If you were to open an art history book and look at any artwork after the Greek and Hellenistic (850 b.c.–31 b.c.) you’ll notice that the he most common recurring subject aside from war, was women. Depictions of women vary from culture to culture and period to period, yet what does not change is the gaze of both the painter and the audience. It’s well documented that the majority of well-known artisans were male, after all women were expected to bear children and run the household – this their learning activities centered around child rearing and home development. From the Greek period of art all the way through the Baroque era (1600–1750) a woman was typically controlled by her parents from her childhood until they handed her off to a husband; moreover, women were frequently discouraged from entering the arts and sciences which meant they had little power to exert over how they were portrayed. This lack of participation in the arts was a primary contributing factor to what is known as the male gaze. Here is a brief breakdown of the male gaze concept for those unfamiliar with the term:
The male gaze occurs when the [canvas] puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman’s body, for instance. The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the [painting], as well as for the spectator. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. – This is Not Sex: A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose.
While the term male gaze was not present until second-wave feminism, it can be applied retroactively on top of a great number of art periods that came before film’s inception. The reason I’m bringing up the male gaze is because despite having a large number of contemporary female artists, we still come across the gaze in almost all advertising media forms. This is somewhat (and depressingly) expected as “sex sells”, or so advertisers exclaim. What strikes me is when artists who engage in more traditional art forms continue to create works that revel in the male gaze. Perhaps the greatest personification of the contemporary male gaze is the Korean artist Hoyron Lee.
Hoyron has an impressive background of both solo and group exhibitions; his most recent accolades include being featured at Galerie Simon Nolte (Illes Balears, Spain), Galerie Michael Nolte (Münster, Germany), and Gallery Rho (Seoul, Korea). In fact, it was his numerous exhibitions that gave me pause when attempting to digest his work. I thought to myself “A lot of people are really into voyeurism lately”. Usually, that alone would not be enough of a reason for me to question anyone’s artwork as there is usually some faffery of a description to validate whatever terrible art a person creates. Hoyron however, has not a single description for any of his art pieces. As I attempted to research his work, I found myself coming across the term “erotic”.
Everyone who posted, tweeted, favourited, and spoke of his work seemed to only be able to describe his work as erotic. It started to become clear that the word erotic was being used to not only describe the work, but separated it from pure pornography. The line between pornography has always be a thin one and the word erotic has always been a very solid defense to employ when an artist’s work is called into question. The most notable difference between erotic artwork and pornographic artwork is that erotic art removes the viewers responsibility entirely. The audience does not feel the uncomfortable, societal shame associated with viewing pornography and can engage the work as if it were nothing more than the Mona Lisa.
“[His Work] is dirty and uncomfortable [as well as] is grotesque and demeaning. I think what makes it worse than just portraying women as a piece of meat is that he felt the need to make an entire series out of it.” British Art Critic, Zola Paulse
The ease at which some are able to engage with Hoyron’s work reminds me of the popular American Apparel ads that employed many of the same voyeuristic tactics. Here is a sample of one of their marketing campaign ads. I don’t know what they were trying to advertise honestly:
Now take a look at Hoyron’s paintings and you’ll hopefully pick up on a few similarities:
What stands out is the purposeful removal of the female’s face in both the advertisements and paintings. If you were to include the face, you would then place the viewer in a precarious spot where they would have to make a conscious decision as to whether or not they wanted to objectify the woman. By removing the face, as well as any emotion it might carry, objectification becomes easy. We are simply looking at a dressed up piece of flesh and bear no responsibility in how we choose to engage it.
I find Hoyron’s work is fascinating in the same way that I am continually fascinated by human’s propensity for violence – that is to say, I’m disgusted. It takes a lot for me (a man) to feel uncomfortable in situations where women are objectified; so to that end I congratulate Hoyron Lee for a job well done. He has managed to flourish in the art world of antiquated notions of the relationship between viewer and object.