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Issue 244

Joan Semmel’s Liberated Engagement With the Female Erotic

Her first solo exhibition in Europe since 1975 at Xavier Hufkens demonstrates that her paintings continue to challenge contemporary perceptions of sexuality and agency 

BY Hettie Judah in Exhibition Reviews | 03 JUN 24

In 1973, Joan Semmel wrote the introduction to Through the Object’s Eye, a book on sexual imagery in women’s art. She saw men’s urge to dominate women as rooted in what she termed ‘the sexual arena’ and noted that ‘the pattern of male dominance and female submissiveness’ was ‘so deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness that, at times, a kind of psychological and sexual trauma is caused when that balance is disturbed’. She concluded that ‘[f]emale sexuality is very frightening because it attacks the basis of that relationship’. A couple of years earlier, in 1971, Semmel abandoned abstract painting to explore sex from a participatory, female perspective. She considered the exploration of sexuality to be central to her mission as a feminist artist. As would frequently happen throughout her 60-year career, her liberated engagement with the female erotic was judged beyond the pale, and the book on sexual imagery was pulled.

Joan Semmel
Joan Semmel, Untitled, 1980, oil crayon and collage on paper, 56 x 77 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Now in her early 90s, Semmel has spent much of the intervening period painting her own body. In some series, she evokes landscapes with her top-down views of recumbent breasts, belly and legs laid out like mineral-toned mountain ranges. For others, she works with a camera or reflections, relishing the disconcerting effects she can achieve with the bevelled edges of mirrors or photographic blur. Mostly, as in Baroque (2002), she is nude save for heavy rings, one fitted with a large turquoise. As markers of specific identity, the rings are fabulously jarring. The photographer Jo Spence once commented that ‘nudes never wear glasses’. As with glasses, the rings turn the anonymous nude into a specific naked woman. Look at that turquoise. Did that naked woman visit New Mexico? Did she love craft markets?

Joan Semmel
Joan Semmel, Camera Choreography, 2006/2021, oil on canvas, 1.9 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Semmel paints big. ‘An Other View’ (her first solo show in Europe since 1965) only extends to 10 works, but is a perfectly formed overview. An untitled sex painting from 1971 at first reads as a strongly coloured abstract. It guides your eye to a central spire of acidic aquamarine flanked by gritty earth-toned forms, before delivering a powerful jolt of recognition: Oh my god, that actually is an erect cock! The bodies are fragmented, seen from multiple angles, recording not just the look of fucking, but the mobile experience of it. (The painting looks almost freakishly contemporary, which makes me wonder whether the art world has been re-prudified by the new yardstick of Instagram.)

Joan Semmel
Joan Semmel, Turning, 2018, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Stylistically, Semmel is restless, leaping from gestural works in which the paint is as sensual as the imagery, to photo collages, to coolly stylized body landscapes, to jarringly realist nude self-portraits, to hot-toned expressionistic studies, to gleeful and rebellious sampling of all of the above and more. The most recent painting here is Camera Choreography (2006/21). The recent part, specifically, is the outline of a blue figure in motion newly daubed over the surface of a painting supposedly completed 15 years earlier. In the underlayer of Camera Choreography, Semmel appears twice: once turning, once squatting with her camera positioned at her vulva, an emerging robot eye. Where to look? As so often, we can’t see her face. This wasn’t an iffy painting ‘rescued’ with the later addition of a blue figure: the earlier version was shown by her New York gallery, Alexander Grey Associates, in 2015. Rather, the artist has an irreverent history of adding new layers and dimensions to existing paintings.

Joan Semmel
Joan Semmel, Untitled, 1971, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Semmel’s gaze is customarily described as ‘unflinching’ because, of course, the appropriate response for a woman looking at her body is to flinch. Bound up in such language is implicit judgement about what is and is not appropriate for public display and discussion – be that penetrative sex from a woman’s perspective or the ageing body. That the work still provokes such twitchiness is a testament to its power and continuing urgency.

Joan Semmel’s ‘An Other View’ is on view at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, until 22 June 

Main image: Joan Semmel, Baroque (detail), 2002, oil on canvas, 1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.