I first saw Jennifer Rubell’s Lysa on Instagram’s Explore tab. The sculpture, a blonde-haired mannequin cracking a walnut between her thighs, immediately caught my eye. With a little research, I learned the artist’s intent: a riff on the ball-busting working woman caricature of 1980s feminism. Soon, similar images of female bodies started popping up on my radar ― a beautiful female nude sculpture made with strip-club-style neon signage (think the classic “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS”), by Mira Dancy; young women dressed like surreal children’s dolls, by Annie Collinge; and a RealDoll sex toy photographed in Vermeer-style settings, by Laurie Simmons.
It became obvious to me that these works weren’t just a one-off or a niche art trend but were part of a wider feminist movement that uses dolls, effigies, and appropriations of women’s bodies to stake a claim in the male-dominated art world. The artists I’ve brought together in my book Play With Me: Dolls – Women – Art are the new avant-garde. Using extreme and sexually explicit materials, they are on the fringes of contemporary art, much like second-wave feminist artists Cindy Sherman, Lynda Benglis, and Hannah Wilke, who, in the 1970s, were some of the first to controversially represent women’s bodies from a female viewpoint.
The work of the artists in my book — among them Zoe Buckman, Elena Dorfman, Josephine Meckseper, Isa Genzken, and Kezban Arca Batibeki — is different from that of their predecessors, but they continue to position the female gaze as essential to the way we see images of women today. Their work is political and plays an important part in modern feminism: Artists like Lee Bul use robotics to frame the worrying impact artificial intelligence could have on the female body; Martine Gutierrez uses shop mannequins to assert gender nonconformity as an identity, not just a trend; and Stacy Leigh challenges the male gaze and the commodification of feminism in her photographs, including Fake Girl, Fake Pearl.
The work of these artists comes at a time when women in creative industries need it the most. Like many fields, the art world remains relentlessly white and geared to the male view. Linda Nochlin’s 1979 essay Why Are There No Great Women Artists? is just as relevant now as it was then. She writes: “In the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may — and does — prove to be inadequate … because it is elitist.” Nochlin wrote her essay nearly 40 years ago, but the injustice to women artists has still not been undone.
In light of the Weinstein revelations and the blacklisting of fashion photographer Terry Richardson, the art world is finally beginning to crack down on its own male bias. On October 29, 1,800 women, including Cindy Sherman, Miranda July, Barbara Kruger, and Catherine Opie, signed an open letter on the website Not Surprised asserting that they would no longer tolerate institutions that offer a tokenistic embracement of feminism while maintaining sexist practices.
Change is coming from the artists, not the institutions. The success of these women and the widespread impact of this female-body-centric art is powerful. Through their work, they’re creating a new feminist mainstream.
Now, here's a look inside the book.
Grace Banks is the author of Play With Me: Dolls – Women – Art (Laurence King Publishing) and a journalist writing about culture and gender for The Guardian, The New York Times, Broadly, Interview magazine, AnOther, VICE, Al Jazeera, and others.