Painting the Naked Female Gaze

1._Uprising-24_x30_-oil_on_linen-2013_sisbk4Rose Freymuth-Frazier is no stranger to criticism. Recently, the 37-year-old figurative realist painter received an incensed email from an older man, asking why she insisted on creating such “grotesque” paintings.

“He was a fan of my ‘other’ work,” Freymuth-Frazier says, “but he just couldn’t understand who I was so angry at. Was it my parents? Was it society? Why must I ‘upset the apple cart?'”

The source of his disgust: a painting of a woman using a breast pump.

Freymuth-Frazier’s subjects seem to glow under soft, ethereal light. Graceful, restrained and exquisitely painted, they nonetheless have an often unsettling effect on the viewer—and at times, the resulting reaction can be extremely telling.

There’s something challenging about these women, a disarming intimacy that, despite the beauty of the artist’s technique, can still leave you unnerved, as if you’ve looked at something dirty. Yet there’s nothing “grotesque” or obscene about this work—unless you are unprepared for honest nakedness.ONE_BAD_APPLE_FINAL_FINAL_BEST_zu6qrr

Nudity—the more elegant term for being artfully unclothed—is nothing new to fine art. In Freymuth-Frazier’s work, though, there’s something else that challenges us on a far deeper level: These women are not just nude, but frankly naked, with all their vulnerabilities and strengths fully on display. Rather than appearing as objects to be examined, they in fact seem to be examining the viewer. It’s enough to put you on the defensive, as the breast-pump critic discovered.

It’s also Freymuth-Frazier’s way of offering a glimpse at the modern female gaze.

What does the female gaze look like?

The male gaze—our culture’s default setting—has been our worldview for millennia, and has evolved little in that time. To oversimplify: women are overwhelmingly depicted as objects or outsiders, seen from the typically male vantage point. This concept very much applies to fine art: women are common subjects, often artfully nude and, stereotypically, they turn their face from the viewer. The male gaze drinks in the beauty of the female form, so the trope goes, without any danger of catching her eye.

If this is the male gaze in art, then what would the female gaze be? Many believe it’s currently in the process of being defined by women brave enough to show their guts. You might catch glimpses in Beyonce’s lyrics, in Jenji Kohan’s scripts, in Marjane Satrapi’s drawings and, too, in Rose Freymuth-Frazier’s brush strokes.

There’s only one way to find the female gaze, and that is to allow women to stop being looked at, and start doing the looking. Within Freymuth-Frazier’s frames, women are doing just that.

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The effect of these images, with their chilling directness and anemic tints, is unsettling enough on its own. But Freymuth-Frazier ups the ante with unconventional faces; with compositions that reference history and pornography in the same frame; with a series of paintings featuring lovingly rendered dildos, high heels, syringes and, yes—breast pumps in use.

Where do we fit in?

This message, and the questions it raises, are as complex as any woman could be. In the words of independent art critic Kris Vagner:

“Using transgressions as mild as a conflicted expression on the face of a soft-lit centerfold model or as unabashed as a hermaphrodite posing seductively and a junkie admiring her needle, Freymuth-Frazier asserts that the categories that art history traditionally sorts us into—‘virgin,’ ‘mother’ and ‘whore’—never did contain us very neatly.”

“Where her lighting and framing say ‘look at these beautiful, idealized women,’ the women’s faces, props and gestures say actual things that real women say: Not just ‘admire me’ but also ‘help me,’ ‘understand me,’ ‘fuck me,’ ‘acknowledge my strength,’ ‘admit my weakness,’ ‘go away’ or, often, ‘I’m confused sorting through all of the above.’”

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It’s no surprise that Freymuth-Frazier’s work is at times difficult to show. The content and themes are much more welcome among younger, less-shockable audiences, while the meticulous technique and connection to art history refuse to be labeled as anything but a continuation of traditional figurative painting. Scrolling through the images chosen for a recent American Realism show at Cavalier Galleries, the flow comes to a screeching halt as “Angela,” a corset-clad woman with bleached hair, pauses to light firecrackers on her nipples.

Quite simply, these women don’t fit into the existing narrative. Can we categorize them at all? Not really—and that makes it hard to place them, whether in gallery exhibits, or in our existing understanding of womanhood.

Freymuth-Frazier is relatively unfazed by this, as she was unperturbed by the message complaining about breast pumps. “What he was calling ‘grotesque’ is a real thing and part of many women’s lives,” she explains.

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“Those are real breast pumps and are what working women use to allow their family and work lives to co-exist. The model in both of those paintings is a dear friend of mine who is an ER doctor in the Bronx and a mother of two. I painted these pieces to raise questions, but when I got an older man emailing me (a younger woman) and telling me what I should and should not paint, it was a little sad.”

