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Artist Statement for Sexual/Nature

Rebec­ca Anweil­er

Exam­in­ing notions of the “nat­ur­al” and the “ide­al” as repro­duced pri­mar­i­ly through edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, the Sexual/Nature series is inspired by a fas­ci­na­tion with knowl­edge pro­duc­tion as it is affect­ed by social cli­mate. Stud­ies of the nat­ur­al world and devel­op­ing knowl­edge about human sex­u­al­i­ty are often inter­con­nect­ed. Chal­leng­ing the­o­ret­i­cal par­a­digms such as evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry, recent research is pro­vid­ing evi­dence that ani­mal sex­u­al­i­ty is not always attached to het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tive strate­gies. Homo­sex­u­al behav­iours are part of the range of sex­u­al activ­i­ties of many species, some­times sim­ply for the pur­pose of plea­sure. This becomes espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant when we con­sid­er how ref­er­ences to a “nat­ur­al” inevitabil­i­ty or bio­log­i­cal deter­min­ism are often dubi­ous­ly applied to human sex­u­al­i­ty, pro­vid­ing social/legal/religious sys­tems with rhetor­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and legit­i­ma­tion.

The series con­tains a com­bi­na­tion of images from three sources relat­ed to the cul­tur­al con­struc­tion of sex­u­al­i­ty: doc­u­men­ta­tion of the nat­ur­al world, les­bian pornog­ra­phy, and stills of roman­tic liaisons from old films. Sexual/Nature plays with the notion of desire as shaped by both nature and cul­ture. The choice of source imagery from text­book and ency­clopaedic mate­ri­als comes from a desire to expose these rep­re­sen­ta­tions as the famil­iar and tak­en-for-grant­ed repro­duc­tions of what gets con­sti­tut­ed as “nat­ur­al” and “nor­mal.” These pho­tos are often posed in order to best elu­ci­date their edu­ca­tion­al or descrip­tive intent. Done for the sake of pho­to­graph­ic expe­di­en­cy, pos­ing can also reveal views about the prop­er con­duct of peo­ple and notions of the “nat­ur­al” and the “ide­al” in images of nature. Repro­duc­ing these kinds of pho­tographs as paint­ings effec­tive­ly imi­tates how these repeat­ed and legit­imized rep­re­sen­ta­tions func­tion in the every­day by serv­ing to trans­form them to the lev­el of the sym­bol­ic. At the same time, paint­ing allows the artist to get close enough to find what is left behind of the staged sub­ject, despite the pose.

The cin­e­mat­ic pose was sig­nif­i­cant in defin­ing West­ern roman­tic rela­tion­ships. The exclu­sion of any pos­i­tive ref­er­ences to homo­sex­u­al­i­ty through­out the era of the Hays Code years in Hol­ly­wood (1930 to 1968) par­al­lels the sup­pres­sion of research on ani­mal sex­u­al diver­si­ty. The Hays Code was a vol­un­tar­i­ly indus­try-deter­mined set of moral cri­te­ria devel­oped to estab­lish ways to include social­ly sen­si­tive sub­jects in cin­e­ma with­out being cen­sored through gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence. In par­tic­u­lar, these prin­ci­ples cur­tailed depic­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty, espe­cial­ly any “infer­ence of sex­u­al per­ver­sion.” Sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies of the ani­mal world have also, until very recent­ly, cen­sored the real­i­ty of non-con­cep­tive sex­u­al expres­sion in order to jus­ti­fy West­ern patri­ar­chal and puri­tan­i­cal notions of accept­able sex­u­al expres­sion. When men­tioned at all, devi­a­tions from what was con­sid­ered “nor­mal” het­ero­sex­u­al cou­plings were often labelled “unnat­ur­al.”

