Margo Hobbs Thompson1
As she concluded her May 2009 keynote address to the National Association of Women Artists, Linda Stein remarked, “Gender constructions and gender constrictions. How do we find the courage, the bravery to break these molds?”2 Her series of Knights, begun in 2002, guides the viewer toward empowerment in the face of sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression. Since 2007, the Knights have evolved from static totemic personages mounted on the wall to suits of armor animated by their wearers. They are trickster figures in their shape-shifting potentialities. Stein encourages the viewer to imagine what it is like to slip into another skin, to swap bodies and shift genders.
The oldest work on view, Knight of Wishing 557 [fig. 3] is an excellent example of the hieratic figures Stein made to hang on the wall, like guardians. As it did for so many, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001 had a profound effect on Stein, whose studio was within earshot of the planes exploding and who ran north, holding hands with her studio assistants, to escape what she feared was a bomb attack. She witnessed the towers’ collapse. In the aftermath of that day, Adorno’s remark about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz seemed newly relevant;3 Stein, like others in the fine arts and literature, found it difficult to resume her creative work and did not make sculpture for a year afterwards. When she returned to the studio, she discovered that she no longer worked abstractly, but sculpted vertical forms that were figurative and undeniably, if unintentionally, feminine. She has explored and refined these guardians or shields in the years since in a dialectical process in which every work answers some formal or philosophical questions while it poses new ones. Power 581 [fig. 2] and Knight of Wishing 557 [fig. 3] look as though they have been salvaged from a ruined site, formed out of urban debris fused by intense heat and compression. The hard surfaces of the embedded metal and stone bring to mind the trinitite produced when New Mexico sand melted under the force of atomic test blasts, or the petrified relics of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The dense conglomeration of material makes these figures heavy and impenetrable, like a suit of armor—hence Knights.
More recent works, such as Knight at Ease 652 [figs. 4-6] and Heroic Compassion 665 [fig. 1, front cover], are meant to be worn, with divided articulated legs and adjustable Velcro straps [fig. 7]. They still resemble armor, but for mobile samurai warriors4, not medieval gallants. The materials are densely packed and incorporate elements that demand to be read and decoded: found security badges and an Asian deity in Heroic Compassion, and comic strips and commercial texts in Knight at Ease. The dominant iconography is feminine: Stein incorporates images of the DC Comics hero Wonder Woman and the anime Princess Mononoke. But on the whole, these suits of armor are androgynous; as Jann Matlock observed in her 2007 article on Stein, armor situates the wearer outside expected gender categories—Joan of Arc, for example, was unwomanly but not masculine in her armor.5 Stein enhances this gender ambiguity by making the Knights’ waists slender but not hourglass shaped, and their pectorals prominent but not breast-like. Their pubic areas offer no clues.6
Stein takes gender seriously, as an artist and as an activist. In this regard, her work bears comparison with some of the feminist artists whom curators and art historians have recently reconsidered in exhibitions such as WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution and Global Feminisms.7 Printmaker and installation artist Nancy Spero, for example, made a commitment in the mid-1970s to picture only female figures and to represent women as protagonists. Like Spero, Stein is interested in female empowerment and she references feminine archetypes. She is more concerned than Spero, however, in exploring the borders and limits that define gender: its construction and constraints. Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 video, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman seems at first to share, if not predict, Stein’s fascination with the female super-hero. But Birnbaum’s work—of which Stein was until recently unaware—is above all a critique of the mass media’s objectification of women, and she neither liberates the media icon nor explores the archetype she represents. Stein locates Wonder Woman’s value as a role model, and through her examines her own artistic project. As a life-long pacifist, Stein was discomfited to recognize that her figurative sculptures were warriors especially in the context of the masculinization of the so-called war on terror that escalated after 9/11. Wonder Woman offered an alternative: she was a defender of those who needed her protection without being bellicose. Stein adapted other heroines in her pantheon of strong and benevolent protectors: the Asian goddess of mercy Kannon or Kuan-yin (referred to by several different names, and who in some cultures is both man and woman) who answers all appeals and alleviates suffering, and the anime Princess Mononoke (from the 1997 film by Hayao Miyazaki) who was raised by wolves and fights on the side of the animals against human destruction of her beloved forest [fig. 11]. Stein’s Knights are not just symbolic guardians in the uneasy, post-9/11 world: they articulate new gender positions where strength and mercy do not belong exclusively to one sex or the other.
