Bea is a Turkish-born American visual artist. Her work can be viewed here.
I sat down with her to reflect on the experience of erotic expression in painting and poetry.
You can listen to this conversation here.
AA: Can you tell us a little bit about your art practice?
BB: I belong to what is sometimes termed “outsider art,” which is a category for self-taught artists who create work intuitively, with little or no formal training and no artistic community. I have degrees and coursework in art history, but I have no direct communication with the contemporary art world. A lot of my work is trial and error; I experiment with any medium I can get my hands on. One unifying voice across my work is my inspiration—female body, desire, and erotic expression.
AA: What does erotic mean in the context of art?
BB: Traditionally erotic implies an intended viewer’s response, but for me it isn’t necessarily limited to that. The erotic could be anything from sexual content or nudity to a sensual suggestion that evokes a feeling in the minds of others. I often place emphasis on emotional states rather than acts. I would even consider a certain kind of smile or knowing glance, erotic. The “come hither” look of Hollywood femme fatales like Mae West, Lana Turner, and Barbara Stanwyck spoke volumes without revealing any skin. It implied eroticism, perhaps longing, or even the possibility of future intimacy. The erotic takes shape in our minds. But I use the word ‘sensual’ more, because erotic is a specifically sexual expression; sensual is a more generous term, including other types of intimacy and tenderness. In my work, sometimes nudity is happenstance—not an attempt to arouse, but a way to communicate honesty, vulnerability, confidence, or defiance. My uncloaked and unencumbered self.
AA: In poetry, the erotic also has to do with the desired result of arousal or seduction. I don’t like the word arousal because it feels like a weird mix of clinical distance and condescension....it isn’t a reciprocal description. Intimacy implies more than one person. A person can be sensual alone. Explicit also feels problematic because it refers to censorship and warning, a line being crossed.
BB: I don’t feel comfortable with most of the labels on this subject, because they are reductive and limiting—and many of them are fraught with associations and implications that have little relation to my projects. I use erotic themes—nudity, the female gaze, the female body, landscapes of desire—but I don’t think I make erotic art. My work draws on my desires, experiences, fantasies, visions of myself, moods, emotions... My “Partitions” series are mood portraits. I map different layers, identities, roles, moods, emotions, and states of existence as fields of colors and patterns. I wanted to convey a sense of how our personhood is divided and situational. This series features nude self-portraiture, but it is not meant to be erotic.Sensuality and intimacy are always a part of me, and my refusal to excise or censor these thoughts makes them an underlying theme in my work.
AA: This experience of compartamentalizing our different styles of being is as common in writing as it has become in social life—usually to the exclusion of anything erotic. Sexual content is in general considered unpoetic, although longing and desire are classic subjects. Rape is also a subject. Some modernists address their struggles with sexuality (Eliot’s Prufrock, “Do I dare to eat a peach?”)-but until recently we have not had much variety on that. In general, sexual references are frowned upon, even in everyday speech. It’s considered vulgar, crude, cheap. Think of the euphemism, ‘bumping uglies’, and the many food related slurs having to do with our sexual parts. I also think of the degradation implied by Shakespeare’s “The beast with two backs”, or common phrases like “doing the nasty”.
AA: Can you talk more specifically about how you draw on erotic themes in your work?
BB: How directly I touch on these themes varies; “Partitions” are contemplative. Contrast these with, for example, “A Parliament of Flesh (study),” “A Nicest Gift,” or “Tease Syrup,” all of which depict sexual acts in various tones of abstraction.
Sometimes I draw specifically from my own erotic memories and personal experiences. The reference materials for my “Send Nudes” series are picked directly from my archive of photos for erotic correspondence with my past sexual partners. I love this form of communication with my partners—it builds sexual energy, anticipation, and a playful connection around desire. I look through them sometimes as one would look through a scrapbook; they are nostalgic to me, evoking reverie, which is why I chose to paint them in polaroid format. I am also playing with the idea of bringing something so private into public eye by filtering it through artistic expression—a girl with loose morals is more easily pardonable if she’s in watercolor.
