“Shifting the Gaze: A Reconstruction of the Black and Hispanic Body in Contemporary Art” is a blockbuster show, if not in size, certainly in relevance. Curated from the Mennello Museum of American Art, it is currently on exhibit at the Opalka Gallery. As the title of this exhibition suggests, changing the politics of the male (white) gaze is no small project. In fact, it has been an on-going struggle within the Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and feminist communities since at least the early 1980s, for as soon as the gaze was discursively located in the ’60s and ‘70s as patriarchal and racialized, and the dominance of its tradition found so pervasive that one could not even find language to speak outside of it (Cixous, Irigaray), it was “locked” so to speak, a monolith of oppressive omnipresence.
Like God, that eye was fixed on us, and even if reversed, it still bore the marks of its genesis in othering, labeling, and a positivistic structure that had us psychically–perhaps physically–pinned like some pretty specimen in a collection of eye-candy possession. O, the days of rage of graduate school! Anything to give that eye a bruise, dare I say it, a black eye?
The collection of Robert B. Feldman provides a cohesiveness to this exhibition that is hard to match. Because Feldman knows his vision, he has lent to this show a savoir faire in selection, culling from the artists who are working their way out of the morass of seeing as codified for, as Freud would say, sadistic scopophilia. In case I’ve lost the reader already, let me be concrete, taking as an example Mickalene Thomas’ magisterial, I’m not the Woman You Think I am, 2010. The first thing that hits the eye, here, is bling from rhinestones studding the canvas. One thinks of Lacan’s famous sardine can that is the emblem of his theory of the return gaze. Shiny, sparkly, gaudy—we’re like crows, drawn into anything bright. As we approach, two long black legs announce a traditional allure, but this sistah is gazing back at us, and she gives as good as she gets. Do you want to consume those legs, well, who wouldn’t… but the bling forms a field of distraction, and the eye bounces all over as though the craft baubles became a private guard both announcing her grandeur and protecting it. The politics of dressing for the gaze is on display, but this flatly painted form afloat in animal print and sparkle is more a queen than an object of endless desire. She owns it, recumbent and regal. She’s here for the boyz and the grrrrls, and they who will confound grammar by pluralizing the singular of gender. Self-possessed, for sure, but wait…. it’s paint, after all. Such is the nature of looking and desire, cosmetic, glitter, gloss, but how we return and return to look.
For Mickalene Thomas’ I’m not the Woman You Think I am, see page 57 of the catalogue: https://www.depauw.edu/files/resources/shifting-gaze_publication_2018_lr_mennello-museum-.pdf