Comments/Context: As the years pile up and social media becomes more and more central to how we communicate, there’s been an undeniable shift in our collective standards for what we share about ourselves and how we share it. This cultural evolution is more complex than just the proliferation of selfies; inside an environment where seeing and being seen are paramount, we’re slowly modifying the ways in which we define identity. We now take for granted a much more permeable boundary between public and private, and are generally unperturbed by fakery, staging, and performance as applied to ourselves and others. In these digital worlds, we’re all becoming exhibitionists in one form or another.
Hester Scheurwater’s provocative new project is both a reaction to this new reality and a deliberate testing of its limits. Begun as a daily photo diary posted to Facebook (which subsequently blocked her for crossing the lines of acceptable explicitness), it has now taken the form of an innovative photobook. As a brash commentary on the male gaze, feminine roles and objectification, digital voyeurism, and the boundaries of permissible behavior in this evolving electronic world we’re living in, it’s a thought-provoking blast of confidently exaggerated sexuality.
Using herself as the model and leveraging all of the common tropes of the selfie, she has created a parade of self-portraits that consciously linger near the edges of personal pornography. She spreads her legs (repeatedly, in nylons, panties, and nude), shows off her breasts, bends over or squats in heels, sticks out her tongue, lets her hair flow, touches herself, and sucks on various glass knobs, all with a sultry come hither look – as a daring performance of exhibitionist codes and erotic fantasies, it’s spot on. Her adopted attitude is one of assertive audacity, often edging into overt defiance and confrontation, challenging the viewer to be shocked or aroused or both.
Photographically, Scheurwater has taken ideas from Carolee Schneemann and Francesca Woodman and amplified and adapted them for the casual digital age. She uses her own body like a posable model and employs mirrors to twist angles and distort figures, allowing the flash to erupt in distraction or obfuscation, often in gritty blur or contrasty dark. Breasts double, shadows paint stripes and dots across expanses of flesh, and cameras are held in plausibly engaged first person narrative. Most of the shots seem to take place at home or in her studio, giving them a feeling of exposed intimacy. Part of what makes this series of images work so well is that we have a hard time separating the artist and the subject – she’s both, and so we unconsciously make assumptions about these pictures being a reflection of her own desires, when they are in fact a calculated performance. She’s tricked us, and that inversion is the essence of her point about the kinds of blatantly voyeuristic images she has made and their increasing acceptance in commercialized mainstream culture.
The book itself has an unusual construction – a series of individual saddle stitched booklets are connected by yet another booklet, fanned out and interleaved. Most of the booklets are thematically organized: images using hand mirrors (that reflect and don’t), images of Scheurwater in a striped shirt, images from a hotel room, mouth and tongue pictures (often dripping), shots with a large full length mirror (some with a Kertész-like warp), studio images in colored tights, images that use a dense wall of imagery as a backdrop, and images with one eye or otherwise obscured faces. Each discrete set of photographs feels like a volume in her larger construction project, each a facet of a staged personality or a knowing riff on some porn cliché.
While this photobook may be more sexually explicit than some readers will be comfortable with, it’s a natural extension of Kim Kardashian’s Selfish, but seen with the acerbic and questioning eye of an artist. She’s hyperbolized and hypercharged the kind of female objectification and fake identity we have become accustomed to seeing, and yet it somehow passes for almost normal; its satire is so convincing that it persuasively stands in for the real thing, and that dissonance is powerful. For those who have been waiting for a photographer to critically engage the wider phenomenon of the selfie, Scheurwater’s bluntly audacious photobook is memorably biting. She’s given us the mannered freedom and sexiness we’re supposed to want (or want to be), incisively exposing the two poles of exhibitionism and voyeurism that now dominate the Facebook-age.
Collector’s POV: Hester Scheurwater is represented by Frank Taal Galerie in Rotterdam (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Editions Bessard (here). Softcover booklet construction, with 9 16-page booklets of imagery connected/glued together by a 10th booklet in red paper stock (which includes the essay). Includes 117 black and white and color reproductions and an essay by Patrick Remy. In an edition of 500. (Cover and spread shots below.)