“Conspicuous Femininity” and the Art of Victoria Gitman

March 12, 2015 • Culture, Fashion

“Untitled” (On Display), Victoria Gitman, 2001.

How do you make what is understood as unimportant into something of importance? How do you animate what is otherwise seen as static? How does a thrifted purse become an art object? And how do you grant presence to something that has been broadly absented across art’s history?

These are only a few of the questions that came to mind as I saw the work of Victoria Gitman in Miami over the weekend. The Argentinian-born Gitman poses as a painter, drawing on the technique and practice of the (white and male) Old Masters and 20th-century giants of the craft. As I walked up to the gallery inside PAMM (Pérez Art Museum Miami), I first saw small paintings of purses and necklaces. They were nice, almost photoreal, and exquisitely detailed. But I was unsure of their place within the museum, an institution which throughout its spaces boasted a number of works within the vein of what we usually view as the contemporary: an Alfredo Jaar, a Cao Fei video, a massive Gary Simmons installation.

The paintings of jewelry and thrifted clutches—from the 2002 series “On Display”—then started to speak in an unexpected way. The fur and beads that embellished each bag Gitman painted held a strong attractive force. In one painting of a red and white yak fur clutch, Gitman’s rendering of color imbued the texture of the fur with a depth that was not only surprising but absorptive and sensual. The technique recalled Freud’s passage on fur as a fetish object, as well as Le déjeuner en fourrure by Méret Oppenheim, a disruptively sensuous intervention into basic objects like cups and saucers.

“Untitled” (On Display), Victoria Gitman, 2013. Oil on board.

I sensed, soon enough, in these paintings an attention to the importance of fashion objects—even the most lowly or simple—in our lives. Repurposing the grand oil techniques of the Dutch Masters implies an investment in the represented object, an injection of value. In this case, however, Gitman deploys these painting techniques to reveal the value that was always already there: our psychic and affective connection to certain objects.

These paintings of bags and jewels simultaneously critique the expectations inherent in the act of looking at fine painting. Where painting is often used to venerate certain subjects—often topics or concerns coded as masculine—Gitman uses it as a display of what the wall text called “conspicuous femininity,” a glaring intervention into masculinist traditions of art in museums. “Conspicuous” seems to underscore something at the core of the work, as well: an attempt to render visible what has been absented in histories of art and on museum walls.

Where such thrifted accessories might otherwise be lost in history as ephemera and detritus, Gitman redeems them. The title “On Display” inserts them, furthermore, into a discourse of value, but Gitman does not stop there. “On Display” mimes the language of museums and auction houses that display fine jewelry as a series of stale, historicized (and at times de-feminized) objects; it suggests one who looks and one that is observed. Gitman’s practice activates the luxe jewelry, accenting the reflective surfaces of the fine jewels. We’re reminded, by this gesture, of an object’s interaction with the space around it and its ability to throw back at us our image.

Gitman’s renderings don’t simply represent necklaces and bags; it moves towards a representation of our often private, sensual interaction with fashion objects and the personal histories that arise from the creepy furs and scintillating necklaces that adorn our closets.

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