear motive, and hence when we avoid the usual traps laid down by our otherwise conflicted personalities!
But there is another lesson here, I think. Perhaps my relief indicates that Jessie Thatcher is operating at a high level of artistic integrity. Her work does not arrive with many indulgences, those unfortunate snags and hesitations that can, in so many artist’s work, distract from the whole. (There are plenty of snags and hesitations in the images she produces, don’t get me wrong, but it is my sense that they are the kind that inform rather than distract.) In other words, perhaps Ms. Thatcher didn’t give me much room to judge the young Mr. Thatcher harshly, even if I might have been inclined to do so (a young man abstracting the female form? Really?).
The perspective of a woman is no doubt central to Thatcher’s work — dealing, as her images often do, with questions of soft skin and notably curly hair and surface and the arrangement of limbs and their abstraction. We might even say — reverting to the old refrain — that the work at times explores the “objectification of the body,” inside systems and patterns and habitual modes of looking (the “male gaze” surely being one of these). But her identity as a woman does not, it seems to me, trump the other motives behind her work — though it is, importantly, present. She is above all, I sense, committed to the aim of breaking our habits, letting us see.
This is a long way of saying: I attribute my demonstration of apparent gender neutrality in my riff on Submission #12 to the integrity of Jessie Thatcher’s work.
Now she has submitted again. (These words sound provocative, though I don’t mean them to be. Funny! When you think about it, though, who is really doing the riffing in Submit for Riff and who is doing the submitting? The artist or the riffer?)
Knowing she is a young woman now, let us see how that does or does not inform the riffer…
Continuously Coded Series 001, 2013.
Here, in Continuously Coded Series 001, we see a rectangular image broken by vertical and horizontal lines.
Running vertically are black and gray stripes, having the appearance of a binary language, a bar code, or some representation of our digital age anyway.
Running horizontally are black and gray bands of photographic images of veined leaves and stems.
I immediately see, in this, the juxtaposition of:
1. streams of data the way humans represent them for their purposes (vertical)
2. streams of data in the visually dense and complex way nature represents them (horizontal).
The first response I have to this work is to feel resistance to its possible didactic quality.
Is all nature, at bottom, a digital code, merely taking a complex form?
Has modern life reduced our perception of the natural world to this?
Is a leaf, after all, merely information or is it, mysteriously, more than that?
These may be interesting questions — but not if the artist gives us the answer to them.
I recoiled, initially, in anticipation of the artist telling me what to think.
But then I looked again. The play of shadows and light running across the surface of the leaves is truly exquisite, don’t you think? The veins in the leaves are human, garish, vulnerable. These leaves seem to cry out for attention, even for a touch. Seen on their own, they may not have this effect. But seen laid across the black and gray codex behind them, they are rendered as if in relief.
A line of poetry drifted across my mind…
Like a patient etherized upon a table. These leaves and stems have the same tangible, deadweight quality of life — still living, but in the process of its inevitable decay — that T. S. Eliot evokes at the beginning of The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
As for the artist’s gender, now that I know it?
If I search my mental state closely, I believe that I am slightly more sympathetic now, knowing that Jessie Thatcher is a woman, than I was when I thought she was a man. Why? Perhaps there is a neuro-chemical element for me, as a man: I detect a sense of protectiveness, combined with a heightened… what’s the word that would most accurately describe it?… alertness on my part (sorry Jessie — but the riffer riffs without censoring). I suspect that we too often underestimate the influence of our gender, and the part our sexuality plays in our evaluation of art and other people.
Yet, despite the neuro-chemical impulses shooting, darting around, in the bowl of my cranium, I have to say that, once again, I believe Jessie Thatcher’s artistic integrity evades tired perceptual categories, including those provoked by our assumed gender roles and sexuality.
Other categories that her work evades are: neo-Luddism; “green” or environmental assumptions about our proper, harmonious relationship with nature; the rampant technophilia of our time…
The image submitted here stands on its own. This is because it slips through these categories, these neurotic needs, these posturings and projections, into a slender, but breathable place where other, more unexpected associations can happen.
Looking at this image we find ourselves in a place where possibilities can be reworked, where assumptions are shaken, where leaves fall and decay not in the familiar course of time but forever, where lines are data and they are also lines, where all the colors of the spectrum can be tucked inside black and gray.
This place is called art.
So, Jessie, go on being anything you are or want to be in your daily life. I’ll go on being a man, or anything I am or want to be. Reader, go on being all those things you are or want to be.
But thank you for the respite, Jessie — as we thank all artists for the respite they provide from the tedious condition of being one thing and not the other.
The slippages between one perspective and another amuse me a little. Some of what concerns you could be equally troublesome, say, for a hoary old lesbian—it’s not so much, or not at all, about your maleness or even your relative ages. I realize that when one starts splicing notions of gender, the context of reading an image feels tired. Or does it? I think it’s necessary to hold an artist accountable for how their images, however fragmented, provoke, excite, stir. Those things are, of course, allowed, and are sometimes necessary to the functioning of an art work. Is that what you meant when you referred, Tom, to something you call artistic integrity? I’ve come to believe if there is any such thing (if being the operative term) then it’s an accident, or near accident, of the artifact, or in our perspective, having little to do with the artist. In other words, a disingenuous artist could make work with artistic integrity.
In Jessie’s photographs, my eyes become confused and it takes a concerted effort for me to read them, to follow their nuances. For this reason, your riffs on her work especially arrest me—I have yet to see or experience what you have directly, only through your riffing.