Through a veil brightly: recent works by Deborah Paauwe
Deborah Paauwe's imagery circulates between art photography and erotica as the artist seduces and assaults the gaze. Paauwe engages with a labyrinthine gaze that Lacan charts as a map full of traps and misrecognitions
In this series of photographs the artist accentuates the screen aspects of the Lacanian gaze, framing this quite literally for the viewer by using a veil to shroud and figures. The body is seen through a screen of translucent material, enticing the voyeuristic desires of the spectator. The bodies are soaked in and through the veil, making indents and traces in the material, as the subject becomes index.
The veil produces a sensuous affect at the same time as it shrouds the image giving it an auratic, ghostly shield. The veiling of the female form has sensual, religious and ideological aspects: it is simultaneously erotic and sinister
The erotic aspects of the photographs position them within a discourse about the objectification of the female form for the male gaze. The images are both dangerous and playful. They capture a coming of age, a transition from childhood to adult sexuality, and they engage with and unsettle the gaze through association with larger issues. Paauwe plays with the gaze and the construction of the female subject by getting her models to perform scenes. The performative aspects of the photographs need to be considered - it is this artifice that separates the images from 'real' life. There is no document being recorded. These are not real scenes captured by the camera as a mute witness. These pictures are made as art. Some consciously reference the history of photography. Porcelain, for example, could be read as a feminisation of Edward Weston's famous photograph of his son, Neil, titled Nude Torso (1922), that was appropriated by Sherrie Levine in the 1980s to make a statement about great masters and authorship. However, Paauwe's rendition goes beyond parody. It is a homage to the flesh but whereas Weston and other modernist photographers stressed the form of the image, Paauwe seems to make the flesh ephemeral. The touch of the fingertips on the chest is delicate but haunting. The tips of the fingers appear bruised or dirty and they set up an unnerving contrast to the clean white flesh and the lace bodice
On one level we can encounter Paauwe's photographs as beautiful, sensuous pictures but they also arose suspicion and collide with social issues. Our society is not comfortable with the concept of female sexuality. For centuries it has been cast in the shadow of a phallic discourse in which men and male virility take centre stage. Woman is not empowered in the same way by this discourse although, especially post feminism, she is free to adopt it. The language of the Father privileges a one dimensional - some might say totalitarian - view of the world, the universe and nature, through the imposition and construction of language. Woman is not all in this discourse, she is an unknown outsider, an other. In classical psychoanalysis woman is lack but the same discourse insists that desire is lack and that desire is the desire of the other. From a psychoanalytic perspective although The woman may not exist, women are more likely to experience a pleasure (a jouissance) beyond the phallus.
Other photographs in the series emphasise a sensual and erotic relationship between two females. The age of the models is ambiguous, in some images we appear to see an adult and a child. In Blue Kiss we assume a maternal moment: as the mother's pink dress penetrates the blue chiffon of the daughter's dress. Again Paauwe makes this a difficult scene: the child's left foot appears bruised and the position of the two figures is difficult to fathom. The child is seen laying down on a surface covered with red material. As viewers we try to fill out the narrative. It's the pathology of the gaze - a desire to complete the picture. To know what it is, thus helping to make the image safe in our visual repertoire, and our social unconscious. These images of mother and child transgress conventional codes. In this photograph the notion of the 'good mother' is unsettled. It is as if the mother was pulling the child into her body, into her maternal space, and yet the mother's body also seems to penetrate the child, or push into the space of the child's body. In classical psychoanalysis the mother gains phallic status (social status in the symbolic) through having a child. In Lacan's terms the child represents the phallus for the mother. Paauwe seems to be playing around with this concept, presenting a soft veiled phallus. There is a ghosting quality in this image. If one looks carefully the mother's pink dress seems to contain an eye but the veil of the material obscures the rest of this imaginary 'face'. There is an uncanny and surrealistic affect in this image, hidden in the woman's skirt.
The legacy of surrealism can be seen most explicitly in the metamorphosis of the body in Pink Obscured. There is an uncanniness to this image that would have appealed to the renegade surrealists associated with Bataille and the journal Documents. Pink Obscured appears at first glance to be another image of two female bodies cropped at the waist, lying side by side under a veil. Yet on closer examination it becomes apparent that the legs of one figure have become fingers. Furthermore these are old fingers and they contrast with the youthful body from which they emerge. This picture inserts a nasty edge into the realm of the beautiful, creating a deathly punctum, in Roland Barthes terms.
The coupling of adolescent or adult females punctuates this exhibition as Paauwe presents us with entwined legs, soft caresses, and the touch of hands. These are erotic pictures that appear to represent a post coital bliss shrouded in reds and pinks or perhaps it's just girlie play in the bedroom. But feminine sexuality is anonymous in these photographs; there are no heads or faces and the gaze is not returned. Paauwe is teasing the gaze, underlining the voyeurism of the spectator, and thus planting trouble through the image. One can experience a pleasure in looking at these images but the beautiful and the innocent are repeatedly disrupted by a visual syntax that inserts doubt.
© Anne Marsh 2002