The Joys and Humiliations: Restraint of the Creative Body Under Capitalism, in Five Takes
“Shannon Cartier Lucy’s paintings get at the humiliations and joys of having a body,” says my friend Zoe over the phone. I agree. A new kind of pleasure takes form, unregulated by social codes, employing humor and shame alike to overturn the familiar.
Some of Cartier Lucy’s paintings depict scenes of physical or emotional bondage, though it is bondage displaced from fetishism, the artist says in an interview with Sensitive Skin Magazine. In one painting, a young woman wears straps in her braided pigtails that she pulls with her feet, tugging her own hair as she lies naked on her stomach. In another, a woman, naked, blindfolded, and bound, is on the verge of being probed by two men in black masks who look like burglars, and there is nothing to suggest this was not the woman’s choice. “Chair Self-Portrait” shows a polite dinner scene, yet a woman has fallen to the floor, black hair covering her face, and her dining chair has landed on her back. In another work, a woman, wearing an oversized bow on her head and a similarly oversized belt buckle, has her forehead in her hand. The title of the painting? “Fooled Again.” The subjects in these paintings are women, not to politicize the work by gender, Cartier Lucy says, but because the paintings are personal.
Disorder and disordered thinking are arresting subjects in Cartier Lucy’s paintings, especially as they appear in defamiliarized domestic scenes. Much of the artist’s work is informed by her schizophrenic father’s neurodiversity, which she explores through highly specific displacements that invite us to question our traditional, inherited orders. Her painting of a goldfish bowl on a lit stovetop or a kitchen towel embroidered with the word “HUMILIATION” are prime examples:
Making ‘humiliation’ into a kitchen towel – that’s again a displacement so that it’s more that home life, in general, is the humiliation. The constraint of this weird human way we have of doing things is the humiliation. Having to be me within that is the humiliation.
In these works, and through Cartier Lucy’s interviews, I see the inevitability of shame as a human being under unregulated capitalism, where very little of what we do actually aligns with our values. I see the inevitability, even, of the comical surrender to shame on the way to acquiring some image of “sanity;” self-defined yet still socially accepted. I see the potential for grace or mystical uplift in the repetition of failure; daily, banal humiliations. It's a system that breaks you down until you come upon your own undiluted inner strength, again and again.
In Tala Madani’s paintings, men live outside the limits of daily life. They ejaculate, piss, defecate, and disco-dance their unrestricted wants upon the world. And yet, in an interview with ARTnews, Madani said, “Sometimes, for me, the ‘he’ in the paintings is not so different from myself. I don’t feel like I’m not talking about myself or my attitude.”
The Iranian-born American artist often uses grids, although they are soft, irregular, as if to empathetically soften the blow of imperial constraints over the individual while calling attention to their very real, very physical repercussions. Her vertical grids are reminiscent of prison bars, and when horizontal, the American flag.
In an esoteric move, Madani’s canvases depict light from projectors, which function to depict what gets projected from the body, the artist says. If not coming from a projector, the light comes directly from her caricatures’ chests or rear ends, glowing beams enveloping turds like flying saucers. The dichotomy of the physical light source reminds me of the distinction between Eros and Thanatos, Freud’s dual drives of sex/love/pleasure and fear/anxiety/death. In fact, some of Madani’s work brings to mind the phrase “perverse mysticism,” though of a playful, even childlike, variety, frank in its innocence.
In Madani’s paintings, we see ritual without purpose, private moments exposed, cartoonish treatments of group ecstasy and violence, and massive phalluses with nowhere to go, all invested with a surprising tenderness towards these figures who may not be so unlike ourselves, if our laws of the collective, or the ego, were to allow it.
In Madani’s animated short, “Shitmom” (2021) an animated mother made of shit leaves shit stains wherever she goes. Pristine rooms are defaced in her wake. She rubs her shit on the mirror, covering the shit of her face. She slips on her shit, runs upstairs, kicks her shitlegs back and forth as she lays face down on the bed. She regards a photograph, smudges it with shit, puts it back. Lies on the chaise. Rubs herself and flings the secretions on the wall. Masturbates until there’s a hole in her shitbody. Hits her head against the table until she has no head. Puts herself back together again. Shitmom attempts to clean up with a white washcloth, but only makes more of a mess. Or is this how she decorates?
Madani has described Shitmom as an embodiment of the anxiety of motherhood. By showing this anxiety-symbol as sexual, something is going on here that feels liberating, as if Shitmom is the personification of what everyone’s been thinking but has been afraid to say. Although what I'm taking as a liberating quality, the shit-spreading, the coming undone, is listless, roaming a beautiful mansion, and might be pointless in the end. We are left with the sense that in the morning, Shitmom’s routine will start all over again.
Portia Munson’s “Bound Angel” is a collection of found relics of the feminine form bound in a way that recalls at once capitalist desires, erotic choice, and loss of freedom. Most of the objects are either white or pink.
