Frieze New York 2015

On Porn and Poodles: Casey Jane Ellison, Grace Dunham and Company Talk Sex, Gender, Art

The panelists of "The 'Aesthetics' of 'Female' 'Attractiveness.'" (Photo by Zoë Lescaze)

The panelists of “‘Aesthetics’ of ‘Female’ ‘Attractiveness.'”

ZOË LESCAZE

“How fat do you feel today?” asked Casey Jane Ellison, the artist and comedian.

The question opened the bidding at “‘Aesthetics’ of ‘Female’ ‘Attractiveness,’” a talk held Friday at the Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island. Wearing head-to-toe denim and black lipstick, un-brushed blond hair falling around her shoulders, Ellison presided over a panel that pinged from salacious to silly to serious in seconds, and included Vogue sex columnist Karley Sciortino; writer and activist Grace Dunham; artist and activist Reina Gosset; and filmmaker Leilah Weinraub.

“I don’t feel fat at all,” said Weinraub bluntly.

“I feel really good,” said Dunham, younger sister of Lena. “I bound my breasts, which always makes me feel better in my body and more comfortable being around groups of people, so I’m feeling on point.”

“I guess that question makes me feel so uncomfortable,” said Gosset, her red coat complementing her cotton-candy green curls. “I think about about how much fat-phobia there is in the art scene and maybe on this panel and in this audience. So I’m just sitting with being really uncomfortable on stage.”

If Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble got tossed in a blender with Clueless the resulting cocktail might be something like the panel, a mélange of comedy and commentary that didn’t entirely gel.

Ellison is known for her online series “Touching the Art” and a recent animated video piece in the New Museum Triennial, both of which nimbly tackle thorny aspects of the art world, gender and race with simultaneous sass and insight. Her approach works better in those forms than it did in a public forum, which lacked the snappy editing that gives her recorded bits their bite. Her style involves semi-schizophrenic personality shifts—prom queen, mean girl, victim, critic—along with bouts of pomposity, self-deprecation, sarcasm, self-conscious attempts to win affirmation, and antagonism of her audience (the crowd’s cued claps never quite met her standards of enthusiasm.) While Ellison’s approach shines elsewhere, the live edition dragged. The nervous crowd of fairgoers didn’t know quite what to do with her and some left halfway through. “It’s okay, this is not for everyone,” she said as a few women shuffled out.

The talk involved several exchanges along these lines: Ellison asking semi-facetious questions presumably meant to expose cultural expectations directed at women, and the panelists—earnest, hyper-articulate types—answering without irony.

“Are you making enough as a woman?” Ellison asked Dunham, who was the most discerning of the panelists, either in spite of or because of her tendency to take every question very seriously.

“Nobody actually asked me if I was a woman when they asked me to be on this panel,” said Dunham.

“Well okay can I explain? It, like, doesn’t matter,” said Ellison, lapsing from mock sincerity to valley girl so quickly it won a big laugh from the audience.

The sheer distinction between male and female rankled Gosset, who observed that it “doesn’t allow us to see that part of capitalism and part of colonialism and part of white supremacy is enforcing the gender binary.”

For her part, Sciortino, who at least maintained a sense of humor throughout, emphasized the financial opportunities her sex affords her, “you know, when you get paid to stand in front of a camera or when you get paid to pee on submissive guys.”

Casey Jane Ellison. (Courtesy the artist and Frieze New York)

Casey Jane Ellison.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND FRIEZE NEW YORK

Ellison moved on to the distasteful one-to-ten ranking system for women, asking each panelist, “What number are you?”

“In the East Village I’m an eight-and-a-half,” said Sciortino, attired in a tight red dress and pale blue sling-backs, “but in Bushwick I’m a nine-and-a-half.”

Again, Dunham served up a sober answer. “You gave me this system that I don’t want to put myself into, which makes me feel like I should rank myself in the lowest possible way,” she said. “So I think I’m going to go with zero today.”

Ellison protested, but Dunham persisted. “You’re trapping me in something and my only way out of it is to be as extreme as possible to escape it.”

“Can’t you participate and be an activist as well?” asked Ellison.

“I’m doing that,” said Dunham.

“You could just say seven,” said Ellison.

Each panelist was given a brief segment to deliver their own bit throughout the talk, and Sciortino focused on flesh. There’s been a recent expansion, she said, of the types of female bodies society deems attractive, at least since she was in high school when the spotlight only fell on Olsen twins and O.C.-era Mischa Barton. “It was super pro-ano,” she said. “Everybody looked like they were dying.”

Reassurance came for Sciortino not in the form of plus-size models, but in porn stars. “Growing up and looking at Hollywood and what was deemed the woman I had to be and watching porn, I realized I preferred watching porn, where the women were bigger and things bounced around,” she said. “I became more comfortable in my body type by being a porn addict.”

The panel wound down after a couple rounds of “There’s Suffering In That!” a game in which everyone assessed how much pain was buried in pictures of poodle puppies wearing pink sweaters and lounge chairs overlooking the ocean.

Dunham’s mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, looked on proudly from the front row. After the talk, Simmons said she wanted to ask Ellison “why she wanted to be a comedian in the art world, which is such a humorless place.”

Just then Dunham stepped off the stage and gave her mother a hug. The panel was revealing, Dunham said. “I’m grateful to Casey for offering herself up as a sacrificial lamb to sort of peel away the scab off the surface of everything that’s going on.

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