It is somewhat sad that, after all this time, we still struggle to understand and show what it means to be a woman. And yet, there’s plenty of hope to be found. In Freymuth-Frazier’s paintings, the backgrounds disappear, completely inconsequential to the women. It’s as if she’s telling us that none of it matters—that by tuning out the background noise and ignoring what the world is telling us to look at, we finally gain the ability to see ourselves in full, glorious detail.

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J.H. Fearless explores the intersection of creativity, culture and commerce; from cooperatives to Burning Man, reimagined libraries to reinvented career paths. If there’s another path to tread, she’ll find it. Fearless was her grandmother’s middle name.

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    Comments

    1. I loved your nude pictures, I myself pose nude for a life art class at a local college. Have been posing for 3 years now.

    2. If your art doesn’t piss someone off, you’re doing it wrong. Bravo!

    3. Fabulous! I enjoyed reading about Rose and seeing more of her work. Thanks for introducing me to this artist!

    4. Mariposa Art says:

      I’m a big fan of your work! This was an excellent article.

    5. I love Rose’s work. Her luminescent skin tones are great (evident in the top two paintings). Sometimes no matter what strong women you paint you’re going to piss off somebody and it doesn’t need to be a nude. I had a “Diana the Huntress” just an over the shoulder life sized view of Diana drawing her bow. It was in a restaurant and some patron complained about it and it was taken down. Now maybe the guy was divorced by an archer? Can’t make this stuff up. I’d have some pretty choice words for anyone who would send me such an email I’ll tell you bu this article is much better.

    6. Kadie kelly says:

      Thank you for this work! It’s inspiring and beautiful and freeing.

    7. How do you know the older man who objected to this art was calling the breast pump grotesque? I myself would not have recognized that’s what the object is, seeing as how it appears unattached to anything at the other end of the tube and a bit reminiscent of a bloody nipple besides. Maybe he thought the cigar and Indiana Jones hat on a nude woman was grotesque, or her toughness, or the belligerent tone of the piece, or the “chilling directness and anemic tints” he found disturbing. You say he is older so maybe he just has the sensibilities of a man of a previous generation! I think you are reaching here and making assumptions so that you have some man to argue against. And very possibly demonstrating ageism too. Why does your review of keen observations about this art have to be juxtaposed against a man’s criticism? Ms makes such a fuss about forcing bold contradiction to male ________(fill in the blank.) Why not just BE woman, and not always have to say “see how great we are, you fucking narrow men?!” And btw, the female gaze would, logically and necessarily have to be the female looking AT something outside of herself. Just as the male gaze does. In the case of this art, a beautiful woman is still the object of the gaze. She is not looking out AT anything. Again, I think the author is reaching, this time for a parallel that doesn’t work.

      • The “breast pump” painting isn’t on this article (I was also looking for it, might have to Google it). The painting you’re referring to is of a woman peeling an apple while smoking a cigar.

      • The breast pump one isn’t here. The painting you speak of is her peeling an apple.

      • The painting above in the article does not have a breast pump, that’s an apple. If you do a little search you will find the painting spoken of in the article.

      • The woman in the painting you’re referring to is peeling an apple, not using a breast pump.

      • Desirée says:

        The painting depicting the woman with the breast pump doesn’t seem to be included in this article. The painting of the woman smoking a cigar with an “Indiana Jones” hat is peeling an apple which is positioned in front of one of her breasts. It’s not a bloody nipple.

        These paintings reflect the gaze of one woman looking at fellow women as complex, three-dimensional beings and not just as objects of pleasure.

      • M'lissa Wetherell-Moore says:

        That is an Apple she’s peeling. I didnt see the breastpump one

      • Or maybe he thought smoking a cigar and breastfeeding are not a good combination?

      • The one that the man had an issue with is not included in this article. Maybe you are talking about the one with the apple being peeled?

    8. I especially like your comment about Freymuth-Frazier’s work that makes the backgrounds disappear and that “by tuning out the background noise and ignoring what the world is telling us to look at, we finally gain the ability to see ourselves in full, glorious detail.”

    9. The breast pump, cigar and fedora thing makes me think “50s pulp/noir detective.” It’s awesome.

    10. Surely depicting the female gaze should figure more naked and clothed men.

      To say that one is attracting the female gaze by painting naked women is like saying that straight people wear fragrance to be appealing to their gay friends.

    11. Red Slider says:

      ” …when I got an older man emailing me (a younger woman) and telling me what I should and should not paint, it was a little sad.” – RF-F

      Really, Rose, you shouldn’t be sad about this man, He isn’t telling you what to paint. He is showing you his vulnerability against the background of the male gaze. Old/young, male/female, should/should-not — go find him and paint it!

    12. caroline remley says:

      They’re not firecrackers on her nipples, they’re matches, and it’s a pretty simple trick once you know how to do it and lots of fun at parties 😉

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