Girl talk: Betty Tompkins unveils 1,000 text-based paintings at Gavlak LA

In ’WOMEN Words, Phrases and Stories’, Betty Tompkins has revealed 1,000 text-based paintings, using a vocabulary gleaned from an open call to her personal networks, and through Blouin ArtInfo, soliciting for words to describe women
In ’WOMEN Words, Phrases and Stories’, Betty Tompkins has revealed 1,000 text-based paintings, using a vocabulary gleaned from an open call to her personal networks, and through Blouin ArtInfo, soliciting for words to describe women
(Image credit: Jeff McLane)

There’s plenty of porn in Betty Tompkins’ solo exhibition, which is newly open at Gavlak’s Los Angeles gallery. But that’s the least provocative part of it. In 2002, and then again 11 years later in 2013, the artist sent out an open call to her personal networks, and through art news hub Blouin ArtInfo, soliciting for words to describe women. The public responded with over 3,500 submissions in seven languages. So what were the most common words associated with women? 'Bitch', 'slut' and 'Mother'.

Over the next two years, Tompkins turned the results of her social experiment into 1,000 text-based paintings, using a selection of the words and phrases she received. The installation, 'WOMEN Words, Phrases and Stories', has traveled from New York City’s FLAG Art Foundation to Gavlak, hung in a carefully arranged salon-style that sprawls across the walls. The meticulous order creates a new narrative from the phrases, an incisive overview of the contemporary female experience and the perception of female identity in the west, from appreciation and objectification to misogyny and everyday sexism.

Tompkins presents the situation for women, in the here and now – but she also opens up questions about how art and culture shape that position. ‘The paintings layer text in various styles over imagery, including lace overlays, gauzy close-ups of the female body and a sampling of styles from the old-boy-painting network – de Kooning, Fontana, Guston, Morris Louis, Newman, Pollock and Richter,’ Tompkins writes of the installation work. ‘"WOMEN Words" was created to challenge the representation of female identity, the politics of pleasure and the role of sexuality in contemporary culture.’

'WOMEN Words' is a clarion call, far more radical and revealing than Tompkins’ better known earlier works also on display: her Cunt paintings and Fuck series, enlarged photorealistic depictions of sex in acrylic. Also on show are subtler statements on paper, including rare collage works, displayed alongside 'WOMEN Words' for the first time, highlighting the visible and unconscious structures that define gender today. 

The meticulous order creates a new narrative from the phrases, an incisive overview of the contemporary female experience and the perception of female identity in the west

The meticulous order creates a new narrative from the phrases, an incisive overview of the contemporary female experience and the perception of female identity in the west

(Image credit: Jeff McLane)

Tompkins writes of the installation work

‘The paintings layer text in various styles over imagery, including lace overlays, gauzy close-ups of the female body and a sampling of styles from the old-boy-painting network – de Kooning, Fontana, Guston, Morris Louis, Newman, Pollock and Richter,’ Tompkins writes of the installation work

(Image credit: Jeff McLane)

Tompkins’ better known earlier works are also on display. Her Cunt paintings and Fuck series comprise enlarged photorealistic depictions of sex in acrylic

Tompkins’ better known earlier works are also on display. Her Cunt paintings and Fuck series comprise enlarged photorealistic depictions of sex in acrylic

(Image credit: Jeff McLane)

There are also subtler statements on paper, including rare collage works, displayed alongside 'WOMEN Words' for the first time, highlighting the visible and unconscious structures that define gender today

There are also subtler statements on paper, including rare collage works, displayed alongside 'WOMEN Words' for the first time, highlighting the visible and unconscious structures that define gender today

(Image credit: Jeff McLane)

INFORMATION

’WOMEN Words, Phrases and Stories’ is on view until 3 September. For more information, visit the Gavlak website (opens in new tab)

Photography: Jeff McLane. Courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Los Angeles

ADDRESS

Gavlak
1034 N Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.