The Look of Love

by Cara DeBusk

Laura Letinsky: Venus Inferred at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, March 26-May 7, 1994 and Intimate Stages at Sally Sprout Gallery, March 10-April 16, 1994

The subject of romantic love has fascinated philosophers, writers, musicians, and artists of all media for centuries. Expressions of love and intimacy are as varied as the humans who practice them, yet certain images of love has predominated in Western culture. The female body has been used to represent “love” and “sex” from the Venus of Willendorf to contemporary advertising and film. The symbolic equation of “female body” = “sex” has had a profoundly narrowing effect on the expressions of female subjectivity and female desire. Individuals of both sexes have struggled to explore female desire in ways that counter commercially-produced images of women as objects (not subjects) of desire. In particular, some women artists have tried to incorporate a woman-centered experience in work dealing with sexual expression. Yet few artists have lived up to the difficult task of redefining in art what has been so thoroughly co-opted by commercial media. In “Venus Inferred,” Laura Letinsky, who spent last year in Houston as a visiting professor at the University of Houston, attempts to deal with images of love and desire that incorporate a female subjectivity. She photographs heterosexual couples, usually young, captured in intimate moment in their own private spaced. She presents these as framed 20 x 24 inch or 30 x 40 inch Type C-prints. On first viewing, the initial reaction is a series of questions: Are we looking at real people who are really in love? What is the image of love in the minds of people being photographed? What do they want Letinsky, and consequently the viewer, to see about their relationship? The answers gleaned from these photographs is that the couples show us exactly what they think we expect to see, and no more about themselves than is comfortable, which is very little.

Of the sixteen photographs shown at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, images of one couple (Robin and Ken) seemed to dominate, although they compromised only three images. This couple is expert at imitating the classic poses of pornography, the straining, the arching, the biting of the lip. With their acceptably blonde, bugged and tanned physiques, Robin and Ken demonstrate how internalized these commercial images of sex have become. This acting shields the viewer from any glimpse of these individuals’ true feelings about one another; complex feelings that may not be present during sexual play, authentic or posed. These photographs contextualize the images of other couples so that it is difficult to read them except as staged scenarios that explore only the image of heterosexuality and coupling. This in itself could be powerful, yet runs counter to Letinsky’s goal.

The female subjectivity alluded to in “Venus Inferred,” which Letinsky represents here by posing many of the couples so that the woman faces the camera, is Letinsky’s strength. She forces the viewer to contemplate the possible realities of each woman. What is she thinking? How does she feel about being photographed? What does she think of the man with her w ho is gazing at her in such a lovingly-proprietary way? How does she relate to the female who is photographing her? Why is she doing thinking? These questions are never answered adequately in the photographs themselves. It is noteworthy that in the one image of herself with her partner, Letinsky poses herself looking down and away from the camera. What is hersubjectivity?

Letinsky’s stated goal in making these photographs is to explore issues of love and intimacy – tenderness, vulnerabilities, regret, and disgust – through male/female couples in various stages of intimacy, with an emphasis on female subjectivity. Unfortunately the result is only a “posed” intimacy, and very little revelation beyond sexual practice. The question is: Is it really possible to get at the highly-complex feelings that couples experience only through representing them in a sexual context? Is it possible to achieve intimacy and authenticity through photography that is so loaded with implications of voyeurism and pornography?

Letinsky explores the issue of female subjectivity with greater success in the exhibition “Intimate Stages” at Sally Sprout Gallery. Again, using large Type C-prints, Letinsky presents both couples and women alone. Far and above the strongest work in either of these exhibitions are Letinsky’s photographs of women alone. One image depicts a woman, perhaps “30-ish”, lounging alone on a couch dressed in a silky slip. The traditional pose, referencing a history of art crowded with paintings and photographs of lounging women who have been put on display for the pleasure of men, is subverted by the expression on the woman’s face: an intricate mixture of desire, loneliness, fear and amusement that says volumes about how many women relate to themselves and their own feelings. These quietly powerful images are simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. The women are seen in moments where they are both vulnerable and strong, seeming to be feeling a mixture of emotions that draws the viewer to look deeper.

Included in the exhibition are more images of couples, with many of the same problems as the work in the Lawndale show, yet the context is much altered by the presence of the photographs of women. In “Intimate Stages,” much more is being said about the issues of self and desire that women face, in or out of relationships with men. The women alone may seem sometimes sad, or frightened, but they are always self-possessed. The women in relationships look questioningly at the camera, as their male partners faze at them with love and desire that seems to slip so easily into ownership. The work in “Intimate Stages” alludes to the complex issues that women face in relating themselves and their partners with a power and thoughtfulness absent in “Venus Inferred.” These subtle issues of self-identity in the face of love are delicately and successfully addressed in the less overtly-sexual images.

Cara DeBusk is a photographer and video artist, teacher, and the curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the Film and Video Department.