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Oh, So Big by Paula Gillen
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review of Paula Gillen's
Oh, So Big
- tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - July 24, 2011

Paula Gillen & I 1st met & collaborated in Baltimore from 1977 to 1980. I, as a lifestyle experimenter, like to dress in original clothing (& brave society's customary extreme repression) & Paula, as an artist/fotographer, likes to frame the scene & populate it w/ quirky props. We had alotof fun & Paula's fotos of our friends in Baltimore from then are about as entertaining a quasi-document of the time & place as any.

Decades passed & I worked away at trying to undermine 'reality' maintenance traps thru highly energetic blatantly perverse lunatic fringe activities around the world. Simultaneously, Paula moved from the MD Inst of Art in B-More to studies in Chicago to a Fullbright in Malaysia to a career in the NYC magazine world - working as foto editor for the New Yorker, eg. We went our separate ways & lost contact.

Over 20 yrs went by before she & I reconnected thru the internet. She moved from NYC to Boulder & I got involved w/ then-Boulder-based poet/poem Amy Catanzano. One thing lead to another & Paula & I finally met again in person. I found her to be as affable as ever & full of the same gentle humor that I'd always enjoyed about her. & we were collaborating again.

SO, that sets the interpersonal scene a little for reviewing "Oh, So Big" (full title "OH, SO BIG_The Issue is Race"). Paula's husband, Alex, has a large collection of publications - wch includes porn. "Oh, So Big" is repurposed pornography presumably inspired by his collection. More specifically, in Paula's "Letter from the Editor" she writes:

"This issue of OH, SO BIG was created from girly magazines previously stockpiled in cardboard boxes, stashed under beds, or strewn on some bathroom floor - used, torn, crumpled, and well stained. Much of this found material was estranged from its spine, and with its original context lost, I felt free to remix and collage the erotic scenes. Cutting and pasting with abandon, I have altered the previous publishers' intentions and brought the material closer to my own sensibilities for art and humor.

"In this issue I uncover cultural trends and sexual tastes of the 60's and 70's embracing the breakdown of racial lines and the giddy expression of new sexual behaviors & freedoms. (Re)cycled pages of white and black "male centric" soft core porn publications are juxtaposed with pages from an unknown magazine whose sole focus was to showcase imagery of inter-racial couples engaged in sexual behavior. Some of the pages of text reflect disturbing racial phobias, stereotypes, and a few outlandish sexual fantasies. Magazines titles and sources that I could locate are attributed on the last spread."

[These attributions are to "His & Hers 74 Annual", "Players" magazine October 1978, & "Collage elements from Duke, Playboy, Hustler, W, and Time magazines."]

"By transforming 30 year old soft-core porn into a peculiar version of its former self I offer the viewer layered interpretation and a chance to play with the male gaze. I hope you find this arrangement freshly-commentative and evocative."

When I 1st saw Paula's project my gut reaction was along the lines of 'Same old, same old; Been there, done that' - in other words I've seen & made alotof repurposed (& original) porn & seen alotof creative people's new approaches to sexuality & porn that struck me as important w/in a particular historical lineage - alotof work that was very, VERY intense, courageous, & imaginative.

Take this description of a VALIE EXPORT action, eg:

"In her 1969 performance Aktionshose:Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), EXPORT entered a porn cinema in Munich with her hair in disarray, wearing crotchless pants, and carrying a machine gun. Striding up and down the rows of theatregoers, she brandished the weapon and challenged the male audience to engage with a "real woman" instead of with [..] images on a screen. Through these acts of artistic daring, EXPORT challenged the objectification of the female form by confronting voyeurs with a body that returned the gaze." (from unknown source on the internet)

In my own case, I comade (w/ Dick Hertz), using the name Tim Ore, a hoax peep show movie called "Balling Tim Ore is Best" (1985), that featured such things as a thru-the-keyhole view of animation of vegetables fucking, & Dick & I snuck it into an actual peep show where it ran (unknown to the management) for 2 wks.

SO, given my bias towards, let's say, 'direct action', I have alot more respect for these 2 creative reactions to porn (& those of many others) than I do for more conventional & 'safe' so-called '2D' work. While I enjoy collages, &'ve certainly made some myself, I think they're too easily accepted as 'art' by most people & are, therefore, unlikely to really rattle any chains.

W/ that as a critical preface, I had to ask myself: What cd Paula's 'mere' collages add to this history?! But Paula's work does add to it - perhaps in a way that isn't as daring as many of her precursors - but, still, she has something to say & she does so in a typically understated Paula Gillen way.

Paula's specifically repurposing porn magazines & she does so in a full-color glossy way as a magazine. In the plethora of collage porn that I've seen, lo-quality black-&-white photocopies, usually single pages, have predominated. Unless there's a new idea there, wch there rarely is, this gets old fast. It's often transparent that the collages are made by guys who collect the porn to jerk-off to them & then use them in collages as a way of adding frisson to otherwise bland work. After all, almost everyone has a gut reaction of primal lust to seeing porn - & that's one of the things that makes it so ripe for mediocre artists to exploit - as well as capitalism. Paula is much more subtle & much more loving in her subversion.

When Dick & I made "Balling Tim Ore is Best" we did it partially to fuck w/ the porn industry that we worked for as "peep show mechanics". Thinking that the average clientele for the peeps were businessmen & rednecks, frustrated guys who wanted a quick fix for their unsatisfactory marriage or whatever (of course, I'm projecting a bit here), I, at least, decided to skew "Balling.." in such a way that potential masturbators wd be excited & then confused. Who wants to see vegetables fucking just as you're about to cum? I wanted to subvert capitalism's exploitation of sexual dissatisfaction by derailing its allure into surprising territories.

