Grisaille Vaginas and Saturated Sunsets


Ah, summertime, when a gallery-goer’s fancy turns to . . . group shows. “Sunsets and Pussy” (Marianne Boesky Gallery) focuses on two time-honored summer pastimes, envisioned by four artists from three generations.

The youngest, Lucien Smith (b. 1989), nails the desperate ennui of summer-camp romance in a series of snarky postcard appropriations adorned with hand-inked dialogue balloons. In Cindy don’t live here no more (2013), a conversation pokes in from the left side of a sunset framed by leafy trees:

“Didn’t you say you had a boyfriend?”


While from the right, a third voice calls out “Cindy??”

In another series, “Panoramic Postcards,” Smith cobbles together vintage vistas, including Canadian lakes and Southwestern deserts, printed in drive-in movie palettes, transporting us to amped-up idylls somewhere beyond nature. The lurid, manufactured hues create what might be a new genre—landscape porn.

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) delivers monochrome salaciousness, employing gentle curlicues to spell out “Pussy” in a 7-inch-high graphite drawing, the velvety gradation of the background seamlessly entwining figure with ground, content with composition. At the other end of the calligraphic spectrum, Ruscha’s starkly stenciled depiction of the decrepit Hollywood sign against a smoggy sunset conjures the Black Dahlia and Charlie Manson downsides of California dreamin’. Novelists might kill to craft phrases as compelling as a Ruscha drawing.

There is something equally expansive about two pink paper pieces by Piotr Uklanski (b. 1968), which, despite their imagery—the ripped pages convey an undulating softness that gathers in dark magenta flaps at the center—recall Robert Motherwell’s mandarin collages employing torn classical music scores and Gauloises cigarette packs.

The career of Betty Tompkins (b. 1945) fascinates, beginning with her explicit “Fuck Paintings,” which doomed this feminist artist to obscurity in the early 1970s before lifting her to fame when she was in her late 50s. Although she was disheartened by the art world’s disdain for women painters when she started out—she once tried to get her then-husband to show dealers slides of her work using his name—Tompkins also disagreed with the wing of feminism that was, as she put it, “not pro-pleasure.” She cropped hardcore pornography shots (borderline illegal at the time) to inspire what she briefly labeled her “Joined Forms” paintings, a rather tortured terminology for penises entering vaginas, but one that nodded to the minimalist and formalist theories ruling the era. An interviewer recently asked, “Were you attacked by women?” Her reply: “No, I was ignored by everybody.”

Except for one writer who, back in the day, deemed Tompkins’s work “about as interesting as a medical textbook.” But in 2003 dealer Mitchell Algus finally ignited her career with an exhibition of those same ’70s paintings, which have become a hit with today’s collectors. Scale and a monochromatic palette are part of their disarming charm. The works on view here depict solo vaginas; one, Cunt Painting #20 (2013) measures nearly 5 feet square. The opposite of a textbook diagram, this work, and a grid of nine 16-inch-square “Pussy Paintings,” offer blurry gray diagonals and smooth creases that gather into abstract money shots. Tompkins’s surreal colored-pencil sketch from the auspicious year of 1969, Cunt Landscape, gives us the female crotch as a bushy red valley leading to an inviting sea. (The span of Tompkins’s works illustrates a cultural shift summed up by no less an authority than Hugh Hefner, as he reminisced about six decades of publishing Playboy in a 2010 interview: “Quite frankly, the biggest difference is that pubic hair has disappeared. It happened overnight. It was probably something in the water.”)

While perusing pornographic pictures almost half a century ago, Tompkins hit on something elemental, and she stuck with it until the world finally took notice: “I was looking at them one day and thinking, you know, if you take off the head, and the hands, and the feet, all the identifiers, then what you have left is something really beautiful in an abstract way, plus it has this tremendous kick as subject matter.”

Correction: An art review by Brienne Walsh titled “We’re All Her” that ran in the Village Voice on June 19 contained several misstatements. The father of the artist, Laurel Nakadate, is Japanese-American, not Japanese. A subject’s shirt was described as having a unicorn on it; in fact, it was a horse. Finally, the project’s gestation should have been described as “two years” rather than one. The Voice regrets the errors.