When was the last time pornography made you think and not just react?
Last year I had the chance to see Corri-Lynn Tetz’s show Art Lover. The exhibition was an immersive and illuminating tour of erotica, re-interpreted through a critical (though equally subtle and humorous) lens. It’s hard to sum up my feelings about the show because it spurred such an array of them. Listening to gallerist Shannon Norberg’s interview with Tetz back in February, my appreciation for, and questions relating to, Tetz’s work have only broadened.
Use of the female form in in pornographic, political, and religious imagery is a fascinating topic, and one I continually find myself drawn to. During Norberg’s interview, Tetz revealed how significant a role religion had played in her young life, shaping (and shaming) her view of her place as a woman. She stated that religion, along with seeing how her women peers were situated in their community, led to her grappling with gender ideals (Norberg 2022). She learned early on that it was, “ok to be a girl but it was better to be a boy” (Norberg 2022), as so much attention was focused on (traditional) male activities and the development of young men.
Tetz’s grandmother was a horse trainer and artist, and exposed Tetz to painting with familiar subjects like western landscapes (Norberg 2022). Curiously, it was during Tetz’s education in art history, and a chance discovery of porn her brother found behind a Salvation Army donation bin, that spurred her to revisit her ideas regarding gender norms, and inspired a body of work (Norberg 2022).
The erotic photographs Tetz used as the basis for her series came primarily from the 70s and 80s. This is in part because the fashion was somewhat nostalgic, though Tetz also revealed that pornography she sampled from later decades felt too degrading (Norberg 2022).
Women were often pictured alone in Tetz’s source material. Details like pubic hair and tan lines were quite prominent in the era of pornography she referenced (Norberg 2022). These features (in-spite of the intended gaze) allowed Tetz to explore the subjects in a new light, changing the lens while referencing art history in doing so by incorporating classical themes like the reclining nude. Tetz stated that art has, and continues to be, dominated by the male gaze (Norberg 2022), and this head on-dissection of the material is perhaps what makes her work palatable to such a wide array of viewers.
“While the subject captivates [as naked people tend to do], these are painting-first paintings. Tetz’s attention to the application of paint grants her the ability to explore complicated, and perhaps controversial, subject matter.”Dooley 2021
Tan stood out as one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition, emphasizing the core themes of gaze through reflection. Tan portrays a woman standing with her back to the viewer. Her buttocks is uncovered, revealing the tan lines from a swimsuit bottom, while a towel hangs around her shoulders. She tilts her head to the right, examining her reflection in a mirror. She stares forward with a vacuous expression, looking over her (mostly covered) front, with her breasts framed by the garment and the reflection of her pelvis cut off by the frame of the mirror.
To the left is another reflection, this time showcasing the woman’s lefthand side. This reflection, however, is partially obstructed by what looks to be shelving, with the shadow and outline of the object further obstructing view of her body. From this angle, her breasts are covered entirely, and her pelvis and torso are once again intermittently blocked by shelving and shadow. Her head is most prominently featured in this reflection, with the slight tilt of her head emphasized and her gaze directed over the shoulder of the foreground figure, back towards her primary reflection.
In the bottom left of the canvas, the silhouette of what appears to be a sculpture of a man faces towards the primary reflection. The dark shadows seen on the righthand side of the canvas compared with the lighter blue frame of the mirror (along with less obstruction of the view) spurs a conversation regarding gaze and self-analysis. The way in which the woman examines her own reflection is different depending on the angle, with the viewer of the work given vantage to all of these gazes at once, placing them in the illuminating, (albeit somewhat uncomfortable) position of choosing which gaze to adopt. Furthermore, the woman’s reaction to each view is hinted at: the self-exploratory, the erotic, and the reluctant. Her posture and attire too stress this analysis. This is cleverly pushed by the addition of the titular tan lines, highlighting the woman’s figure.
The titular piece of the show, Art Lover, was perhaps the boldest of the lot. It maintains the intimate, but still confrontational, nature of the other works showcased, but is most direct in its composition. The painter’s bare buttocks and coy over the shoulder glance appears more teasing than inviting. With the woman’s fully clothed top standing in stark contrast to her bare legs, the scene tears down allusions of eroticism and invitation, instead turning the gaze around to the viewer.
Though I had some understanding of Tetz’s thesis prior to entering the show, I nevertheless fell prey to the allure of her women numerous times, though Art Lover was the first one to overtly call out my gaze.
