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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Meeting the male gaze and making it blink in ‘HARD: Subversive Representation’

Berenice Abbott’s portrait of Jane Heap.University Hall Gallery, UMass Boston

The male gaze has been the focus of art and feminist theory for decades. Now, thanks to the #metoo movement, women in real life are shaking off the proprietary leers of powerful men.

“HARD: Subversive Representation,” at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s University Hall Gallery, asks what happens when women refuse to be objectified. Samuel Toabe, the gallery’s curator, assembles works made by artists who identify as female, portraying female subjects.

The world still revolves around the male gaze, and a lot of the art here addresses the bruising that comes with asserting difference and claiming a space apart.

In Berenice Abbott’s 1923 portrait, modernist publisher Jane Heap, a lesbian dressed in a dinner jacket and ribbony bow tie, gazes almost defiantly at us, as if staring down the haters. Abbott catches light glistening like tears in her eyes.


A similar proud defensiveness radiates from “Faniswa, Seapoint, Cape Town.” Photographer Zanele Muholi chronicles LGBT people in South Africa, and Faniswa is stunning, with dark skin, pale lipstick, and a shiny, blocky black wig. She holds her chin up but her eyes are wary. It is the look of someone who knows she will be judged, but will not capitulate.

Betty Tompkins’s “Masturbation Painting #12” is the second masturbation piece by a woman I’ve seen just this year; a third will constitute a trend. The first is a photographic self-portrait by Xaviera Simmons in “Legacy of the Cool: A Tribute to Barkley L. Hendricks” at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Tompkins’s painting is formal and spare, a shadowy grisaille crescent framed by pink. It could be taken for an abstraction, except where fingers appear.

Both seek to own female desire rather than objectify it. If their work happens to be erotic, too, well then, lucky us. This show lifts a veil on the historically ignored, private, and elusive experiences of women. Art may have objectified many, but it has long honored tender and fugitive sensibilities.


HARD: Subversive Representation

At University Hall Gallery, University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd., through March 9. 617-287-5707, www.umb.edu/in_the_community/arts/university_gallery

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.