At first, walking through Betty Tompkins’s text-based show “WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories” at the FLAG Art Foundation feels like walking through an empty classroom at a finishing school for naive young gentlemen. Here, men ignorant of the meaning of “cunt” and the demeaning power of “darling” learn how to paint the most traditional of subjects, women—not as the sensual nude, but a more viscerally limned subject whose medium is language itself.
In 2002 and 2013 Tompkins sent out e-mails to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, calling for recipients to submit words that are commonly used to describe women. The 1,000 submissions she received—from men and women, in seven languages—range from the pejorative to the affectionate. Here, the concept of female identity is literally fractured into a thousand pieces and is seemingly easier to parse as a result.
Tompkins’s hand-painted renderings, which bedeck all four of the gallery’s walls, vary greatly in size, style, and color, from single words to one-sentence anecdotes. The works have been executed as carefully and excessively as if for Mother’s Day cards and are set against abstract backgrounds that recall Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild” series and Pollock’s drip works—examples of what Tompkins calls “old-boy painting.” Garden-variety misogyny blooms amid smudgy, swirling magentas, tangerines, ceruleans, chartreuses, and scarlets embellished with dots and lines, in the form of equally colorful and idiosyncratic turns of phrase: “tuna town”; “baberham lincoln”; “tardis twat”; “brillo pad.”
Though this show is literal in its use of visual language, each word in it ultimately feels lost in an overwhelming polyglot of male jargon, the basis of which seemingly defies linguistic analysis. It is like a language encoded within our human DNA.
Numbed to the repetitiveness of expression, the viewer could readily succumb to an attitude of wry amusement—or worse, pure ridicule—at this exhibit of man’s impotent wit. In the same vein, the few canvases bearing words and phrases like “CEO” and “boss bitch” suggest a poignant lack of self-awareness on the part of the submitter. Stripped of its usual context and placed within a syntactical spectrum ranging from “madchen” (German for a young, unmarried virgin) to “rape,” the word “mother,” one of the most frequent words to appear in the show and traditionally one of the only formidable titles afforded by femininity, registers as trite when it registers at all.
The occasional canvas that reads “honey” or “joon” (Farsi for “dear”), is particularly striking, however, as it illustrates the fact that, even the most well-intentioned and chivalrous of men, in their intimate relationships with women, still fumble for grace.