2006 Heroines & Hellions

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University , Ithaca NY

Essay excerpt from Dangereous Waters exhibition catalog by Andrea Inselmann

Don Doe’s watercolors of busty pirate chicks wearing low-cut shirts, cargo pants held up by belts with huge buckles, and black boots have stuck in my mind ever since I first came across them. Complete with parrots and monkeys on their shoulders, swinging swords and whiskey bottles on board fantasy galleons, showing off tattoos of anchors, skulls, and crossbones, the in-your-face quality of Doe’s images of she-pirates having a jolly good time piqued this curator’s curio sity. Initially just encouraging escapist fantasies about a wild ride across the seven seas, I was astonished to learn that the images had been painted by a male artist. This surprising revelation led me to investigate questions about authorship and reception of these images, which, by some viewers, could be dismissed as conventional pinup fantasies, or even worse, misogynist day dreams of oversexed dominatrices. So, what is it about these watercolors, and paintings that turn them instead into empowering representations of women having fun?

Doe has been creating this kind of imagery since the mid 1990s, stepping into an arena that most artists, including women artists, have sidestepped, for numerous reasons- not the least of which is that three decades of women’s studies have made artists all too aware of how inextricably the representation of women in paint is interwoven with issues of power. What is at stake in Doe’s work relates to the question of who is allowed to picture what. Just like Dylan Graham, who steps into territories of representation reserved for people of color, Doe makes us confront issues that go to the heart of current discussions of gender. Blowing wide open boundaries that have been established for the sake of gender identification along gender lines, Doe’s images encourages us to consider recent theories of spectatorship that propose more fluid processes across gender lines.

While sampling and collaging are obvious strategies employed by Dylan Graham and Sally Smart, they become apparent in Doe’s work only after closer inspection. Representing a postmodern method of working, Doe, like his fellow contemporary painters John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, fuses historical and contemporary styles and source materials to create affecting yet challenging images, in which Doe “ties paint to sex” to quote a statement analyzing the feelings of discomfort produced by Yuskavage’s paintings of overly voluptuous women. Full of bawdy sense of irony, Doe’s work examines the tradition of painting and the meaning of representational painting today together with a tongue-in-cheek critique of some politically correct art of the 1990s. Doe’s influences come from such disparate sources as classical paintings by Hans Baldung Grien and Gustave Moreau, historic naval books, tropical bird and plant guides, and LL Bean and Victoria’s Secret catalogues. The artist himself has described his working method as “cobbling together a picture portrait like a Dr. Frankenstein.” (Don Doe, e-mail message to author, August 10, 2006). In this way, Doe would have fit well into a group of artists- including, among others, Matthew Barney, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, Paul McCarthy, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons- working in the early 1990s, who mirrored contemporary humans’ ever-stranger versions of virtual reality as related to the human boy.

The choice of creating images of women pirates is crucial to Doe’s project for its symbolic quality. “As a murderer, a thief, a colorful hero of adventure stories, an enemy of the state, a symbol of resistance to capitalist systems and the personification of its worse imperatives, the pirate is an ambivalent and deeply fractured symbol,” noted a critic recently about Sally Smart’s installation. This split within the image of the pirate itself is reflected in Doe’s work, which- at once is sexist and feminist, real and surreal, unsettling and seductive- has a critical depth which is initially obscured by its pop qualities and direct emotive punch. In his 1866 painting, Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet put the male gaze on display, with its focus on the female genitals. Doe’s fiercely independent women pirates are now in control of that gaze, empowering female viewers while putting male spectators on edge.

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