There is Virginia Woolf’s 1931 bathtub epiphany about women’s sexual and professional lives. There is the line in Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” There are second-wave performance artists and radical feminist writers: Lynda Benglis, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann, Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde, bell hooks.
In her latest book, Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art, Lauren Elkin splices together a non-linear collage of ideas and influences in a self-declared “experiment in critical form”. The success of Elkin’s mashup of art writing and literary criticism hinges on her ability to develop the connective tissue between artists working across disparate forms and time periods. Most of the time, Elkin executes this skilfully. Occasionally her leaps of relation feel a little loose, but her writing and passion for the subject more than compensate.
Like her earlier works, No. 91/92: A Parisian Bus Diary and Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, Art Monsters sees Elkin combine memoir with criticism. This time, her writing is informed by her fascination with creative and procreative gestation. She states the book is inevitably shaped by the rhythms and experiences of first-time pregnancy and motherhood, a relationship that would have benefited from deeper interrogation. Elkin’s own journey reflects a key tenet of the art she explores – that women’s bodies are not a “fixed entity but always in a state of becoming”.
Slashes separate Elkin’s paragraphs.
“The slash, the cut, the fragment,” Elkin poses, “may be the art monster’s native form.” She situates this as a natural reflex for artists torn apart by clashing responsibilities, by being othered. Cutting and slicing permeate the book: the slashing of Velázquez’s painting The Rokeby Venus by suffragette Mary Richardson; Kathy Acker’s mastectomy; Lee Miller presenting a severed breast as art. The embodiment of living as a woman is one of violence. A fact of living in a body is “to live with failure, to acknowledge eventual decay”.
What is the role of an art monster? Elkin answers in both form and content. The art monster troubles the dominant white, male, heterosexual narrative. She builds her own aesthetics, constructs her own language, finds new territories to tell the story of her body. She “Frankensteins genres and texts and materials together”. For Elkin, it is not enough for the art monster to simply be abject or transgressive, her work also needs to be one “of thought and perception, of looking and reflection and calling into question”.
Vintage Publishing, 368pp, $55
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art".
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