For over a decade, Linn Underhill has investigated the role photography plays in constructing gendered behavior in contemporary society. A self-identified lesbian artist, Underhill is patently interested in problematizing these strictures. By engaging in drag-enhanced role-playing in her work, Underhill presents an ambiguous gender continuum, where rigid notions of masculine-feminine are obscured. Her work is also a site for the recording of a queer self; as such, it constitutes an act of critical intervention and resistance. Author and artist Harmony Hammond tells us, “images of lesbians by lesbians remain almost completely absent from the dominant history of Western art. The social and cultural forces that have worked to silence gender, class, and ethnic difference have also silenced difference based on sexual preference. This lack of accessible history is a form of oppression, for those who are denied a history of culture do not exist.”1
Since girlhood, Underhill (b. 1936) has been aware of the discipline of the photographic lens: seemingly objective in its focus, this very objectification encourages self-awareness, self-evaluation, and self-correction. This attribute was promulgated by Underhill’s mother, a professional photographer whose family photo shoots served as occasions for the criticism of personal deportment for her three daughters. There was one way to be constructed as female, and Underhill avows that these sessions were formative in terms of her character. Although Underhill assisted her mother in the darkroom, effectively learning photography from her, it was not until she inherited her mother’s photographs and photo equipment in 1972 that she seriously considered taking up the camera herself. In reviewing the family portraits she had inherited, Underhill decided that she wanted to take back her self-image from her mother’s directorial gaze. Despite the diversity of expression Underhill has employed since then, this has been a unifying motivation.
In her most recent series of photographs, entitled The Cosmic Dominatrix, Underhill creates an over-the-top, Technicolor exploration of the notion that “the most dangerous and frightening force on earth for Man [is] woman in control of his fate.”2 Underhill casts herself in these photo vignettes in a variety of traditionally-male authority roles. Rather than masquerading as a man, as she has done in past series, Underhill assumes an overly maquillaged and costumed look that recalls the glamour of 1950s female celebrities. Instead of the precisely controlled settings of her previous work, we are presented here with hastily arranged sets that reminded us that these are clearly constructed setups, as constructed as the behaviors the artist seeks to explore. Through broad poses, garish color, and an out-of-control, ludic sensibility, Underhill composes a series of burlesque one-liners that amuse even as they problematize the notion of the “castrating bitch.”
An aspect of the work that bears scrutiny is the title of the series, itself—The Cosmic Dominatrix. The idea of dominatrix in popular thought is connected to a woman who plays the dominant role in a sexual encounter of the S-and-M variety. Dominatrix can also simply mean “she who rules over, governs, or controls.” Underhill gives each image in the series a descriptive title—Dominatrix of Justice, Dominatrix of Art, of War, Wisdom, Gender, etc. Through this particular labeling, the artist personifies these activities and attributes. In effect, Underhill is depicting a pantheon where women wield absolute power over their specific sphere, goddesslike. Although the S-and-M reading gives the work a certain tang, the alternate meaning provides the opportunity to see these subjects as psychological beings as well as biological ones, both powerful and sexual.
In The Creation of Madam, Underhill has portrayed herself as the godhead, clad in black leather, complete with dog collar, and posed as Michelangelo depicted God giving life to Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here, the grande dominatrix directs a languid, manicured finger toward an out-of-scale, articulated, pink-plastic female doll, naked but for a diadem and brown boots. Like the wooden Pinocchio, the doll has yet to become fully animated, and awaits a life-awakening touch from the supernatural realm. By portraying herself as the Supreme Being, Underhill firmly wrests control of the photographic subject from the vagaries of mere mortal approval. The doll surrogate, like the daughter Underhill was, waits to receive direction from the goddess-mother. We sense that this time, the spark of life will give birth to another dominatrix, ready to assume her place among her sister Olympians.
Thomas Piché, Jr.
Senior Curator, Everson Museum of Art
1. Harmony Hammond, Lesbian Art in America, A Contemporary History (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 10.
2. Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 279.
Ceremonies and Transition
From birth to death, christening to funeral, no individual escapes being the object of ceremony. Kinship and contracts, in addition to all our important biological events, have been forever ritualized and celebrated. The force of nature and grip of nostalgia guarantee a process of change and reliving of obligatory ceremonies with great emotional investment.