Standing before figurines of saints roped to a bust, I think of the visual contrast between accumulation and restraint, the collapsed distance between angelic and kitsch, and the entanglement of sex, pain, and worship conveyed by these slight reproductions of bodies that look like mine.
“Bound Angel” brings forth associations of congestion and uncontrolled development, as well as the trappings of the gendered, heteronormative romance industry, situations in which bodies are treated as ornaments; decorative fixtures, ultimately disposable in a sea of replicas.
Something about this strange collection strikes me as kind of funny—an element of dry humor, or irony—and so I think, too, of queer theorist David Halperin when he writes in the essay “Love’s Irony: Six Remarks on Platonic Eros,” “The three cardinal experiences that demand the elimination of irony, or that cannot survive irony, are raw grief or suffering, religious transport, and sexual passion. Little wonder then, if they tend to merge.” Munson brings irony back into the conversation of these topics by pushing the body ever further into its objectification, which somehow makes the object seem more alive.
It is fitting that the presentation of Munson’s bound figures recalls a funerary scene as much a wedding altar, outfitted with light bulbs instead of candles, and draped with wedding gowns, invoking both prayer and vow; Munson’s altars, simultaneously celebratory and mournful, maximalist and dainty, call attention to the impact the production of such objects has upon the land, and the repetition of like figures conjures a mystical aura around the gallery. It’s as if the more the objects accumulate, the smaller they must become, crowding onto the last isthmus for one terminal party.
A woman is deep-throating a man on a tarp in a dark field. Behind them is a large screen but we can’t make out what is being projected. The man says, “We’re going to start with suffocation training.” He counts to twenty slowly, holding the woman’s head as she suffocates on him. He pulls her back by her hair and she coughs violently. He says with an infantile lilt, “Go back to your art.” The woman crawls through his legs to an iPad propped up in the field and we see that what is being projected up ahead is Photoshop. She is making something. The woman gradually stops wheezing, takes focus. After a few seconds, the man says, “Come back.” She is suffocating again, this time to twenty-five. “Go back to your art.” By the sound of it, she could be crying now, fiddling with the cursor. Two moths fly by. Their shadows loom on the projection screen.
What we can see of the woman’s creative efforts is mauve with polka dots, what appears to be a cartoon dog face in yellow, broken by a spiral. She is working on color tone. Her face hidden by shadows, the woman’s focus on her work is the only potential source of rapture, and here it is self-contained, enclosed, created seemingly without regard for the man who encroaches from above. I am brought back to perverse mysticism, of which Gilles Deleuze writes in Coldness and Cruelty, “Eros is desexualized and humiliated for the sake of a resexualized Thanatos.”
Any psychological concept of ‘unconscious projection’ in art is likely not relevant to this video, the aim of which is ostensibly to get me off, but the seeming irrelevance of the artwork does inspire, in me at least, countless questions about what is going on inside the woman’s head. The inclusion of the artwork seems to only further drive home the fact of the woman’s privacy, its fundamental opacity. As far as answering my questions goes, the screen may as well be blank.
Maybe what fascinates me here is ultimately my own surprise at the utter strangeness I feel before a pornographic video with 57.3K views that portrays the woman as both object and subject of desire through art-making. Or maybe my surprise has nothing to do with gender, and more so the unexpected sense I get of an inextricable relationship repetition and ritual, debasement and worship, the carnal and the spiritual, humiliation and ego-obliteration in this privately mass-consumed, fetishistic content.
It seems important to note that no one orgasms in this video. Perhaps that is not the point. Also, the woman in question is porn star Rory Knox; in her Instagram bio she describes herself as a “psychonaut philosopher.”
Feeling a bit constrained by my lack of steady employment and the rising cost of rent, I watch another video, this time of a mystic pulling cards for my astrological sign. The reader says:
You are in the right place to build this web.
You are trying to ensnare this energy so dangerously safe.
This is tricky material. Healing, karmic, good in ancient ways.
Bad medicine is what you need now.
The ancestors are questioning you, but they know this is the right thing for you to do.
Your wishes will come true.
It’s like you’re in love and there’s no cure for it.
Use all of your deep, hidden emotions to make something.
Big energy is coming for you.
You’ve been sweating it out, preparing for a future dream.
You’re about to turn something around.
It’s an event that changes everything.
I try to embody these darkly optimistic messages imparted by a psychic with braces and graying hair that looks quite soft, who keeps breaking to sing “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi, a song I am now playing on my laptop. Drums partially drown out the psychic’s voice as I scroll through Hinge on my phone, talking to no one, writing a little poetry between swipes, apologizing to my ancestors, stumbling over my own thought from before, “The screen may as well be blank,” an idea I find slightly humiliating, and in this humiliation, an acceptance of vulnerability, an ebbing of stakes accompanied by a fugitive sense of my own freedoms in the face of the boundless space I have left to create.