By Joanna Frueh
“The Other Venus, which Brandt considers to be “the most central work in the show,” embodies glamour, beauty, kindness, and gender bending without representing the human figure. This abstract sculpture itself functions as a set of abstractions that evoke the intellectual and emotional heart of Brandt’s exhibition. Scale alone gives the piece centrality, but more importantly, the piece is quiet yet startling, bold yet understated, generous yet spare with a presence that is hugely innocent in feeling. I look at The Other Venus and sigh in relaxation. While being a sophisticated artwork, a minimalist object with feminist overtones, The Other Venus – when I simply let myself observe its materiality and absorb its energy – sweetens my spirit and expands it, as does the energy of a saint.
Glamour: The Other Venus is luxuriously physical. Beauty: the materials – translucent fiberglass and sugar icing for a cake – excite the senses of vision and touch. The white icing is so available to my eyes and my fingers as it’s been spread over 120 centimeters and below eye level. Metaphorically, I am given kindness in the combination of sugar and innocence; I am given the ‘icing on the cake’, the best part of a good experience. Gender bending: sweetness is associated with women and with femininity, and, in Brandt’s words, The Other Venus conveys “reversing roles. Putting me in the position of ‘the other.’”7 That reversal has been a strategy of feminist artists over the past forty years. In the dominant white male culture of Western civilization, two major groups of others have been women, any and all of them, and men who love and make love with men, and Western civilization has commonly gendered both groups feminine. In this essay I use gender to designate the condition of being a human male or female; in other words, the conditioning in femininity – how females are supposed to be – and in masculinity – how males are supposed to be: what does cultural etiquette expect from the sexes? Which, of course, in the common, constricting model, can only be two, as genders also can only be two.
If The Other Venus is a non-representational self-portrait, then Brandt has certainly queered Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty, for he is an other – on the outside of frustratingly and fatiguingly simplified norms of gender and of sexual desire – who finds himself through yet more others: heterosexual female secular saints – film star Marilyn Monroe (in a project begun in 1999 and continuing) and, more recently, art star Hannah Wilke (in works dated 2005-2007). He appropriates both women’s glamorous self-styling and Monroe’s persona, in film roles and in public appearances, of innocence, and he looks to Monroe as an avatar of kindness. In a poignant, wistful prose poem titled Marilyn (2000), Brandt imagines her “to be just as much on the outside as me,”8 and elsewhere he calls himself “purely sexual.” 9 Her audience perceived Monroe to be precisely that, and the crystalline Beauty of the phrase “purely sexual” describes innocence as much as it does the animal allure and desire, the unadulterated sexuality, that Monroe’s image conjures up for many. Brandt’s self-designation of “purely sexual” points me towards a different meaning, which is personhood unadulterated by sex and gender categories.10 His appropriation of Wilke’s art includes its engagement in androgyny, its potent sexiness, and its challenge to a culturally sanctioned shame of the body.11 The women teach him how to reveal himself to himself and his audience and ways to touch them through the social, aesthetic, and sexual issues that matter to him.
Gender seems obvious to many people, for they assume that femininity is the essence of females and masculinity is the essence of males. Yet, people’s behaviors, desires, pleasures, and satisfactions are far sweeter and more glamorous than the familiar, conditioned extremes of gender, which appear to be moderate and normal. Cultural institutions, fears, and self-fulfilling prophecies divide gender into soft – femininity – and hard – masculinity: women are naturally more nurturing than are men; men won’t be men unless they act out masculinity; women won’t attract men unless the women underplay their intelligence. Clear divisions, though restrictive, provide comfort because they tell a person where he belongs: he needn’t think about it. At the same time, those restrictions create discomfort by keeping people chafing psychically and erotically in their place. Like gender, sugar icing is both soft and hard – your finger can easily press into its visually stiff surface – as is Brandt’s body in his many photographs. He is muscular – hard – yet the muscularity creates rounded contours – softness. His shaved head is hard while his penis is soft. Brandt, like everyone, is between the normalized gender extremes, for gender is impenetrable, like the fiberglass of The Other Venus to our gaze. The translucence of the fiberglass invites visual exploration, but whatever we imagine that fiberglass structure to hold remains mysterious, not in a hostile or teasing way, but rather, like a lover, whose being is always a shimmering mystery, no matter how much or how clearly we see into it. In actuality, The Other Venus is empty, as is every object, every body, every human being – everything – until we fill it with our own ideas and beliefs. The saint helps us to become aware of what we are filling this every emptiness with”. (Joanna Frueh, extract from A Company of Saints, in the catalogue Peter Super-T-Art, pages 10 – 14, 2007).
The Other Venus, fiberglass, sugar icing 120 x 120 x 31 cm. 2005