In the last 150 years photography and photographers have become the ubiquitous witness to social ritual. Beyond its service to recollection, photography has also the power to inform the conduct of tradition to freeze-dried perfection. Just as ceremonies function to preserve moment so change in a lifetime, they initiate movement. The making of art is also a ritual act, a process of repetition and transformation.
Though artists, Judith Steinhauser and Linn Underhill, have never met there is a strong correspondence in their history as artists working with photography. Both women have borrowed freely from family albums and write directly on their work to produce a framework for visual analysis. The manipulation, sequencing, and multiple reproduction of family photographs is a composite of time, influence, and memory. The personal drawing of connections translates into a vision of human experience.
Linn Underhill’s photographs of brides and grooms smiles with accompanying text and Judith Steinhauser’s large photographs and photograms examine the psychology of ritual from a feminist perspective. In the joint exhibition of their work, CEREMONIES AND TRANSITION, the contradiction of manners and emotion that women experience as objects of tradition is portrayed in forceful though distinct styles. Underhill’s series of straightforward facial expressions, enlarged to 30 inches square, are a magnified protest against the crisis of identity for the bride and assumed authority of the new husband. Figures of women in Steinhauser’s work proceed from passive flirtation to a focus on feminine power and sexual awareness.
Linn Underhill zooms in on the masks of happiness we all wear at weddings to compare the levels of emotion exhibited by women and men. Though the contrast is sometimes subtle, Underhill’s treatment of the subject is as bold as the bride’s grin are self-conscious. The monumental scale of the assembled work creates a dizzy and powerful impact. There are forty pieces, each almost three feet square: 24 months interspersed with 16 texts. The framed texts are excerpts from love songs and lists that interconnect a glossary of housekeeping items common to all couples but divided by gender. The texts underline the separate experiences for men and women in marriage.
Borrowed from her mother’s work as a wedding photographer, Underhill’s large black and white photographs are an authentic representation of romantic ideals in our society where marriage is often an end in itself. Women appear hysterically happy and men are self-controlled. The attention to the mouth triggers the language of wooing and wedlock, the ritual expressions of possession, authority, fertility, and costume that still exist to define a woman’s dependent role as a wife and mother. The smiles are caricatures of happiness and look more desperate when we consider the obligations for women that are laid down by tradition. Mutuality and autonomy do not co-exist with the social trappings of matrimony.
In contrast to Underhill’s use of public information, Judith Steinhauser illustrates women’s struggle for self-definition by directly expressive means. She mixes photographs and photograms with penlight and pencil drawing in large photographic mural paper to create images loaded with psychological meaning.
The pieces included in the exhibit are current works that evolve in chronological order as a narrative of self-discovery. Social disguises give way to physical turmoil as the figures of women develop out of their ornamental roles. The flattened and decorative, “Striped Skirt,” is the simple form of a woman whose dress is two striped triangles, with the imprint of gloves for hands and rick rack sewing trim for frizzy hair. Hands, flowers, party masks and houses are recurring symbols that depict the mysteries and constraints between women and men. “Two in the Garden” and “Man and Two Women” pose a secretive and ambiguous liaison. Here the profiles of nymph like figures appear with identical mask features and flowing hair. As feminine ideals their position is peripheral; in a gesture of whispering they are messengers of inspiration and flattery.
“Dark Triangle” is a departure from the former sublimation of women as debutante, soothsayer or housewife. As the mask of a woman recedes into greyness a black pubic triangle forces itself in front of the figures struggling hands. This stirring of sex and body as self is a point of reconciliation where Steinhauser moves into the realm of archetypes. The antagonizing roles of women, as either Virgin Mary or more experienced Eve, are now played by human models replacing the more playful and stylized cutouts of earlier photograms. In “Storm Women, I” one of the final images, a blonde woman draped in flowered fabric and a stoic figure in black compete for focus but are strikingly poised. In the process of self-definition, a new relationship begins.
The complementary result of CEREMONIES AND TRANSITION is more than a statement about the too familiar subjugation of women into traditional roles. Emancipation is not a simple process that can be defined and then depended upon for happy endings. With humor and insight, the artists’ work takes on an active voice, questioning the face value of social custom, and risking emotional response.
Both artists have participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program. Judith Steinhauser, who lives in Philadelphia, produced part of her exhibited work in Syracuse as a resident in 1986. Linn Underhill, as resident artist in 1983, worked, in part, on a series of visual journals, still life of what gets dumped on the dresser at the end of the day. She now lives in Lisle, New York.