AA: These are the opening lines to my forthcoming chapbook, Anemones. They could refer, yes, to prophecy or song, but also to the renewing moans of pleasure, ”Strange sounds fill my body / fires lit in a burned oven/ speak again for a world / to come back into itself.
Later in the sequence, I refer to the richly intense sensation of sexual longing, which draws every contact and object into its pull “The wet oath of a name./ A name. A name./ The record will show/ how some of us lived / quietly, hoping for the memory/ of a touch: a crushed leaf/ a hand pressed on the wall.”
BB: I have a feeling that desire and longing are tolerable subjects, but realized sexual satisfaction crosses some fine line. It is poetic to talk about missing someone’s touch, but describing an actual orgasm is sensitive. It is similar in visual arts—in Titian’s iconic painting “Venus of Urbino,” a reclining nude woman looks directly at the viewer and casually rests her hand between her thighs. For a modern viewer, she is seductive but not offensive. If you take the exact same image but tilt her head back and part her lips in a gasping orgasm, things would change considerably. You wouldn’t add or subtract any nudity, but you add pleasure and make it problematic. There are a few contemporary female artists that tackle this head on—Marilyn Minter and Helen Beard come to mind.
AA: That makes me notice how in my own writing I tend to depersonalize scenes of pleasure and make them more distant. Last month I set myself the challenge to write an erotic poem. I settled on an old trick, ventriloquizing a trusted poet in order to address feelings and experiences I rarely speak from; this allowed me some levity and had the added pleasure of mischievous assimilation. I mean, what could be sexier than Dante? These are a few lines from “Eros”, a condensed erasure on an personal catalogue of lines involving the senses in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “All twilight shakes and bathes me with sweat/ even in memory: / the tear-soaked ground heaves a sigh/ my shattered senses leave me/ I go down...”
BB: I work mostly in visual arts, but language is also a valuable tool for me. I suppose the biggest word play I have taken on is my name, which is a pseudonym. I have chosen it as an homage to some fictional figures who have influenced me, and also some playful nods to my real name.
Titles (of paintings and of series) are also important in my work—I use them as a way to communicate with the viewer in a different way. They complement my visual language. Some of my titles are playful and suggestive—“A Nicest Gift” and “Tease Syrup” are anagrams, which we will invite the readers to solve!—and they build upon my play with modes of revealing and concealing. Some of my obscuring and hiding (including hiding my name) engages directly with my frustrations with censorship and taboo. Sometimes it is protective and sometimes it is playful—usually a mix of all of these feelings.
AA: When I think about writing erotic or sensual poems, what immediately comes to mind is the epistemological and aesthetic disenfranchisement of these themes that separates us from our own bodies. How do you anticipate and deal with this dilemma?
BB: One issue I’m grappling with currently is the question of “taste,” as it often defines and judges erotic content. It is a concept that is relative to individuals but it is also socially coordinated to promote what is considered acceptable in visual and poetic language. It aligns with socially prioritized ideas about beauty and the female body. The word itself appeals to our senses and implies that something should be pleasing—historically it is heteronormative and circumscribed by ideals of attractiveness. But today there is a very narrow category of bodies that is considered universally appealing. There are certain bodies—dependent on age, dis/ability, race, sexual orientation, and body type—that have been considered objectionable or unaesthetic in visual arts, effectively disenfranchising huge groups of people, and further perpetuating this epistemological and aesthetic alienation you mention.
AA: This is an experience I’ve had personally as a blind woman—I can remember not taking my cane to my grauate poetry classes because I thought it would be unattractive and somehow discredit me. I also had no idea how to incorporate my actual body into my work, and wrote only about objects and landscapes for many years
BB: Certain bodies outside of the young white female have a problematic place in our art history through the colonialist male gaze, like Gauguin’s portraits of Polynesian women. The beauty Gauguin finds in his subjects lies in his fascination with what he deems exotic and pure in a primitive way, and he packages that fascination skillfully for the consumption of the Western male.