Scott Stark's 1998 10:41 film entitled "Noema" is an example of the extraction of the obvious from porn in order to call attn to what might otherwise just be ephemeral. In it he removes the fucking & sucking & loops & otherwise edits the getting-into-position-to-fuck - along w/ cutaways to motel paintings & the like. The result is, of course, a somewhat curious choreography laced w/ tension. Imagine a creature whose sexuality is unlike humanity's trying to make sense of such a dance!

On Answers.com , I find this about the word "noema":

"Term used somewhat confusingly in the work of Husserl. The noetic elements of an intentional act (such as seeing or intending) are those that are responsible for giving it its sense; for transforming inert sensory data into something with meaning. Noemata are the elements doing this conversion. Husserl's own explanations include ‘the house-as-intended’ or ‘the tree-as-perceived’, or even ‘the noematic “object in the how”’. Although commentators have suggested various interpretations, there is no agreed reason to think that anything answers to these terms."

Trying to apply this to Scott's film is interesting for me. Perhaps "‘the noematic “object in the how”’" is the one that works best for me - but I'd like to know more about Scott's intended meaning.

While Gillen's repurposing takes a significantly different tact, it strikes me that there's a similar intuitive examination of the somewhat desexualized "object in the how".

The cover of "Oh, So Big" takes 3 women's body parts & combines them into one 'polymorphously perverse' new being: 2 'whites' & 1 'black' w/ 3 arms & 4 legs. This hybrid sex object has her vagina & anus removed - becoming almost a baby doll in the process - a baby doll in wch multiple baby dolls have been forced together by an experimenting child. Or like the work of the great erotic Surrealist Hans Bellmer. A difference being that where Bellmer sexualizes thru his great fluidity of line, Gillen desexualizes instead.

So what's left after the sex is removed? The social context comes front & center (in a deliberately skewed kind of way). Gillen takes Condoleeza Rice & places her picture & a brief PR bio in a "MISLEADING SPREAD" that includes a naked black woman sunbathing on a very green lawn.

Rice was "the 66th United States Secretary of State, and was the second person to hold that office in the administration of President George W. Bush. Rice was the first African-American woman secretary of state, as well as the second African American (after Colin Powell), and the second woman (after Madeleine Albright). Rice was President Bush's National Security Advisor during his first term, making her the first woman to serve in that position."

Whatever else she may be known for, I will never 'forgive' her for cooperating w/ one of the lowest moments in recent US history:

"A Senate Intelligence Committee reported that on July 17, 2002, Rice met with CIA director George Tenet to personally convey the Bush administration's approval of the proposed waterboarding of alleged Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah. "Days after Dr Rice gave Mr Tenet her approval, the Justice Department approved the use of waterboarding in a top secret August 1 memo."Waterboarding is considered to be torture by a wide range of authorities, including legal experts, war veterans, intelligence officials, military judges, human rights organizations, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and many senior politicians, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

"In 2003 Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft met with the CIA again and were briefed on the use of waterboarding and other methods including week-long sleep deprivation, forced nudity and the use of stress positions. The Senate report says that the Bush administration officials "reaffirmed that the CIA program was lawful and reflected administration policy"."

[above quotes from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/]

It's my assumption that Gillen's juxtaposition is fully conscious. If it's not, it's very-finely-tuned intuition. Rice's PR smile is juxtaposed next to the sunbather's very similar hedonistic one. Rice's participation in authorizing forced nudity as torture is contrasted to the liberated consensual nudity of the sunbather. Rice's authorizing of waterboarding as torture is contrasted to the sunbather's playfully holding up an umbrella as a shield against what might be someone spraying a hose on her to cool her off in the hot sun.

All of the content of "Oh, So Big" recontextualizes 'interracial' porn in some way & it does so w/o making any flagrant heavy-handed propaganda. 2 black women, Rice & the sunbather, are contrasted to show the difference of life approaches between an anonymous pleasure-seeker & the-scum-always-rises-to-the-top. Even the title, "OH, SO BIG" appears to reference the dominant sexual obsessions: big breasts & penises but cd also be taken to reference the over-all issue of race & human needs.

One text panel, presumably lifted direct from found porn, reads:

"RESPONDING TO BEAVERMAN'S DEPROGRAMMING INJECTIONS, NU KEE WILLINGLY THROWS OFF THE YOKE OF MAO-INSPIRED SEXUAL REPRESSION. THE YELLOW PERIL YIELDS TO ALL-AMERICAN PINK POWER, AND BEAVERMAN CARRIES OUT HIS FIGHT FOR TRUTH, JUSTICE, AND THE AMERICAN WAY!

[For those of you who're sex-slang-challenged, "beaver" is vagina as is "Nu Kee" (nookie)]

While some might find the language of the above to be too racist to not even be funny as satire, I ask: Wd you choose the stager of this sexual fantasy over Rice & Bush's official embracing of torture as US POLICY?! I sure wd. & this is where Gillen's project shines the most: underneath the sexual surface, she mines an attitude toward life of LIGHTEN UP! USE YR IMAGINATION & LET'S HAVE SOME FUN, PEOPLE!

From the perspective of someone who'd like to see the concept of race left behind us as something that's caused far more trouble than it cd ever possibly be worth, I, for one, think Paula's project accomplishes quite alot under a deceptively casual & light-hearted appearance.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 26, 2011 – Shelved

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