During Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to how he sexually assaulted her as a high school student. In support of Ford, Artemisia Gentileschi’s vengeful painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca. 1620, based on a Biblical story in which a strong-armed Judith and her maidservant behead the titular Assyrian general, was circulated on social media as a meme. Captioned with women’s empowerment hashtags, such as #SlaySisters, the artwork distilled contemporary feminist rage.
“The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.,” a group exhibition curated by Monika Fabijanska, opened just a few weeks prior to the hearing. A work in dialogue with another painting by Gentileschi was installed in the entryway: Kathleen Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored, 1998/2018, an X-ray print on paper that reveals the underpainting of Gilje’s meticulous copy of the Italian artist’s 1610 canvas. Found in the book of Daniel, Susanna’s is a morality tale: While bathing, the young woman is approached by two lustful old men, who threaten to accuse her of promiscuity unless she has sex with them. Susanna refuses, and is nearly executed for doing so until Daniel intervenes on her behalf. Gentileschi is one of the few artists in history who illustrates Susanna’s shame and fear. Gilje’s underpainting portrays Susanna as a version of Gentileschi herself—raped by her father’s painter friend Agostino Tassi in 1611—screaming with a knife in her hand. Subjected to torture by thumbscrews during Tassi’s trial, Gentileschi gave testimony that was unnervingly similar to Dr. Ford’s. Tassi was convicted.
That Gentileschi’s victory seems progressive today proves the centuries-long acceptance of rape culture, as Susan Brownmiller explained in her 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. This show surveyed works by twenty women artists who have dealt with the theme. Most of the exhibition featured figurative works, from Kara Walker’s 2016 drawing of a twelve-year-old African American girl being violated by a white man, to photographs of Ana Mendieta’s performance Rape Scene, 1973. Three Weeks in May, 1977, a consciousness-raising project by the pioneering social practice artist Suzanne Lacy, is represented here by a short documentary and a Los Angeles city map to which Lacy applied stamps at the sites where rapes had occurred.
Abstract sculptures on view, created by women of color, offered alternative methods of materializing the trauma of sexual assault. Alaska Native artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs fashioned phallic objects from rawhide sheepskin studded with porcupine quills, while Senga Nengudi contributed R.S.V.P. Revisited—Underwire, 1977/2004, breast-like forms hanging from an armature resembling mattress springs. Naima Ramos-Chapman’s semiautobiographical film And Nothing Happened, 2016, traced a rape survivor’s complex landscape of emotions, beginning with footage of the artist masturbating to rape-themed pornography and ending with a rote description of her assault to a female lawyer via speakerphone.
Exhibited for the first time, Carolee Thea’s Sabine Woman, 1991—a life-size chicken-wire sculpture of a gang rape—was the hardest to reconcile with contemporary feminist mores. Thea created the work in response to the Central Park jogger case of 1989, for which five teenagers (thereafter dubbed by the media the Central Park Five), four black and one Latinx, were falsely convicted of raping a white woman. After another man confessed to the attack in 2002, the charges against the young men were vacated. Thea’s work emphasizes the anonymity of the male perpetrators, but their “racelessness” feels dubious. Indeed, it was precisely the Central Park Five’s racial identity that mobilized public resentment against them—resentment that was further inflamed by Donald Trump’s full-page ads in four New York newspapers, before their trial, calling for the death penalty. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s brutal film “RAPE” (1968), documents an all-male camera crew’s relentless pursuit of the model Eva Majlath—a Hungarian-born immigrant on an expired visa who was murdered in 2008. Displayed alongside the film was Ono’s 1968 word score for the film, which specifies that men and boys can also be “chased.” A statement Ono made about the film in 1969 is widely interpreted as a feminist response to male violence. Explaining that she and Lennon were in a hospital when the film was shot, Ono disturbingly vouches for her cameraman, Nick. In her trademark poetic style, Ono wrote: “Nick is a gentleman, who prefers eating clouds and floating pies to shooting Rape. Nevertheless it was shot.” Such positioning reverberates with a culture that demands women’s silence.