I wonder about abjection as an art movement in the 90s, and whether some bodies, stages of bodies, body parts, or even poses are perpetually abject in our contemporary aesthetics. Taboo bodily functions—urine, feces, menstrual blood—are abject, but so are certain sexual acts and unions, like anal. Abject art evokes evulsion and disgust, an impulse to look away, a nobody-wants-to-see-that feeling. Presenting the human body in any way other than what has been deemed aesthetically pleasing is abjection.
AA: The abject movement coincides and grows out of the rise of AIDS and queer culture taking a stand against conservative politics. It makes me think of Bersoni’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and Mapplethorpe’s photography. And before them—French erotic revolutionaries, like Rimbaud and Bataille. They were all about smashing the unspoken codes that contain and constrain erotic narratives.
BB: I started to think about this when I presented the drawings for “Sits Like a Lady” to an art group, and one of the women said that it made her uncomfortable. I showed the two drawings individually, and the reaction was discomfort. When I showed how I intended to overlay the two drawings, the group mentioned that they liked the combination. The purpose of this work was to express the interface of female social propriety and closeted female desire, and the group affirmed that they did not want to look at spread legs and orgasmic faces; they are more comfortable if passion is screened through the veneer of modesty and decorum. We use so many tools for this in visual arts—modesty covers, shadows, strategically placed drapery or objects, the gracefully resting hand on private parts, poses that obscure and block, even more aggressive forms of censorship like bars, pixelation, and cropping.
AA: In poetry, we have similar practices: euphemisms (“he possessed her”, “they slept together”, “bed (v.)”) and metaphors (“manhood”, “member”; “folds”, “sheath”). These strategies veil what is really being talked about. Can we identify the sometimes unspoken strategies for obscuring or censoring the details of sexuality in visual art?
BB: Anything stylized or blurred is more acceptable than hyperrealism. Male breasts are always acceptable. Women’s breasts are more scandalous—less offensive than some other body parts but still in need of coverage, for instance in photography. Pussy can be tolerable depending on the position of the legs. It can be present but shouldn’t be spread. Same thing with the butt—standing or seated positions are demure, bent over is too suggestive. Buttholes are generally in poor taste, especially in proximity to hands or pussies. If you insist on depicting intimacy, missionary position is sensual and beautiful; anything else is unseemly.
AA: Given these rules, who do you look to for guidance?
BB: I get particularly excited by the work of artists who have taken on these biases and orthodoxies about the human body as a challenge. Like Frida Kahlo’s unapologetic unibrow, Luchita Hurtado’s introspective bodyscapes from unusual perspectives, Alice Neel’s nude self-portrait at the age of 80, Hannah Wilke’s confrontations with the camera even as she battled with cancer, Caroline Coon’s directness in “Self in Cock Mask,” or Carolee Schneemann’s flirtation with abjection in “Meat Joy” and with pornography in “Fuses.” These women defy conventions and demure sensibilities. Women of color, like Mickalene Thomas, are also taking charge of the depictions of their bodies and sexualities, reorienting art and art history.
AA: In general, in poetry, queer people, non-Western women, and people of color experiment more with sharing erotic experience. I’m thinking of Sappho’s resonant lines of longing and praise, Sei Shonagon’s delicate, sharp observations, Rimbaud’s raucous cries, Gertrude Stein’s playful and sly poetic stories, Theresa Kyung Cha’s heady and theoretically dark lines, and Anne Carson’s masochistic, sometimes spiritually self-reflexive musings on sex. I’m thinking also of Anais Nin, who I only recently learned of, and my friend CM Burroughs visceral, lithe poems honoring and wrestling with desire.
Pop figures of feminine sexual power and struggle like Mata Hari, Evita, Christine Keeley, Queen Latifah, Cardi B. Often, like the woman in “Sits like a Lady”, with a target on their head—are shamed, blamed and ridiculed.
BB: Guerrilla Girls have been working on this since the 80s. Trailblazers of feminist art—Judy Chicago, Judith Bernstein, Nancy Spero…I can name so many—paved the way for female artists of my generation to express sex and sexuality more freely.
