Bitch Formalism is an attempt to use form to question the relevance of gender in art. It is playing with “feminine forms” in a gendered context to ask the viewer to question assumptions. The term “Bitch Formalism” was coined by artist Dana DeGiulio, when she encountered my piece Hand Catching Cupcake — a piece that plays with ideas of gender in response to Richard Serra’s work Hand Catching Lead.
Bitch Formalism, A treatise by Dana DeGiulio, 2016
Cuts the fat, all the way to the bone.
Laughs. Understands laughter as an hydraulic that relieves the organism of the responsibility of actual violence.
Is tactical, impatient, un-shy.
You see it all at once.
Requires you to take a side. There are only two, and one is against us, and they are equally correct for the risk of your decision.
Its bodies, having been humiliated, are without shame.
It holds the negative.
Rhetorical, cynical and without "ideas."
The arms aren't open. They're empty.
The edges stay hard.
Bitch Formalism could stand to hold you and in fact does but also defies, deflects, resists openly, awfully, cheerfully, any release but your laughter.
Heuristic. All the tension of a metronome.
Is located in history, and posits everything equal at the level of species and variant at any degree of acculturation. Except for potential and its silencing, about which it is aggrieved and cannot avenge and so in this way works for the past.
Anti-verbal, unless it is verbal, and even then.
Anticipates nothing of the intelligence of its interlocutor but knows
Insists that nothing is exhausted but that everything is already over.
This makes us free.
Innocence is not a position.
Goes assforward into the future, anus-eyeball focused straight ahead, understanding that apprehension requires a fully occupied and open sensual apparatus, and alert to history, facing it.
Bitch Formalists are waiting without hope or fear, but never for you.[i]
So Bitch Formalism is a standing-away from the default: patriarchy. It attempts to capture and illuminate inherent conflicts of being — violent and playful; open but empty; humiliated and without shame — that exist for all, but specifically within the context of being a woman. To go “assforward into the future” is what it is to feel the world is backwards — made for someone who is the opposite of you. It is what is left, as the minority position, when there is the realization that there is a dominant position and it is not available to you due to circumstance. Bitch Formalism looks from a different angle — a backwards angle that has seen the other side and has rejected it and been rejected by it. It is a silly, serious, angry, laughing, forgiving, judgmental thought that holds a truth.
Bitch Formalism, although a new term, is not a new idea. Anyone using material to comment on gender is playing with these concepts — Louise Borgeois with her soft sculptures, Yayoi Kusama and her use of fabric and environment. And Queer Formalism is a similar call to look at art from a different perspective in the hopes of understanding something that does not fit neatly within existing social/cultural categories.
My Work with Bitch Formalism
In these pieces I examine gender in the context of some of the big names from the Abstract Expressionist period. Hand Catching Cupcake is a response to Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead from 1968.
In Hand Catching Cupcake, I draw attention to gender by using humor and play. Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead is a simple, three minute, black and white film of a man’s hand catching pieces of lead. The “default” assumption that I wanted to challenge in Hand Catching Cupcake is that the white male is a neutral representation for all humans, regardless of race or gender. Serra titled his piece Hand Catching Lead, assuming that the "hand" was somehow neutral. But the industrial setting, the rolled up sleeve of the work shirt, and the muscular white hand attempting to catch sharp pieces of heavy lead exude a decidedly masculine tone. My equal but opposite Hand Catching Cupcake — placed in a domestic setting, the feminine hand with wedding ring attempting to catch pink-frosted cupcakes — exudes a stereotypically feminine tone.
This work invites the viewer to examine the gender spectrum, to ask: if Hand Catching Lead is 100% masculine and Hand Catching Cupcake is 100% feminine, then where do I fit? Are these distinctions even real? I also wanted to question assumptions about what it means to be a man versus what it means to be a woman in our society. Culturally, men are expected to be solid and deal with edges, while women are expected to be soft and deal with home. But is this really true? What (or who) gets excluded when we view art through the narrow, entitled filter of the patriarchy, when the protagonist or artist is a straight, white male? How do we diminish, dismiss, or deny our own multi-dimensionality when we forget that we are all “equal at the level of species”?
Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings are about war and death. They are huge in size and are often likened to marching soldiers. Because of the feminine connotations of Motherwell’s name, I was curious to examine the shapes of his work within a “feminine form” — a bowl. I wanted to create an equal but opposite portrayal with what is often considered feminine or craft material: clay.
The piece is small and ceramic and therefore fragile. If we take these same black forms and make them into a handheld bowl, they no longer seem like marching soldiers but become something that holds emptiness. I wanted to look at holding, nurturing, “mothering” (considering Motherwell’s name), and his themes of death and war. What are our ideas about war and women? How do we experience the emptiness of war? What roles do holding and emptiness play with regard to gender? How do we experience the small, quiet, healing spaces versus the large, uncontained expanses of the battlefield? Doesn’t everyone have the capacity to be nurturing, quiet, small, and fragile while also dealing with death and war on some level?
[i] Dana DeGiulio, “Bitch Formalism.” Facebook post, February 22, 2016.