The Sensational Savage She-Hulk; courtesy of The New Museum
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“[The] giant female bodybuilder proves unthinking people wrong who believe feminine beauty can never be harmonious with well developed musculature.” This statement by the cartoonist R. Crumb could serve as the homily for Picturing The Modern Amazon, an exhibition at The New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Less an array of art than an exercise in sociology, the exhibition offers a glimpse into the world of female bodybuilding. The curators posit the title figure as a “dazzling transgression of mainstream gender norms, and as an avatar for women in the future.” The show includes photographs by Andres Serrano and Annie Liebovitz, a magazine cover featuring Norman Rockwell’s Rosie The Riveter, comic books like Wonder Woman, videos of the German aerialist Lusita Leers, and cartoons by the likes of Mr. Crumb.
The inclusion of Mr. Crumb is curious. Anyone familiar with his work knows that his take on “feminine beauty” is, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic. Taking into account a drawing that declaims “Big healthy girl enjoys deep penetration from the rear”, Mr. Crumb would seem to be an artist whose obsessions run counter to the exhibition’s strenuous brand of feminism.
The press release informs us, however, that Mr. Crumb’s cartoons evince the “fear and desire” elicited by hyper-muscular Barbies. (The latter phrase is borrowed from a window installation, Hyper-muscular Barbies, done by a group of high-school students as part of the New Museum’s outreach program.)
That the curators have included drawings by a cartoonist renowned for his misogyny suggest they have a sense of humor; it also reiterates that politics makes for strange (and sometimes unsavory) bedfellows. Yet notwithstanding some fun circus memorabilia, Picturing the Modern Amazon is off-putting in its narrowness. By celebrating a subculture that transmutes physical fitness into an extreme ritual of self-regard, the curators prove they have more in common with Mr. Crumb and his fetish for big healthy girls than would, at first, seem likely.
Count Picturing the Modern Amazon as another example of an art scene beyond the ken of parody and wonder about the diminishing returns on the politics of marginality.
© 2000 Mario Naves
Originally published in the June 19, 2000 edition of The New York Observer.