Wonder Woman’s creator set himself a similar task in 1941 when he imagined his heroine as both strong and alluring. William Moulton Marston drew upon Greek mythology for his Amazon princess, whom he endowed with attributes belonging to goddesses, gods, and heroes: Athena’s wisdom, Aphrodite’s beauty, Hermes’ fleetness, and Herakles’ strength. She leaves the land of the Amazons, Paradise Island, with her bullet-deflecting bracelets, invisible telekinetic plane, and golden lasso of obedience (later the lasso of truth) to bring peace and justice to the world of men.8 An important contradiction informs Wonder Woman’s genesis, which Kelli E. Stanley explores in her 2005 analysis of the comic book super-hero. Female warriors were forbidden in patriarchal cultures like ancient Greece, yet the mythical Amazon was adopted to legitimize Athenian authority; the Amazon, who in her very nature was opposed to patriarchy, was the Other by and through which the patriarchy defined itself. The latter-day Amazon Wonder Woman, at once taboo and desired, metamorphosed over the decades “to reflect nothing less than the confusion, fear, and constant reformation of American ideals about American women” according to Stanley.9 As Stein has mobilized her once more, we might ask what Wonder Woman signifies in the post-9/11 age, what ideals of American womanhood she reflects. How does she embody these ideals, and to what extent does she subvert them?
In Stein’s hands, Wonder Woman advances the artist’s intention to recognize feminine strength and valor that are disavowed in the masculine and feminine positions that structure our society. Stein, in her NAWA address and elsewhere, speaks movingly of the way gender stereotypes were reified after 9/11 in the media and official discourse to make all the heroes men (soldiers and first responders), and the victims women (the 9/11 widows most prominently). Fundamentally, Stein’s recent art is about disturbing the binaries that organize our society and that we accept unquestioningly as natural. The masculine and feminine polarities that she investigates are easily mapped onto other structuring dichotomies in which each term has gender connotations: public and private, culture and nature, mind and body. This last is a compelling pair to consider for its philosophical implications, an argument Elizabeth Grosz develops in her book Volatile Bodies. For Grosz, the body and gendered subjectivity are tightly interlinked in all fields of knowledge.10 She calls for a complete rethinking of the body that would acknowledge its centrality to cultural and subjective formations and predicts the repercussions: “developing alternative accounts of the body may create upheavals in the structure of existing knowledges, not to mention in the relations of power governing the interactions of the two sexes.”11 In short, Grosz believes that reconceptualizing the body will lead to the realization that the masculine/feminine relationship is complex and mutually implicated, not a polarized binary and that this in turn will undermine the patriarchal system that places constraints on women and men, and their bodies, alike.12 Grosz sketches a set of considerations and concerns that attend a feminist rethinking of the body, and several of these help to illuminate Stein’s project.
Stein explores “embodied subjectivity” with her wearable Knights, a term Grosz favors because it stresses the interdependence of the mind and body.13 The Knights stage an experience of the tight connection between mind and body: wearing one, the viewer may find herself suffused with a new consciousness that originates in the new body she has taken on. This new sensation is dramatically recorded in the videotapes Stein has made of visitors to her studio trying on various Knights.14 A man wearing W 629 reported, “I feel stronger … I feel more of a sense of power. I feel like I’m protected and safe.” Another man wearing the same piece expounded, “Wow, I feel like a pregnant woman” as he caressed the swelling metal belly of the sculpture. “I feel like I’ve got a really big womb … like an earth mother” [fig. 14]. Jann Matlock and Ann V. Bible have both written about the haptic quality of Stein’s sculpture.15 Art historian Linda Nochlin associated a haptic, or touch-based approach to space with art by women.16 More provocatively, film historian Laura U. Marks advanced a concept of “haptic visuality” to describe a feminist mode of video art that avoided the problematic male gaze by activating other senses in the viewer besides sight. She drew upon the theories of early 20th-century art historian Alois Reigl, who posited that art advanced as it abandoned tactile physicality in favor of visual space. By reviving the haptic, Marks argued, feminists undermined the very logic of art history that excluded women’s art.17 In a presupposed hierarchy of senses, sight is less corporeal, more spiritual, and touch is more bound to the body. Reigl’s progression towards visuality traces a mind-body split; the aesthetic experience is increasingly cereberal as the eyes become the privileged means of apprehension. Stein’s use of the haptic as a mode of address is evident in the gloriously tactile surfaces of her Knights with their varied textures and materials. Engaging the viewer’s body imaginatively or literally, in the pieces to be worn, Stein incorporates alternatives to the primacy of visuality for understanding her sculptures and reactivates the viewer’s sense of embodiment.
Art historian David Getsy, in his book on Victorian sculpture and aesthetic theory Body Doubles, identified the trace of sculptural experience left to the viewer’s memory as an imago, not an image. While a picture may be recalled instantly and fully as an image, a sculpture resists such mental summary, because encountering a sculpture is a haptic and temporal experience, not only visual. An imago, a term Getsy borrowed from psychology, is “a nexus in which memories, perceptions, bodily sensations, and tangential associations all engage and play.”18 The power of Stein’s Knights to fully engage the viewer’s body and through it the psyche in this way is clearly expressed in the videotapes of studio visitors wearing Vestment 628 [fig. 21]. For one woman, it triggered memories of her mother’s recent death in a profoundly experiential way: “This feels like turning into a corpse. … It’s as if part of my body is starting to calcify and become cold… so I don’t like this, can you get it off!” [fig. 20] But for a male visitor, the experience was enlighteningly androgynous: “There’s a celebratory feeling … and simultaneously there’s a feeling of hmm, this is a tough row to hoe, being female” [fig. 17].
