OCMA's 'State of Mind' Show Us Its Tits?

The Newport Beach museum's exhibit includes the less-sexy, more powerful side of self-exposing females

A few weeks after my piece about Barbara T. Smith's 1981 "Birthdaze" performance ran ("The Angry Penis Lives"), a friend of mine's artist husband emailed me that he'd once performed a response to Smith by walking around Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a chambermaid's uniform and a ski mask "to get a female perspective." Recently, I read an article at the Huffington Post about the "iPorn Girls" who showed up at an Apple conference in May to promote their iPorn app, and in the comments section beneath the piece, a woman wrote, "As long as they take off their clothes and spread their legs, women aren't taken seriously." A male responded, "If the majority of people waiting in line [at the conference] were females, then you would have seen iPorn Speedo Men."

I thought about it for moment and realized he was correct—if all of the females in line were actually drag queens. No offense to drag queens, but men in Speedos aren't really a woman-enticing dangling carrot—metaphorically speaking, of course. The through-line in these seemingly disparate stories is that merely putting on a skimpy lady outfit and seeing how men ogle him can broaden a man's knowledge of the female experience and that women are driven to sexual impulse by the same things that drive men. In short, it's the claim that men and women think, feel and react the same way to sexuality, making the only difference between them a pair of high heels, apparently.

The argument that both sexes are the same is only embraced when a guy is adamantly defending some questionable guy behavior, of course—not when men and women are vying for the same jobs (such as, say, president of the United States?). The distinction between equal in worth and equal in DNA is important and one that women's movements in the 1970s attempted to address; in doing so, they propelled that generation's female creators to expand their art and, often, in order to be heard, expose their bodies. There was nothing sexy about it, and that was the point.

Freudian phallic frolic!
Barbara T. Smith, 'Field Piece'
Freudian phallic frolic!

Location Info


Orange County Museum of Art

850 San Clemente Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Category: Museums

Region: Newport Beach


"State of Mind" at Orange County Museum of Art, www.ocma.net. Open Wed. & Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Jan. 22, 2012. $10-$12; children under 12, free.

In the Orange County Museum of Art's Pacific Standard Time offering, "State of Mind," curators Constance Lewallen and Karen Moss have assembled a significant array of conceptual and experimental art from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, with a healthy dose of females who pushed their boundaries and bodies into controversy. Among the 60 artists represented, only 12 are women, but their contributions are poignant and often overshadow their male counterparts in culturally significant concepts. (John Baldessari's photos of balls thrown into the air in an attempt to form a straight line are a classic, but somehow, viewing photos of Suzanne Lacy eating chicken parts while nude—with each of her own appendages laid on the table as she eats the corresponding poultry—is more compelling, in addition to making one think twice about eating chicken.)

Smith also makes an appearance in this arena—a half-dozen times, in fact—and her infamous performance Feed Me, which has been misunderstood for decades, is finally explained. In it, Smith sat nude on bedding in a public bathroom while surrounded by various foods, books and pot. Everyone entering the space would hear a recording of her asking to be fed, and they would have to decide what to offer her. Some men mistakenly believed Smith was there to pleasure them or be defiled (years before iPorn education); in reality, Smith created an environment of female empowerment in which she received or rejected offerings from spectators and, regardless of being "vulnerable" and naked, remained in total control of her world and the people in it.

In Dressing Up, Susan Mogul also explores the power of nude but in a reverse context. Appearing in a video performance in which she enacts a humorous, backward striptease of sorts, Mogul stuffs her mouth with snacks and endlessly yammers away as she puts on her clothes—three activities that are not part of the sexy-woman lexicon. Likewise, Nancy Buchanan plays with female taboos in Hair Transplant, in which she pasted her own shorn hair, tightly curled and dyed red, onto her nude male participant's face, no doubt in front of a squirming audience.

Most of what's in "State of Mind" is not nude women, of course, including Martha Rosler's terrific photographic juxtapositions of violence and images from ladies' magazines, as well as Eleanor Antin's haunting series of photographs of rows of soldiers' boots placed in various un-militarized locations—but the nudes are the most compelling. In most renowned museums, the art is by men but of nude women, and thus there's an excellent reversal of misfortune in this show—and it's a concept worth revisiting.

This review appeared in print as "Show Us Your Tits? OCMA's 'State of Mind' includes the less sexy, more powerful side of self-exposing females."