At 74, Betty Tompkins is widely recognised as a feminist trailblazer. This has not always been the case, for many decades her work was dismissed by the art world. Her celebrated Fuck Paintings, which she started in 1968 are detailed, monochromatic depictions of sexual intercourse, painted in a photorealistic manner.
Not particularly erotic, Tompkins’ close-ups of sexual penetration, painted from images she had been sourcing from pornographic magazines, are aggressive and unapologetic. No wonder they were rejected as vile and obscene in the male-dominated art world of the 70s and 80s. What is perhaps surprising though is how her work was misunderstood by her peers in the feminist movement, who dismissed it as reaffirming the objectification of the female body though pornography.
Only recently have critics and art institutions come to reassess her work as subverting – rather than endorsing – male patriarchy. Through re-presenting explicit imagery, she reclaims female sexual desire in the same aggressive manner that men have been doing for years. What Tompkins is actually doing with these works is to reverse the male gaze.
London audiences had a good glimpse of Tompkins’ famed paintings in 2017, when they were included in the Sex Works section of Frieze London, and again in 2019 in an intimate solo exhibition at J Hammond Gallery. Her current solo show at FREEHOUSE presents a different body of work and is a great opportunity to understand the artist’s consistent agenda and realise how timely her concerns still are.
In 2012 and 2013, Tompkins circulated an email asking for words, phrases, or stories that defined women. Following the submission of more than 3,500 words, she created a huge number of word paintings in different sizes and in various ways: some are airbrushed while others have a graphic quality to them, a few of them are painted against a misty background.
A few are sweet, but most of the words are pejorative, degrading, even nasty. The whole exercise confirms that many of the words we commonly use and which dwell in our collective unconscious are sexist, misogynistic and profoundly intimidating.
Displayed salon-style, this cacophonous installation is immersive, colourful yet not pluralistic: an oppressive voice of prejudice and intolerance is echoed throughout. There is a recurrence of the words ‘bitch’ and ‘mother’. Could it be that these two words are most commonly associated with women in our culture? If so, it feels like not much has changed in the way society views women.
This is exactly the reason why this exhibition is worth a visit. Not only does it force us to confront deep prejudices, especially when we smile or laugh at some of the sexist jokes, but it comes at a time when so much public debate attempts to eradicate radical politics and to inseminate progressive values with fear and anger. It is evident that even in this country we are reverting to a reactionary, misogynistic rhetoric.
This may prove why Betty Tompkins is getting her dues late in life, but mainly shows why her art still matters. Paraphrasing one of the words in the exhibition, Tompkins’ greatest weapon is her art.
Curator of Programmes
FREEHOUSE, 54 Three Colts Lane, London
E2 6GN. Open Thursday-Saturday 12.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 9 November 2019.