AA: What are some struggles you encounter when making or showing this art?
BB: My central dilemma is finding a way to engage with these themes that can cut through people’s discomfort with the taboo (“improper, too personal”). Sometimes I do want to confront the viewer and sometimes I am just sharing or celebrating—but I am trying to figure out where the lines are. How can I express these themes without being offensive, or do I care if its offensive? Part of my effort is to interrupt the taboos that separate us from our own sexual knowledge. Just the fact that sexual experience ‘should’ remain private and there is no beautiful way of expressing it is a problem, particularly because of the history of men being permitted to depict the objects of their desire. I’m depicting myself both as the object of desire and the actor of desire.
AA: The problems in the world of writing are similar. In fiction and nonfiction, erotic content is considered entertainment or scandal and confession, but the actual experience of sexual desire and satisfaction are considered beyond language. Something I struggle with in addition getting over my inner censor is avoiding being too direct (and as a result clichéd or boring) and on the other hand not encoding the material so much so that it is lost to most people. My own avoidance and shyness mixed with internalized shame around rules about how women are supposed to contain their sexuality. But I’d like to be free to draw on my own sexual appetite and wishes to include in my work.
AA: What strategies have you found to deal with the set of dilemmas you encounter in visual erotic expression?
BB: Well, for one thing, I didn’t even begin to make this art until after I got in touch with my sexuality. I don’t feel constrained by what other people think of as acceptable sexual expression in daily life, and I try to draw on that confidence in my artistic practice. I am outspoken and bold in my art through my queerness (I came out only a few years ago) and my adventurous sexuality as a proud slut. I’ve explored sexualities and experiences that people might consider taboo, and my art has become an extension of that. I just keep trying with different audiences and accept what discomfort there is. I welcome engagement but I’m not offended by disengagement unless its actively hostile. I am going to keep following my instincts and moods.
Sex is playful and joyful and I always go back to that. I hide easter eggs in my work to surprise or to communicate surreptitiously—take a close look at the porcelain vase in “Woman with A Red Vase (Or, “Learn my Name),” for instance. My play on self-censorship is a mischievous challenge to the conservative gaze by hiding poor taste in plain sight.
AA: I have started to work on getting beyond my inner censor by at first deeply coding expressions of sexual themes and slowly experimenting with playful metaphors or found language in order to test my ability to communicate. In these lines from my first book, Aletheia, I project an image of movement I associate with erotic climax onto the sky: ”When the high starless night heaves back into its narrows / then buckles open, like a burning thing..” I make one direct statement about the power of desire, which happento be the lines John Ashbery chose for his blurb, I think because of a cheeky reading of ‘cheek’ on his part, “Another way of living opens inward/ Pressed to motion. Pushed to act. / To lightly touch the length of your cheek/ as if it were water...“
AA: One strategy for expression is reclamation. How do we reclaim our bodies through our artistic practices?
BB: One side of the coin is to reclaim the gaze as women—as creators, subjects, audiences, interlocutors. The other is giving ourselves our agency back and getting in touch with our own bodies and desires. When I first started, I started with photography, and it was a way of looking at myself differently—exercising an external gaze. It’s different from looking at a mirror. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I learned to become the beholder, finding beauty and grace. I learned how to do that not as a critic but as an admirer, in a way—teaching myself how to be tender with and kind to myself. Finding myself desirable allowed me to express desire to the external world.
AA: The gaze is important to me as a blind woman, and feeling through and reacting to the voyeurism and objectification of what in fact is a quite fragile male gaze has been huge in my life and art.
BB: Male artists engaging with female body in art tend to approach it as an artistic challenge in the form of language—Can I convey supple skin? Can I translate seductive curves? Almost comparable to a bowl of fruit or light reflected on a glass surface. And they filter female desire through their own fantasies. I am often perplexed by male gaze upon female sexuality, like men who like to watch lesbian porn—these, for instance, are scenes of female intimacy where men are excluded. I sometimes have trouble understanding what they perceive their role is in our sexuality.