These two strong and distinct reactions to the same sculpture demonstrate that Stein’s Knights do not prescribe a singular new ideal body type, and the artist thus avoids the philosophical misstep of replacing the terms of hegemony while its oppressive framework remains unaltered. Grosz cautions that a hegemonic norm or ideal based on a single body type must not be produced as a substitute for the existing corporeal ideal (which is masculine, white, bourgeois, young, and able); she prefers a field of types, each with its own specificity, non-homogenous, and multiple.19 Swapping matriarchy for patriarchy, as in some Goddess art from the 1970s and in Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party of 1979, has contributed to judgments of feminist art as simplistic and essentialist. Substituting powerful women for powerful men—Wonder Woman for Superman, say—tends to leave the hierarchical structure, and the constitutive power relations, in place. The Knights offer an ideal in that the artist intends them to uplift, to convey a positive message of peace and protection, but the principles take a variety of physical forms. In Heroic Line-Up 599 [fig. 25], for example, Stein’s patron saints are on prominent display: Wonder Woman is arrayed across the sculpture’s chest, Princess Mononoke across the hips. Here are two versions of an empowered female figure, the gamine princess and the voluptuous super-hero, and the sculptural form they compose resembles neither body type but is instead androgynous, lacking secondary sexual characteristics. As noted previously, armor allows gender to be transcended, if temporarily. Silver Knight 666 [figs. 23-24] is not obviously feminine, despite the rounded pectorals and images of Wonder Woman, nor definitively masculine, although the torso is broad and powerful. With these and other pieces, Stein seems to be working out the problem of embodied subjectivity and body ideals by insisting that morphology does not predict gender or its formative stereotypes.
Despite the fluidity of gender that Stein represents as an alternative to the dominant ideal that, in Grosz’s words, “may be undermined through a defiant affirmation of a multiplicity, a field of differences, of other kinds of bodies and subjectivities,”20 her Knights are also visibly inscribed by social forces. Indeed, the recognizable materials and the slightly legible texts remind the viewer that culture produces the body and redefining the body produces a shift in gendered subjectivity—which in turn may transform culture. Knights like Heroic Compassion 665 make literal the way culture defines the body with its repetition of images of Wonder Woman and proliferation of texts, which the artist explains are not superficially applied to the sculptural form but materially constitute that form and are effectively identical with it. Image and text, the materials of cultural reproduction, produce the tangible body.
Stein’s sculptures, in turn, work on the viewer’s body, through the imago they produce in memory and when they are worn in the staged encounter Stein calls Body-Swapping. The artist takes advantage of sculpture’s haptic qualities, its scale and tactility, to create surrogate bodies. Trying on new bodily constructions and constraints, the viewer may experience a shift in her embodied subjectivity. This is not to say that a different gender identification ensues, but rather that wearing Stein’s Knights allows one to explore the contours of one’s gendered subjectivity. Suited up in Stein’s armor, the viewer experiences empathy with other corporeal types. From this new perspective, the viewer may imagine upheavals in existing knowledge structures, new power relationships among the genders.
1. Dr. Margo Hobbs Thompson is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She has published on gender and art in n. paradoxa, Genders, and GLQ.
2. Stein’s PowerPoint lecture, “The Chance to Be Brave, The Courage to Dare” was delivered at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, New York City, May 20, 2009.
3. Theodor Adorno was a German philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxian social research. He made the statement in “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society” (1949; repr. in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967).
4. Note that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is exhibiting “Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156–1868,”
from October 21, 2009–January 10, 2010
5. Jann Matlock, “Vestiges of New Battles: Linda Stein’s Sculpture after 9/11,” Feminist Studies 3, no. 33 (Fall 2007), 569.
6. During her lectures, Stein often asks young children “Is this sculpture a boy or a girl? What makes you think that?”
7. Organized by curator Cornelia Butler, WACK! opened at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007 and traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Art historian Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly, Founding Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, curated Global Feminisms, opening at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007.
8. Kelli E. Stanley, ” ‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios 32, no. 2 (2005), 145, 147.
9. Stanley, 145.
10. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 19.
11. Grosz, 20.
12. Grosz, 20-1.
13. Grosz, 21-2.
14. Stein’s video Body-Swapping is accessible from YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=shOqGEvwwHg
15. Matlock as in first footnote; Ann V. Bible, “Ruptures of Vulnerability: Linda Stein’s Knight Series,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, forthcoming 2010.
16. Matlock, 586.
17. Laura U. Marks, “Video Haptics and Erotics,” Screen 39, no. 4 (Winter 1998), 332, 335.
18. David J. Getsy, Body Doubles: Sculpture in Britain, 1877-1905 (The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 37.
19. Grosz, 22-3.
20. Grosz, 19.