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Six Female Artists Consider the Cigarette

'Frida Smoked' is a group show on aesthetic obsessions with smoking.

Ysabelle Cheung

Genesis Belanger, “Peter the Last Drag is for You,” 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports

An incendiary image of Frida Kahlo accompanies the literature for Invisible-Export’s latest exhibition. Although not included in the Lower East Side gallery’s physical space, the black-and-white photograph sets an immediate tone of flouting convention. Kahlo is smoking here, a slight moue on her lips as she takes an industrial drag on a cigarette. The slender cylinder compliments her varnished fingernails, her similarly curved rings. The title of the show Frida Smoked, when paired with the image, is almost like a dare: Frida smoked. So did other women artists; so did other women. So what do you make of that?

Once only accepted as a masculine activity smoking was the ‘bad’ girl’s rebel weapon in the 20th century, after several marketing campaigns took advantage of increasing female emancipation from traditional roles. In 1908 New York, a woman was even arrested. The collection of six female artists shown—Genesis Belanger, Anne Doran, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Ilse Getz, Irini Miga, Amanda Nedham—disregard the discourse of that history in favor of a fresher take on the subject. Each work has less to do with Kahlo and the common portraiture trope of woman-and-cigarette, and more to do with the artists’ inveterate compulsions to study these objects.

Installation view of “Frida Smoked.” Courtesy of Invisible-Exports

Just one of the works relies on historical relevance: Anne Doran’s Tomato Surprise (1998) is a collage fixated on capturing the late 80s. Consisting of ads and images from print publications during that era, the tenuous link to the cigarette is in a photograph of a woman holding one pushed against her breast—an interesting memento of objectification in marketing ploys intended to persuade both men and women to smoke. The rest of the show focuses on the surface, aesthetic qualities of cigarettes. Two older works by Ilse Getz Musical Nightmare, (1981) and Cigarette Collage VII, (1965) show vitrines crammed with ashy cigarettes, each one in various states of being smoked.

Ann Doran, “Tomato Surprise,” 1988. Courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports

Genesis Belanger’s four sculptures and two paintings is a geometric sextet of formalism; the giant cigarette statues, soft and quasi-erotic, are juxtaposed with the solid concrete and steel shapes upon which they are mounted. In Amanda Nedham’s works, the cigarette represents art for art’s sake. Clay is sculpted into functionless cigarettes, which are then plied into animals such as a spotted hyena or a mountain gorilla. The cigarettes are created only to be immediately mashed together and formed as another object. Something inherently satisfying exists in these squashed, soft sculptures, similar to actually putting a butt out.  

Works by Genesis Belanger, all 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports

Not much by way of socio-political commentary is unpacked in this exhibition, which is jarring considering the cigarette’s long history with feminism, capitalism, and consumerism. However, the works—completely unrelated to each other in conception—present a fresh, if not free-floating, take on the cigarette. Absent are the iconic Man Ray photographs and the 17th Century Jan Steen painting depicting destitute prostitutes with pipes (although the latter was mentioned in the exhibition press release). The show does not present a comprehensive dialogue on the topic by any means, but it does consider the metaphysical abstractions of it. And, most interestingly of all, the minimal approach to women-as-object seems to go hand in hand with a rejection of the cigarette as merely a prop.

Works by Amanda Nedham, all 2016. Courtesy the artist and Invisible-Exports

Irini Miga, “A Scratch on the Wall, A Moment Embedded In,” 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports

Ilse Getz, “Cigarette Collage VII,” 1965. Courtesy the artist and Invisible-Exports

Amanda Nedham, “Cigarette and Soap Arc,” 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Invisible-Exports

Genesis Belanger, “Cigarette and Stairs,” 2015. Courtesy the artist and Invisible-Exports

Frida Smoked is up through June 19th at Invisible-Exports in New York. 

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