What Is Revealed: Lesbian Art Books Come of Age

Tee A. Corinne

How times have changed. For several years there was only one book about gay and lesbian art, Sexual Politics: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. In the early 1990s two books about lesbian art were published, Stolen Glances, Lesbians Take Photographs and Forbidden Subjects: Self-Portraits by Lesbian Artists. Gay and Lesbian Issues in Art History, a narrow-focused study, came out in 1994.

Two books edged into lesbian art in 1995 - Butch/Femme, a small book of photos - and the Lambda Literary Award winning Paris Was A Woman.

Suddenly, with the publication of several lesbian art survey books, single-artist monographs, calendars, and exhibition catalogs in 1996, the previously minimalist picture has radically changed, and that change is long overdue.

What altered the publishing climate? If this is an outgrowth of lesbian chic, then may it continue. If it is related to the founding and growth of professional organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Caucus (an affiliated society of the College Art Association) and the San Francisco-based Lesbian Visual Artists, then let them thrive.

Does it take twenty-five years of a gay and lesbian liberation movement to prioritize art history? I don't know. Increasingly, the subject is taught in universities. From time to time I get letters from students requesting articles, interviews and slides for papers they are writing. I love the attention, often for work I produced before they were born or when they were very young.

The explosion of new books will create fallout for years to come. More influential than exhibitions, they are like having portable art galleries with paper walls, publicly accessible, yet viewable in the safety of your own home.

The most outrageous of the lot is Nothing But The Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image. Susie Bright and Jill Posener, who worked together as editor and photo editor of On Our Backs, gathered the most dramatic, controversial and sometimes the most confrontational images they could find, then constructed much of the text out of interviews with the thirty-three featured artists. These are woven around historical narratives by Bright and a framing essay by Posener. The pictures fairly leap off the page at you, appalling some and delighting others.

I must add here that I sat with one lesbian friend who punctuated the turning of the pages in Nothing But the Girl with the words "Disgusting. Disgusting." Another said of many of the images, "Well, these aren't what made me want to become a lesbian." A third kept saying "Wow" with a long, drawn out, reverential hush in her voice. Few people are neutral about this book. No one calls it boring.

Lesbian Art, An Encounter with Power, is probably closer to what was meant in the 1970s and 1980s by the phrase "lesbian community. Although it includes dildo and s/m images, the emphasis is on the breadth of visuals produced by fifty-five self-defined lesbians. Australian art professor and art department head Elizabeth Ashburn may well have created the textbook she has longed to teach from. You can feel the solidness of her knowledge, her love of the work, the evolving lesbian culture, and the women who produced it. It is an exciting and satisfying book.

Cherry Smyth, author of Damn Fine Art by New Lesbian Artists, dissects and critiques the work of forty-eight artists and two groups. Although interested in the effects of politics on the production of art - as is Ashburn - Smyth's take is more analytical and the ratio of text to imagery is about 4:1. Although a number of the pictures are sexual, this is not a book to take to bed. The passions it excites are more cerebral. It will generate stimulating arguments among friends.

Her grandmother is the subject of Honor Moore's biography, The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent (1892-1978). A special treat of this book is a hitherto unpublished image by lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) whom Sargent visited in Paris in the 1920s. The text, poetic and compelling, brings the talented, charming, alcoholic, bisexual artist vividly to life.

Newly out is Working Light: The Wandering Life of Edith S. Watson (1860-1943) about a US born lesbian photographer and her lover who traveled across Canada, writing articles and making pictures. Author Frances Rooney describes her adventure in uncovering Watson's work which had moldered in storage (a good reason to support institutions like the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City and the June Mazer Collection in Los Angeles). A favorite image of mine from the book shows the lover, Victoria Hayward, on a beach in the Bahamas, where she had grown up. Taken in 1916, it shows a barefoot woman standing at water's edge with her long skirt held high, exposing beautiful legs.

Books devoted to the work of a single lesbian artist have grow steadily in number over the past fifteen or so years. Often these are self-published, like JEB's two books or Cathy Cade's Lesbian Family Album, or they may downplay the subjects lesbianism, without, hopefully, obscuring it altogether, like Alice Austen, The Life and Photography of an American Original, which was authored by lesbian photo researcher Ann Novotny.

