Voyeurism is a bona fide buzzword these days, and an increasingly popular topic in art, performance and film — both highbrow and lowbrow. From America’s newfound addiction to so-called reality television, to such recent show-all documentaries as Sex with Strangers, our culture can’t seem to get enough of what we’re ostensibly not supposed to see. And with no lack of eager participants in explicit documentaries and humiliating reality-TV shows, we can’t seem to get enough of showing it either.
Although voyeurism, by strict definition, doesn’t necessitate a sexual object, most of the pieces exploring this topic do revolve around sex — big surprise, considering the leading obsession of our society. And thus Wayne State University presents its latest photography exhibit at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, “EXPOSURE! Sexuality and Voyeurism Through the Lens.” Although the capital-lettered exclamation may cause a doubtful wince, this show isn’t just about the shock factor; the diverse selection of artists reveals a fascinating, lovely and, at times, raunchy exploration of all facets of voyeurism.
None of the photographers are from Detroit; most of them live in New York City, a place where high-rise apartments bump up against one another and neighbors’ windows are often mere inches away. Thus, the Peeping Tom theme is a popular one, with some artists using their zoom lenses to mimic the binoculars-through-the-window vantage point.
One of the most amusing pieces of this ilk is Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series. As the story goes, Alpern had a friend who lived near Wall Street, and a seedy adult club opened up across the way from his apartment. Alpern’s friend had a bird’s-eye view of some eye-popping action in the club’s upstairs bathrooms, and invited Alpern over for a look-see. The artist was so taken with what she saw — strippers changing, drug transactions, acts of prostitution — she decided to document the proceedings with her camera for the next nine months, until the club was shut down.
“I used to go home each night and think, well, damn! Somebody’s gotta put up some shades,” Alpern said once. “But I guess it never crossed their minds. They were just having too much fun.”
For this particular exhibition, Alpern’s 12 photographs are hung in box formation, like rows and columns of windows, giving the impression of one big building filled with illegal, tawdry acts. In one “window,” a dancer, shown only from neck to thighs, grasps a handful of money; her ratty black-lace teddy is hiked up in an obscene manner. Another scene portrays a young woman kneeling; it’s unclear whether she’s about to engage in a paid sex act or simply bending to lace her boots.
The best thing about Dirty Windows is the way it leaves you smirking with a naughty grin when you turn away. Although the idea of strippers caught off guard is far from charming, Alpern creates a piece that’s wickedly funny and makes the viewer feel just a tad guilty … or rather, dirty.
Another standout artist is Renee Cox, also a New Yorker, who points the peeping eye of her own camera at herself. Cox’s racy self-portraits range from bold, enormous close-ups of her curvy, muscular torso to blurry Polaroids arranged in a neat line. In Fur, the Jamaican-born Cox is framed by a bold yellow background, her hips thrust forward and clad only in a white furry thong — a tongue-in-cheek parody of the pubic hair of a white woman.
Cox is also fond of interspersing her risqué black-and-white self-portraits with old photos of either her family members or herself. In Father and Uncle, her youthful, crisply dressed relatives are frozen in another time, counterbalancing Cox’s fishnetted, vinyl-clad form to their right. Cox’s face is always cut off, turned or blearily represented, a tactic that makes her photographs all the more detached and impersonal.
Other artists don’t go straight for the throat (or other body parts) as Cox does. The most subtle and mysterious pieces come from Bill Jacobson, a photographer who uses extreme diffusion techniques to blur his subjects into a swirl of hues almost unrecognizable as human forms. Jacobson’s work is not bash-you-over-the-head symbolic, and it’s not sexually explicit, so it won’t be surprising if many viewers pass by in boredom. However, Jacobson’s grainy portrait of a slumbering body is highly intimate and tender, and just as compelling as the other, more blatant contributions to the show.
The exhibit also features two sadly poignant photographs from Francesca Woodman, a young New York artist who crafted darkly shadowed self-portrait nudes. In the two pieces shown, Woodman’s naked body is huddled in an odd ramshackle construction of glass and wood. It’s a strange and disturbing piece, and purveys a message of being trapped. The piece is all the more difficult to view knowing that Woodman died in 1981, having thrown herself out of her apartment window into the streets of the East Village.
The exhibit’s curator, Sandra Dupret, says her original intent was to somehow complement the upcoming Degas show at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Dupret says Wayne State’s art and art history staff mulled over a show exploring prostitution, as the majority of Degas’ models were French prostitutes. But research into that angle turned up a number of talented artists dealing with sexuality and voyeurism, which eventually led the show down the path toward its current incarnation.
As for the often-taboo focus of the show, Dupret says there may be some raised eyebrows, but the department isn’t overly concerned: “There are some elements that possibly could be controversial,” she says, “but controversy breeds dialogue, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“EXPOSURE! Sexuality and Voyeurism Through the Lens” runs through Nov. 9 at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, 480 W. Hancock on the Wayne State University campus; call 313-993-7813.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]