Beth B

"Beth B's work is never comfortable. She is the punk poet of the primal scream."

Before Monuments, Beth B's works focused on war, drug addiction, the U.S. penal system, mental institutions, child abuse, televangelism, abortion, censorship, AIDS, racism and bigotry, homelessness, female mutilation, and sex with strangers. 'I think there are many abusive aspects to our culture that we've come to accept and might do better to question. My intention is not to sensationalize but provoke.'

Envision B as a contemporary embodiment of the figure of Justice sword in one hand, scales in the other. But leave out the blindfold. She misses nothing. Reviewing her 1992 exhibition Under Lock and Key, which included the 1-minute video entitled Amnesia, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote: "As with the stunning Amnesia, part of the success of Under Lock and Key will be found in its refusal to preach and, by extension, to divide. Neither work assumes a condescending position of knowledgeable correctness from which moral superiority might be inferred. Both trust the ambiguity of art, not the certainty of moral posturing, to function as the more powerful polemic tool."

B believes in facing the condition of the world around her dead-on, but she positions herself as neither prosecutor nor defender. She uses art to lay out the evidence, and then, as Knight suggests, she lets the art do the work. She is very good at laying out the evidence. Her single-letter last name comes from B-Movies, the film company she founded in New York City in the late '70s. Her credits in this genre include five feature films, twelve shorts and documentaries, and two music videos. Since 1990 her films, videos, and photographic/sculptural installations have appeared in 40 solo and 25 group exhibitions in North America and Europe. She glides with apparent ease from one complex artistic medium to another. These seamless transitions reflect the coherence of her vision.

"I think like a filmmaker," she said in a recent interview. "I approach visual art in a similar way. I want a certain theatrical excitement within the pieces, within the show. The installation is like a proscenium stage, creating a mood and an environment. All aspects are important: lighting, sound, how things are arranged and hung. My task is to ask lots of questions with contradictions and confrontation and to start a process, yet at the same time to provide history. I think history is very important in order to understand where we sit in our bodies today. A lot of contemporary art is issue-oriented, but that is all you get: the issue. My hope is to have an installation function on many different levels - aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, philosophical, and personal." Monuments is at first glance the most serene of her works, the coolest, the most austere. It is both a logical progression from two recent installations, Trophies (1995) and Portraits (1997), and a response to the clarity of Grand Arts' exhibition space. "I like the white, stark quality of the space. It feels very pure. And the pieces, I think, have a kind of purity as well. They have a seductive, safe feeling to them."

For Trophies, B created a historical survey of female disfigurement, including bound feet, facelifts, corseted and normal rib cages, a three-part display of genital mutilation, a lifesize model of an anorexic woman, and intact and ruptured silicone breast implants. Presented in museum and medical display cases, the wax pieces are backlit to achieve a warm glow. B wanted to emphasize that female mutilation is an issue that is not only contemporary, but trails a long history. "A lot of my work deals with different degrees of incarceration and imprisonment. Trophies was about feeling this imprisonment in the body, and the idea that oftentimes other people take control of a woman's body. Though women often act as co-conspirators, instigating their own imprisonment and suffering, this behavior reflects the intense pressure to conform, to measure up to unattainable and even dangerous physical ideals."

Portraits is a series of photographs (21 black-and-white and 10 color) of female genitalia. B manipulated the photographs to reveal only the genital areas. Initially the images appear to be wholly abstract, and the technique to be charcoal and pastel drawing. "With Portraits you're looking at something that's very abstract and very beautiful and you feel, Well, it's definitely got to be something connected with nature, something plant-like, and then you start to realize that they're actually female genitals. When people first came into the show they didn't know what they were looking at. It's something I really like to do - manipulate images so they seduce people into an experience that suddenly alters their perception."

Monuments is more spare than its two predecessors. Pared down, minimalist, its power is reserved. B has taken artistic license only with regard to scale; although the forms and images are enlarged, what she presents is raw nature. The elegant sculptures and photographs resonate with the ambiance of the surrounding space. Any friction, any unease, exists solely in the relationship of the viewer to the work. Monuments is a kind of sting operation, imploding instead of exploding. The pair of full-bodied, 10-foot-high female torsos appear to be solid, as though carved from alabaster, but a walk around them reveals that they are translucent shells, with negative spaces large enough to shelter visitors. They stand in the gallery like suits of armor, temporarily set aside by their female inhabitants.

Classical Greek sculptures of warriors, athletes, and statesmen celebrated male form and virility. Men were frequently portrayed nude, in postures of bold action. Comparable female sculptures of the same era - Aphrodite of Cnidus, the Capitoline Aphrodite, and the Medici Venus, for example - stand in postures of shame or coquetry, with shoulders hunched and hands raised to cover breasts and/or genitals. B sees Monuments as redressing this imbalance: 'Unlike classical, historical representation of the female form, these figures represent the power and sexuality of women, as well as the vulnerable and womb-like qualities.'

The photographs in Monuments go a step further than those in Portraits. Exquisitely formal in their presentation, they resemble Rorschach inkblots or academic exercises in negative and positive visual space. With one exception - a photograph of testicles and penis - they depict women's body parts: breasts, buttocks, genitalia. The images appear ethereal, with the leavened quality of Georgia O'Keeffe's or Robert Mapplethorpe's flowers.

And like the images of O'Keeffe and Mapplethorpe, the seemingly innocent surfaces harbor a threat. In one photograph, the female labia are shockingly dark and distended. They suggest blood-engorgement, tumescence, potence. The breasts and buttocks suggest mass, muscle, authority. 'In Trophies I became obsessed with the idea of self-imaging, and individuating our bodies ... in a way, to distance ourselves from the media perception of the female persona and what is acceptable in society as being female and feminine. In a sense, Portraits and also this new show Monuments are reclaiming the female body. I'm trying to return innocence and beauty to female genitalia, where often this part of our anatomy is seen in some sort of exploitative way, as a shameful place, a dirty place, or "We don't want to see it,' as well as the misconception that it's an internal organ. I worked to abstract the image in such a way that, if only for the moment before clear recognition, it tricks the viewer into a fresh and positive reaction."

B sees Monuments as a progressive stage in exhuming the female body from the grave in which it's been buried by both male and female perception and fantasy. 'I remember when Portraits went up so much of the reaction I was getting was, "I didn't realize they were all so different!" I think it's the way that women are treated, also, as objects. That a woman's genitals are indistinct; it's just an object, for pleasure. That it's not something that's individual, that's different, that feels different, the touch is different, the form is different."

Because what B is about is evidence, her sculpture installations have the credibility of displays in science or natural history museums. Her choices of materials, layout, and lighting are considered with an eye always aiming for seduction via tactile attraction. She draws the viewer in, closer, closer, as if she's got a secret and if you come nearer she'll whisper it in your ear. And then, like Lenny Bruce exploding with 'We're all gonna die!,' B's punch line is suddenly and startlingly apparent. B's work is marked by its steady insistence. It is a drumbeat, a call to action. Hers is the unrelenting "indictment of a system that has lost its aspiration to reform."

If not Justice, consider B a physicist tracking subatomic particles. Though invisible, they form the elemental structure of the physical world. Does pressure to discount the beauty and worth of others travel in particles or waves or is it a combination of the two?

Roberta Lord
March 1998
New York, NY

Back to top