‘I’m not sure that a male artist, or a heterosexual woman artist, would paint as proudly and freely as this,’ says Anna McNay, curator of two parallel exhibitions on the female gaze in painting and photography today. The duet of shows at New Arts Project in London take the perspective of 12 queer women artists who look at each other, and themselves.

The term the ‘female gaze’ first emerged in opposition to the ‘male gaze’ coined by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay of 1975, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, to illuminate the way women and their bodies are circumscribed by the patriarchy in culture. But, as McNay asserts, ‘the female gaze is more than just the opposite of the male gaze’. Riffing on the ideas of the radical French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, McNay says that, in 2018, ‘Woman must paint herself, must paint women and bring women to painting, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. And, to some extent, that is the goal of “Threesome”.’

Stages of Mourning IX, 2000, by Sarah Pucill

Interconnected with feminism, non-binary sexuality and gender, in ‘Threesome: an exhibition of three women painters’ three queer women painters attempt to broaden the discussion of the ‘female gaze’ in a direct way. British artists Sarah Jane Moon, Roxana Halls and Sadie Lee have each painted a self-portrait, a portrait of each other and a portrait of a nude model (performance artist Ursula Martinez) to bring the gaze into focus, an enquiry as to whether women see women differently, and how their sexuality affects their gaze on the female subject.

‘The key concern shared by Sarah Jane Moon, Roxana, Sadie and myself was how the gaze of a lesbian might differ from the gaze of a heterosexual woman,’ McNay explains. The portraits range in style and approach – from Lee’s powerfully erotic brushstrokes to Halls’ hallucinogenic pop. However, in their portrayal of Martinez, all three had exaggerated the subject’s crotch. Perhaps a response, McNay proffers, to the centrality of the nipple in the social media censorship maelstrom. ‘They were not unveiled to each other until the night, nor to me or the gallery until two nights before, when they were dropped off for us to hang. There was an element of unity in difference and difference in unity.’

Living Room, 2017, by Imogen Crew

In ‘3x3: an exhibition of nine women photographers’, meanwhile, nine gay female photographers have taken self-portraits, some of them for the first time. ‘Again, it was an experiment in ways of looking, seeing, and being seen. By concentrating solely on their own image, the artists seek to untangle, distinguish, and, in some instances, deliberately re-confuse their own subjectivity and objecthood.’

Is there such a thing, then, as the ‘gay gaze’? ‘As a woman who likes women myself, it is hard to say whether my own gaze, enjoyment of and response to this painting is different from that of a heterosexual woman. There are so many knots and loops in this discussion, but that’s what makes it such an interesting subject to explore,’ McNay says.

Despite navigating the complexities inherent in labelling individuals and their art as ‘queer’ or ‘lesbian’, McNay adds: ‘I do think there is something more specific to the gaze in this exhibition than just the female gaze, even if it can’t be pinned down in linguistic terms. That’s really only something you can find out by coming and looking for yourself and exploring your own gaze and response to the works. ‘The gaze, after all, goes in two directions and may, or may not, be met midway.’