Visiting Artist: Janine Antoni

Kevin O’Hara


Visiting Artist Lecture Review


Janine Antoni is a contemporary artist who’s work explores concepts of body, femininity, gender roles, and maternity.  Antoni’s work is usually performative and focuses on process more than final product; she displays her process through photo documentation, installations, and sculpture.  With a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design Antoni became a Guggenheim fellow in 2011 and lives and works in New York city.  Antoni has become one of the most important and influential female artists working today.

Beginning with her earliest work first Antoni’s presentation went over her works, the thinking behind them, and the responses to them.  Antoni established Gnaw (1992) as her entry point into the contemporary art scene.  In the piece Antoni chewed two 600lb blocks, one chocolate the other lard, and used the chewed parts to create lipstick and chocolate boxes.  It was interesting to hear how people originally interpreted the piece as being a comment on minimalism because of the use of cubes however Antoni said that it was not her intention.  I personally found the lipstick and chocolate boxes, along with the false storefront they were presented in to be the most interesting part of the piece.  The commentary created by the feminine target products created physically by a woman was much more interesting to me than the act of chewing on the blocks or the incidental relationship to minimalism.  Antoni also mentioned that she was branded a feminist for this piece of artwork all though she again denied that that was her goal.  After Gnaw Antoni discussed Loving Care another one of her most well-known works in which she used  hair dye as paint and her own hair as a brush.  All though it is one of her most lauded works I have never really found the piece to be enough to keep me interested.

From Gnaw Antoni moved on to more works that discuss the body as an art-making tool often using the same materials of lard and chocolate.  Inspired by the story of Archimedes revelation in a bathtub Antoni created the work Eureka (1993).  In the piece she created a body cast of herself by being submerged in a bathtub of lard.  It was interesting to see some of the logistics behind the work, Antoni being lifted by crane out of the lard, but I found the idea of the displaced lard of equal volume to be more interesting than the tub or the performance.  Antoni explained her own interest in the displaced lard, expressing a fascination with the equality of a large glob of fat with a living human body.  After Eureka Antoni moves on to Lick and Lather (1993), creating two busts of herself again out of chocolate and lard.  Antoni used the busts, licking the chocolate and bathing with the soap to wear them down.  The idea of washing yourself with yourself was something that Antoni said she found fascinating and I found myself agreeing.

Antoni went on to cover her works Butterfly Kisses (1996-1999) and Mortar and Pestel (1999).  I found Butterfly Kisses interesting as another critique of marketing aimed at women.  Antoni admitted that all though she had intended Mortar and Pestel to record a deeply intimate act (licking her husband’s eye) that it mostly came across as creepy and I have to agree.

The piece Slumber was the work that I found most interesting.  Antoni performed the piece in museums, sleeping in the gallery at night and recording her brain activity while she slept with an EKG machine.  Then during the day Antoni used a loom to weave a  blanket based on the recorded EKG readings.  I loved the idea of turning something as intangible as dreams into something measurable and concrete.  It was humorous to hear Antoni talk about different museums she had performed the work at and how different nationalities had reacted and interacted with her while she was weaving.  To me part of the success of the piece is its more universal accessibility.  All though she addresses gender roles in her use of the traditionally feminine act of weaving, fascination with our dreams and recording them is a larger universal human experience.

I enjoyed hearing Janine Antoni talk however I found her work to be a little inaccessible and in some cases a little too easy for my taste.  Her work centers so much on the body, the female body, femininity, and maternity that I found it pretty inaccessible as a male in my 20s.  I also began to feel like she became too reliant on the materials and processes that had brought her success.  Almost an entire decade of work is dedicated to lard and chocolate and interacting with the body.  Additionally some of her more recent work, such as the photo of a cow that appears to be suckling at her breast or a short film of her tight-rope walking a line that aligns with the horizon seemed to me to be on the line between intelligent and lazy.  I was also troubled by the reoccurring theme in her lecture of incidental meaning being found in her work.  As an artist myself I know exactly what I want my audience to feel and think and if that’s not where they arrive I consider it a cop-out to say “well sure it could be that too.”  I think that it is a problem that is created by making the work first and then rationalizing it instead of the other way around.

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