Using her body as her material, Eleanor Antin’s intimate exhibit at LACMA references a fraught history of female objectification and photography. She succeeds in reclaiming the medium in the same way her final portrait “!!!” dominates the space–with dry humor and powerfully knowing smile.
Antin’s exhibit feels deeply personal. Viewers are reminded of the critique performed of their own bodies every time they look in the mirror. The space itself is within a small low-ceiling room, the work recalls the familiar vulnerability of a harshly lit and unforgiving dressing room mirror. What makes the work unfamiliar is Antin’s refusal to accept the common sentiment of shame most people feel towards their bodies. The exhibition offers a meditation on the challenge of change, yet Antin espouses a frank and deliberate confidence in every stage of her process.
Time’s Arrow brings together the artist’s CARVING series, a new self-portrait, !!! (2017), and a related serial work, The Eight Temptations (1972). In CARVING, Antin uses black and white photography to document several weeks of hardcore dieting she underwent over the course of 100 days. First performed in 1972 as her response for an invitation to the Whitney Museum’s sculpture show, Antin repeated the process 45 years later following the death of her husband, David Antin. As she wryly describes, her process attempted to achieve “the most perfect nude possible with the material she was working with.” The second series showcases her 74-year-old body in the same way. It’s bolder, because of the rare visibility afforded aging bodies.
Antin’s work references canonical Western art’s fixation with an “idealized nude,” and in the exhibition text she likens herself to Michelangelo’s carving of a sculpture. However, a critique of the male gaze in art history and photography features as motif in many prominent modern and contemporary feminist artworks.
Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin staged a photograph, Buy My Bananas (1972), to mock Achetez de Pommes, the suggestive example of early photography which likens apples to breasts.
Sarah Lucas’s Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) engages with the perpetual sexualization of female bodies. Through humor and symbolism, Lucas demands agency over her body.
Famous for her Bringing the War Home series, Martha Rosler also created collage series Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain, which features genitals cutout from Playboy magazine superimposed over glossy lingerie ads.
By masking her face and exposing her body, contemporary artist Narcissister explores the anonymity of the naked female form. Like her predecessor, Rosler, Narcissister sources from porn magazines and other pop culture imagery with unashamed eroticism intended to question gendered expectations.
Antin succeeds like her contemporaries in problematizing female portrayals, while also sharing a deeply personal meditation on the passage of her own life. Though she engages with dieting, a product of a patriarchal society, the work ultimately serves as a tool of self- affirmation. Her refusal to glamorize the process or the images actually critiques diet culture and the larger history of depictions of female nudes. More importantly, the return to her work after her husband’s death offers personal gratification. As she describes, “Everything that mattered had been taken from me. I took something from me to, my flesh.” Antin’s pleasure is palpable, a visceral pride in her ability control and manipulate her own body as she chipped away at its flesh.
At the center of the room, Antin’s final most recent portrait “!!!” presides. Hands on hips and lips pursed in a smile, she wears a brilliant red cape and black lingerie. She unabashedly stands over her vast cast career of work, meeting the viewer’s gaze with a proud affirmation of her body in every stage of life.