While mirrors aren’t featured in Art Lover, the artist’s work on canvas acts as another point from which the viewer can attach reflection. The masked body painted on the canvas stares directly ahead towards the viewer. Whether she is a portrait of the artist, a personification of the representation of women in art, or just another set of eyes engaging the viewer is up for interpretation. The contrast between the artist’s expression, clouded in shadow from the brim of her hat, coupled with the expressionless mask of an incomplete figure on the canvas, give the viewer ample direction to absorb the scene.
Tetz stated that she always tries to paint in oil, and without dryers. This approach forces her to step away from her work, allowing her to then re-approach her it with fresh eyes.Norberg 2022
Tetz’s “loose” brushwork (Dooley 2021) heightens the atmosphere of her scenes. She stated that some viewers felt her brushwork gave her work a dreamlike aura, perhaps capturing a bit of that Impressionistic shimmer, or subtle movement, by proxy.
However, her women are so realistically defined and shaped in spite of this looseness, I feel as though the smooth, calculated, brushwork give each object and body a sense of physical dimension – or at the very least, a convincing textile representation (Tetz stated that she admired the work of old masters, like John Singer Sargent, and would sometimes get lost staring “at the bottoms of dresses” they had painted [Norberg 2022]).
Soft Fascination is composed from numerous shades of green. It is a prime example of Tetz’s mastery in building form through light and shade, as calculated by linework that simultaneously incorporates the aforementioned dreamlike haze. The brushstrokes are primarily horizontal near the centre of the canvas, but become more diagonal, loose, and wide as they approach the boarder. This technique allows the viewer to see the woman situated at the centre of the work in full detail, while teasing a movement, or energy, radiating out from her.
The harmonious colour scheme links the woman to the landscape around her. Furthermore, the fact that she is sitting below, not standing above, the grass gives her a more profound link to the environment. Her pubic hair, which rests and the bottom centre of the screen, further grounds her connection to the land, as does her relaxed, almost sprawled, composure, with her limbs mirroring the diagonal lines of the grass jetting out from under and around her. She looks upward towards the sky – perhaps in allusion to a plant life. Though details like the open garment hanging off of her shoulders perhaps reference the pornographic source material, Tetz’s thoughtful reworking of the scene presents an entirely different narrative.
In Cowgirl, the women’s eyes are heavily drenched in shade. She stares forward, arms crossed, covering her bare breasts, with her body turned slightly away from the viewer. Though her facial expression is more or less neutral from what can be ascertained under the shadow, her lips hint at a slight snarl. The small pink cowboy hat fitted to her head seems parodic more than it does sexy. Here, the power here is not in the hands of the viewer but rather the subject. Despite the initial welcoming glow of pink, the cowgirl’s judgemental, almost disgusted, body language and facial expression builds the subject’s power by taking it away from the viewer.
Tetz is an avid reader, and attempts to allude to art history in her work, though stresses she does not want her work to become inaccessible or purely academic, stating she wants to “make paintings that are smart but that are accessible.”Norberg 2022
Tetz stated she is happy that people wrestle with, reject, and connect with the scenes she has created, confessing that seduction is part of her paintings, but so is humor (Norberg 2022). This is often emphasized in the titles of her works, which Tetz prefers to keep blunt (Norberg 2022).
Ultimately, Tetz stressed that she hopes to shift the gaze in art (Norberg 2022). That’s not to say she dislikes men observing her work; In fact, Tetz welcomes it, and is happy even if viewers enjoy her work for the sex appeal alone. It’s not a view she prioritizes, but one she acknowledges exists (Norberg 2022).
This is what resonated with me so much about her show; The close up, intimate, and vivid capturing of skin and cloth framed in highly charged scenarios was undoubtedly exciting, yet it was far from my only takeaway.
During the talk, a viewer identifying as a gay man spoke about how the work communicated what it means to be female so well, as the erotic aspects of the work picked up by heterosexual male viewers held no value for him, but he loved the subject and interpretation all the same (Norberg 2022). Uncovering the layers to erotica, and not just in a biographical or critical sense, one finds a connection, and beauty, in a depiction of the female form that was perhaps never intended, but is undoubtedly there.
You can see more of Tetz’s work here.
“Art Lover: Corri-Lynn Tetz.” Philespace. Accessed February 8, 2022. https://artlover.philespace.com/
Dooley, Tatum. “Art Lover: Corri-Lynn Tetz.” Contemporary Calgary. 2021. https://www.contemporarycalgary.com/whats-on/corri-lynn-tetz-art-lover
Norberg, Shannon. “Artist Corri-Lynn Tetz in Conversation with Gallerist Shannon Norberg.” YouTube. February 8, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_WbLgbzjoY&t=1s