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The Greek sculpture, Aphrodite of Knidos, is believed to have been carved from marble by Praxiteles in the fourth century. The sculpture takes the goddess Aphrodite as its subject, fresh from a bath with towel in hand, looking up to the door as if someone is coming. She has yet to cover herself; why should she? Naked and unbothered, Aphrodite’s stance is casual, with her head cocked to the side, indifferent to the sound of an approaching viewer. As Anne Carson writes in The Glass Essay, “Nudes have a difficult sexual destiny,”1 but Aphrodite can’t seem to care—while her gaze remains insouciant, her posture is locked in a perpetual state of come-hither.
Compulsive sexualization is a timeworn method of the male gaze, through which women are reduced to fragments of their bodies, visually spliced into tantalizing bits and shown only as a breast, a pair of legs, or a bare face made pretty and transformed by the removal of her glasses.
Nevine Mahmoud’s debut solo exhibition at M+B, kept a tight control on its objectification with precise arrangement and charged proximity. Its title, f o r e p l a y, alluded to an initiation. Mahmoud’s play with suggestion and expectation gave an ambiguous effect: carved marble, steel, and delicate glass objects were provocative and presented alone, like prizes. Placement of work was precise as though marking invisible points on the floor like a sigil, charging the room with tension.
Mahmoud pushed at the edges of her visual vocabulary and her sexual references landed squarely: an unfurled tongue in Lick (all works 2017), for example, and a dangling bell-like nipple in Breast Shade. Innuendo abounded; language was at play as much as materiality. Mother Milk featured an alabaster blob fit with a pinkish nipple, teasing at the possibility of its function. Similarly, across the room Blue donut, a puckered donut-shape carved from blue marble, was propped up like a tire or a beckoning orifice, contrasted with the complementary transparent yellow of its acrylic supporting column.
Fruit and skin share a similar texture of flesh. Mahmoud’s stones looked touchable, smooth, maybe cool under the palm. A bite was taken from a wedge of orange calcite in Slick slice and, in Peach ball, a drip of glass glided along the split crevice of a pale, glossy pink globe of Persian onyx. The globular stone looked heavy and ripe, bursting but inedible. Mahmoud’s objects read like luxury items, not unlike Venetian glass fruit clustered in bowls in ritzy mid-century homes. Hunger was aroused but refused; this teasing back and forth was volumetric. In Abacus arm 1, for example, a pipe wraps itself into a circle on the wall, threading itself through giant beads of stone, like the toys found in pediatric waiting rooms made elephantine.
Like the show’s centerpiece and most monumental work, Primary Encounter (pink tensions), everything here had the ambition to fit together neatly. In the work, two hulking cubes were gingerly pulled apart (or in the process of being fitted together), one with a rounded hole and the other, a rounded peg. The opacity and heft of the muted pink stone countered the colorful transparency of the nearby plexiglass plinths. Tone and form in f o r e p l a y spoke to a level of contrived drama in romantic or sexual interaction that does not exist in the world outside the gallery. In this way, the show was cinematic, even gratuitous in its precision and oblique, allusion to Greek idealistic forms. Or, like the female body of advertising, built up by those mathematical men who lay the groundwork for our collective notions of perfect physique and, subsequently, sex (the kind that no one’s having).
The gender binary is persistent, even within the liberal greyzone of the art world where an alternative canon—one that includes women and people of color, for instance—is still catching up to male-dominated provenance. With Mahmoud behind the knife and at work in the traditionally masculine labor of stone carving, materials like glass, steel, and stone are welcome diversions from essentialist gendered renderings.
Mahmoud, like Medusa, turns the soft to stone. Sigmund Freud pathologized the myth of Medusa—she was decapitated by Perseus who used her head as a weapon of war—and made it psychosexual. In his analysis, Freud links Medusa with castration, claiming her face as a point from which boyish terror springs. It seems that for Freud, the allegory of a powerful woman such as Medusa (and perhaps powerful women in general), is more a political threat than anything else. After all, it was Eve who bit the fruit first, who was banished into history as the first evil woman, a temptress like Aphrodite in the garden, or a sexual menace like Medusa with her snakes. In f o r e p l a y, material and psychosexual drama turned loose the notion that gender has an accompanying aesthetic and behavior, a concept that the ancient Greeks erected countless statues to. Within these bounds, women are framed as either generous in their beauty or destructive in their deviance, a limited sexual imagination that Mahmoud helps to shake free.
Originally published in Carla issue 11.