Feminist art is trending in a transgender era because new feminisms embrace more expansive definitions of gender— and once again, Rachel Lachowicz is driving the conversation. Lachowicz made her “mark” in art history in the early 1990s, using red lipstick as her signature for feminist interventions that expose the fallacy of gender neutrality in iconic minimalist artworks. She says, “I have a lifetime of making feminist art and decades of using lipstick as a mark that is indexical to femininity as another kind of voice.”
Lachowicz did not abandon feminism when it fell out of fashion as the bad “F-word,” but defiantly persisted—against the advice of the same curators who contextualized her work as feminist. But her extraordinary fusion of aesthetic and conceptual complexity is bringing her back into the limelight in a number of recent and forthcoming museum exhibitions, including thematic survey shows at Orange County Museum of Art, and the Israel Museum of Art in Jerusalem. Although Lachowicz’s work was called “appropriation” in the ‘90s, she insists it is really “translation.” Lachowicz is a bilingual artist because she translates a masculine language of minimalism into a feminine language of cosmetics to create a kind of “feminimalism” (George Melrod). Her translations anticipated the current obsession with redefining loan words with prefixes: “re-” and “trans-” when she began prefixing feminine cosmetics onto borrowed male iconic minimalist artworks—making her early feminist work more relevant to today’s wider culture of gender fluidity.
In 1992, Lachowicz translated Marcel Duchamp’s urinal with her signature red lipstick, mounting three on a wall like open mouths in a witty reference to oral sex. Her controversial Untitled (Lipstick Urinals) are included in an exhibition opening this May on the centenary of Duchamp’s Fountain at NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Today, bathroom access and gender logos are the controversial center of transgender politics, and outmoded binary definitions of gender are being replaced by a gender spectrum Lachowicz’s work anticipated. By prefixing feminine lipstick to a masculine homage, she transgresses gender binaries and “gives a green light to presenting in any way one wants.”
The white-male-hetero voice has been so normalized in all cultural discourse that the introduction of a feminine voice is viewed as a deviation from the norm. Lachowicz uses red lipstick and eye shadow as a strategy to translate iconic works by male minimalists—like Richard Serra, Donald Judd and Carl Andre—into feminine écriture. Red lipstick is a signifier of feminine artifice, allure and sexuality. Applying the feminist strategy of mimesis (Luce Irigaray), she skillfully mimics masculine aesthetics, with a feminine twist, using seductive lipstick paint to give voice to the cultural construction of femininity and the exclusion of women in “Minimalism and the Rhetoric Power” (Anna C. Chave). She repurposes the commercial aesthetics of cosmetics, injecting an olfactory feminine sensuality into a male-dominated genre based on “essentialness” (Clement Greenberg), which denies the cultural meaning of surface and materials. Lachowicz learned hands-on male craft skills from a feminist artist mother who always asked her why she used any material. She recalls, “Growing up with a mother who was an exhibiting artist had a profound effect on me. I started logging my 10,000 hours early on.”
Cosmetics are traditionally considered more frivolous than the industrial materials used by male minimalists, but Lachowicz exposes the chauvinism of privileging materials that signify masculinity over those that signify femininity. Says Lachowicz, “Everything has content and meaning. Industrial materials have cultural meaning and construction is a male domain.” Unlike the iconic minimalist works she translates, which do not allude to anything beyond their own presence, Lachowicz explores both the cultural and aesthetic impact of different surface values. Although her sculptures can be enjoyed formalistically as autonomous artworks (in Judd’s sense of “specific objects”) she emphasizes that “every aspect of an art object contains information.”
Lachowicz’s recent powerful installation at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, “Lay Back and Enjoy It,” asserts feminine power as a retaliation to basketball coach Bobby Knight’s absurd, misogynistic remark, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” In the work, Lachowicz reimagines two Old West architectural symbols of patriarchal authority—a church and a sheriff’s station— coated in red lipstick. These pillars of law and order, religion and domesticity, are based on a set from Clint Eastwood’s film, High Plains Drifter (1973), an outlaw western that includes two rape scenes. Lachowicz revisits frontier culture because it is the archetypal foundation that still defines American gender politics by mythifying hyper-masculinity and the exclusion of women.
Lachowicz insists, “I do not separate the act of ‘making’ and the work itself.” Even the labor-intensive process of “cooking” kilos of lipstick pigment and wax in giant vats in her “art kitchen” is part of a feminist performance which her artwork documents. For decades she has been exploring different relations between space and scale in theatrical installations, which are seductive, immersive experiences— that use her signature red lipstick as a “software patch.”
“Over my lifetime I have seen the use of cosmetics as a way to blur the boundaries,” she observes, of her practice. “We can no longer see identity as anything but a multiplicity of places to inhabit and present. If we see our existence as a spectrum rather than as gender binaries it moves us into freed territory.”