Painting the Naked Female Gaze

Rose 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.

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.

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.’”

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.

“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.