Take Matisse, for instance, whose aesthetic and visual language I admire immensely. He created a vast archive of odalisque (or harem) paintings in which nude women were juxtaposed against lush fabrics, rugs, wallpapers, and “Oriental” knickknacks. Just like fabrics were an excuse for exercises in color and pattern, the odalisques were an excuse in painting the (nude) female body.
Odalisque and harem paintings had an established tradition before Matisse, and I encountered this theme when I was studying art history in Turkey. I was perplexed by this genre, its viewership, its consumption, and my own role—as a woman born in former Ottoman lands—within this artistic tradition that created a bizarre stereotype of a languid hedonistic Muslim woman. My painting “Woman with a Red Vase (Or, Learn My Name)”is an response to that tradition—they are self portraits and exercises in patternmaking, but I am in charge of my own portrayal, my desire, and my engagement with the voyeuristic gaze.
AA: Finding the courage to write about my interior experienes help me break through silencing forces that alienate me from myself. Instead of sensing myself through hthe filter of what others see, I get to invent my own style of sexual presentation. Writing has also helped me to find and relate around my sexuality as a blind woman—something I have thought a lot about lately but haven’t come across much in existing literature.
Here is a more descriptive prose passage about my experience of intimacy as a blind woman, from Mercy Athena.
Touch cracks the world open. Physical intimacy with a caring partner is for me an encounter without interruption or end that carries into all other moments the radiance of erotic creation. A ball of light is passed, like an apricot, and a fine golden cloth is wrapped around the sleep that follows. Nothing compares to it; at the same time, everything relates to it. All I have to do is think about it – a name, a touch – and I slip into that state where the chair cups my back, the hard stair railing slides under my hand, the shower water pours over my face like love.
BB: Outside of literature, reclaiming everyday language is an important step too. Some recent popular reclamations include: slut, bitch, queer, pussy, cock, kinkster, pervert, and fetish. The point of reclaiming a word is to flip something from being an insult into a powerful signal or symbol, de-weaponizing and disrupting patterns of reception about sexual practices and identities. Also, for some of these there is no other word—by not giving it a word, it is implied that it shouldn’t be talked about. The alternatives are also not always that appealing, either becoming too sterile and clinical or too euphemistic.
AA: These acts of reclamation help us rebuild our agency both in our art and in the world. Can we describe what this experience feels like?
BB: I definitely get a mischievous joy from some pieces, especially the ones where I am burying naughty details and subversive subliminal clues into the work. For some pieces, making the art itself is a sensual and sometimes erotic experience for me. I draw from sexual memories and fantasies, so I can be stimulated and aroused during the process itself. That’s also why I love analog art (as opposed to digital) because it allows me to work with my hands and the tactile experiences are satisfyingly sensual. With the abstracts there was a lot of gestural fingerpainting and I was hyperaware of my fingers on the canvas (fingers on skin, essentially, as I was painting flesh).. My references are my own body, and I take nude photos to prepare a pose, or use a mirror–getting in touch and staying connected with my body in a recursive loop with my expression.
AA: For me, when I dare myself to write a sensual or erotic poem, I find myself laughing a lot...it feels liberating and playful, a little bit nerve-wracking, and kind of wild. Because I often write about difficult subjects, like shades of emotional pain or dark moods, it feels like a fresh change. There’s also some mixture of mischief, trust (in my audience), and power—to speak without a sense of shame. Another dimension of writing more intimate poems is their ability to create a space—an imaginary haven, room, or landscape where freedom and safety are in easy harmony. Because freedom and safety are such precarious gifts, this is a truly important kind of space-making. Crafting that space with erotic memories and wishes is an enchanting, comforting, and sometimes thrilling experience. Especially because erotic experiences themselves are so fleeting, there is something mysterious about being able to preserve or evoke them. At the same time, we are ourselves the well from which both erotic and expressive creation are drawn, and once we find a way to draw on it, it is always with us.