Engag­ing these par­al­lels in sup­pres­sion, one set of images for Sexual/Nature comes from defin­ing moments in Hol­ly­wood films from the Hays Code years, play­ing with both por­trayed and implied roman­tic rela­tion­ships between the filmic char­ac­ters. The films ref­er­enced in these works shaped for­ma­tive knowl­edge about love and romance for both straights and gays, “a tes­ti­mo­ny to the vital­i­ty and flu­id­i­ty of desire,” as artist Deb­o­rah Bright wrote fol­low­ing her pho­tomon­tage series, Dream Girls. Per­for­mances by women from this peri­od of Hol­ly­wood film often dis­played an intel­li­gence and body lan­guage that, while chal­leng­ing con­ven­tion­al fem­i­nine stereo­types, were con­trolled with­in the film by the monog­a­mous and het­ero­sex­u­al log­ic of the nar­ra­tives.

A sec­ond set of images comes most­ly from Nation­al Geo­graph­ic but also from edu­ca­tion­al ency­clo­pe­dic or cof­fee-table books, from the decades of the Hays Code. While the posed sub­ject is some­what less con­trolled dur­ing ani­mal pho­tog­ra­phy, var­i­ous efforts are made to secure good images that involve manip­u­la­tion of the “nat­ur­al” envi­ron­ment. My image sourc­ing reflects a sug­ges­tive ten­sion or rela­tion­ship that does not nec­es­sar­i­ly iden­ti­fy bio­log­i­cal sex. Many images are of species whose behav­iours con­test the very nar­row claims of het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tive strate­gies that main­stream West­ern sci­ence has cham­pi­oned, such as Bigh­horn Sheep (in which a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of the mighty rams exhib­it exclu­sive same-sex mount­ing pref­er­ences) and female Japan­ese Macaques (a num­ber of whom gen­i­tal­ly liase with mem­bers of the same sex, reject­ing the com­pa­ny of males even dur­ing estrus).

The final source of images are cropped selec­tions from the first North Amer­i­can les­bian erot­i­ca mag­a­zine, On Our Backs, pub­lished between 1984 and 2006, which took a defin­i­tive stance as pro-pornog­ra­phy in the fem­i­nist “sex wars” of the 1980’s and 1990’s. A rad­i­cal pub­li­ca­tion from the per­spec­tive of its pre­sen­ta­tion of diver­si­ty in gen­der pre­sen­ta­tion, race, and sex­u­al prac­tice, the mag­a­zine did not, as it claimed, por­tray “real” sex; instead it showed sex­u­al rela­tions under the con­di­tions of staged and pho­tographed con­struc­tions of the sex­u­al ideals of the rad­i­cal fem­i­nist les­bian com­mu­ni­ty who sup­port­ed them. Nonethe­less, par­tic­i­pants were will­ing sub­jects and defined their own plea­sure in dis­tinct ways from main­stream porno­graph­ic depic­tions of les­bian sex­u­al­i­ty. Their agency in the process speaks to my inter­est in plac­ing les­bians in the posi­tion of the “uni­ver­sal” sub­ject for a change, while at the same time sub­vert­ing the his­to­ry of the nude in West­ern art by their com­plete refusal of any inter­est in the male gaze. Crop­ping the images to focus on hands enhanced their sex­u­al ambi­gu­i­ty and helped serve as an indi­ca­tor of, or ref­er­ence to, their sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.

In cel­e­brat­ing human-ani­mal rela­tions with camp humour, the works from Sexual/Nature play with per­son­al pref­er­ences and sub­vert social label­ing while reflect­ing on the “nature” of desire.

Cat Lover, Ver­sion 1, 2003-4. 3 pan­els, 2' X 6'. Oil on can­vas.

Dog Lover, 2003-4. 3 pan­els, 6' 2" X 2'. Oil on can­vas.

Solo, 2003. 3 pan­els, 6' 2" X 2'. Oil on can­vas.

Water­sports, 2003-4. 5 pan­els, 6' 2" X 6' 2" (irreg­u­lar). Oil on can­vas.

Bare­back, 2004. 6 pan­els, 6'2" X 6'2" (irreg­u­lar). Oil on can­vas.

Ani­mal Lover, 2003-4. 13 pan­els, 8' 2" X 10' 3"(irregular). Oil on can­vas.

Nature Lover, 2004-5. 9 pan­els, 8' 2" X 8'2" (irreg­u­lar). Oil on can­vas.

Mouse Lover, 2003-6. 5 pan­els, 6' 2" X 6' 2" (irreg­u­lar). Oil on can­vas.