The Drawers - Betty Tompkins   Commentary written by Julie Oakes

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Betty Tompkins

Big, strong, aggressive imagery, indecorous subject matter, explicit content - all words that describe a phallic centric orientation. Tompkins redresses a subject, one that had been a specifically male point of view and does justice with a female perspective on the same issues.

Standing up to the possibility of being deemed an 'unwomanly woman', she takes the initiative and directs her gaze and hence her attention upon the act of copulation. Referring to French philosophical writings on the gaze, this is a male attribute. When the object is seen or captured by the gaze, the consummation of the male gaze upon the object takes place.

She chooses a technique that distances herself from a tactile involvement in the rendering. Take the drawings, or paintings, where the mark has been made by stamping a word or a number of words, over and over again so that they form a crosshatching on the pristine white paper and model the subject matter. The word itself - speaking out - is seated firmly within the male realm as it is a didactic, outgoing expression of self, as opposed to the female 'listening' position. On a closer inspection of Tompkin's renditions of this very private, intimate act, the words used to render the figure become clear. It is, in this instance 'cunt' and 'cow' repeatedly stamped so that the words form the pubis and vaginal lips.

Betty Tomkins could be called a feminist philosopher for she has taken on an issue that is not traditionally familiar to women - the close scrutiny and subsequent depiction (blown hugely out of scale) of the sex act. It is an unflinching call to attention. Gustave Courbet's painting The Origin of the World made a frank statement that the human species all passed through the woman's sex on their way in to this world. Tompkins traces the origins of the world back further to the pro-creational duality. It is not the woman's genitals alone that are the source of birth. The genital union between the male and the female is the source. Perhaps Courbet was saying that the sight of the female, as the object captured by his gaze, is the provocation for the eventual act of sex that will let loose the sperm and fertilise the egg? Tomkins is explicit. Human life is the result of a grand and momentous moment. And humans also have the extra bonus of experiencing pleasure with no other end in mind than the 'boink' (another Tompkins stamp).

There has been a massive politicisation of the ways we have become accustomed, and allowed to view sex, especially for women who have been historically 'protected' from seeing the sex act. After all, biologically, it is difficult for a woman to see herself having sex without the help of a mirror. Men can have sex and watch.

It took a feisty woman to monumentalise the genitals, using the popular vernacular ('cunt', 'cock', 'fuck') in the titles in place of the clinically correct terminology, and to come up with a handsome product in doing so.

Julie Oakes Copyright 2008 Headbones Gallery