Borrowed Time: Photographs by Caroline Vaughan is a lovely book of black and white images by a contemporary artist with an exquisite sensitivity to nuance and light. Vaughan manages to intermingle images of her parents, transvestites, women lovers and self-portraits with pictures of landscapes and flowers. All glow.

Although the contemporary richness of books rests solidly on the feminist-fueled women-in-print movement, only one, Imagery: Women Writers, a calendar/datebook by photographer Jean Weisinger, was brought out by a women's publishing house, Aunt Lute. Weisinger's engaging subjects include Merle Woo, Gloria Anzaldúa, Victoria Manyarrows, Alice Walker, Judy Grahn, Chrystos, and Audre Lorde, and many others.

Lesbians Are So Chic, a small book of media studies/cultural criticism by the wonderful, wickedly sharp-tongued Laura Cottingham, is another new arrival. Cottingham, one of the few openly lesbian art critics writing today, questions who is benefiting from the types of visual coverage lesbians are getting in the mainstream press.

Several other books, although not limited to art, either present powerful visuals or discuss lesbian art in useful, provocative ways. Thirty-five photographs by almost as many photographers are woven throughout The Wild Good: Lesbian Photographs & Writing on Love, complementing the broad-ranging text. Essays about the sexual art of Della Grace, Kiss and Tell, Laurence Jaugey-Paget, and myself nicely deepen the scope of Finger Licking Good: The Ins and Outs of Lesbian Sex by the lively author, Tamsin Wilton. An finally, Lesbian Subjects: A Feminist Studies Reader, offers a useful introduction to lesbian photography.

Foreign-produced books are often difficult to come by, so it is a treat to have Claude Cahun, Photographe available from a US distributor (see below). Cahun, French and Jewish, 1894-1954, made gender bending self-portraits for five decades and participated in Surrealist exhibitions in Paris before the second World War. She produced fabulous work which seems totally contemporary today.

Catalogs are a more ephemeral form. Often produced in small print runs, they usually have saddle-stitched spines (stapled) rather than perfect bindings (square spines with titles printed on them. Three which have come to my attention may only be available from specialty houses or interlibrary loan by the time you read this.

Gender/ Fucked, from the Center On Contemporary Art (CoCO) in Seattle, is a hot little catalog with scrappy, feisty, sometimes troublesome images, like one painting of sex between a child and two adult women. The artist says she is creating a child's fantasy of sexual activity, but that is not how many viewers perceive the pictures.

Della Grace has been producing photos which push accepted subject boundaries for years, images of public toilet romance, simulated rape, s/m, and gender-dissonant dress. The catalog from a recent show in Germany, Della Grace, Photographs, is a glorification of deviance with a transgender emphasis.

Sonia Sekula (1918-1963), an abstract painter who exhibited in the prestigious gallery run by lesbian dealer Betty Parsons, wrote in her journal in 1951, "Don't forget that I, am a, woman, a belly, a sword, a nipple, a, sex, a, dream, cross, and a Sunday, and, a mirror." (And yes, all those commas belong there.) A lush catalog from a recent exhibit at the Swiss Institute in NYC has been published, but I haven't yet been able to lay my hands on it. A knowledgeable informant, however, raved.

The cost of art-book publishing is often cited as the reason so few presses have ventured into this territory. At a time when the price of books in general has been rising, technological advances have lowered the production cost of some art books, a boon to those of us who care passionately about pictures. Certainly the reach for a broad-based audience is central to each of the new volumes.

Lesbian art books have come a long way, yet there is material enough out there for hundreds more.

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Tee A. Corinne is the art books columnist for Feminist Bookstore News. Her books include The Cunt Coloring Book, Yantras of Womanlove, and Courting Pleasure. She is a recipient of the 1997 Women's Caucus for Art President's Award for service to Women in the Arts. An earlier version of this article appeared in Circles magazine #4, 1997, Boulder, CO.



 

All text Tee A. Corinne.