Hint: It has to do with Obama.
By Mishki Vaccaro
Brooklyn-based artist Alexandra Rubinstein isn’t shy about female sexuality. In fact, her work revels in it, often flipping the so-called “male gaze” into a distinctly female one. Take, for example, her recent series A Dream Come True (Celebrity Cunnilingus), which features male heartthrobs going down on women from a female point of view (a favorite is one of Drake putting in *werk*, appropriately titled Best I Ever Had). Her art is both political and fun, commenting on the way women’s sexuality is evolving in today’s society without taking itself too seriously. We caught up with Alexandra on the phone to chat about pubic hair, heartthrobs, and the role of art as a means of resistance in today’s political economy.
You were born in Russia—how has your upbringing influenced your work?
We moved here when I was 9 and it’s definitely a big part of my work because it was a difficult transition, assimilating into a new country. I’d just started going through puberty when I moved, so I think I was more sensitive and more aware of different expectations both cultures placed on me as a woman. I spent a lot of my youth just trying to resolve both of those cultures.
Can you speak to the different expectations that each culture placed on you?
Everyone knows Russian culture is much more stereotypically misogynistic and there’s a lot of value placed on female appearance. American culture is definitely a lot more progressive but there is more nuanced misogyny and sexism.
Both place a lot value on female appearance but the way they address female sexuality is different. American culture allows women more freedom to express themselves for sure but we’re still not there, you know?
Your series A Dream Come True (Celebrity Cunnilingus) features the likes of Jon Hamm and Drake going down on women. What was your inspiration for the series?
Sure. In my Mr. Goodsex series, I was looking at a lot of vintage pornography and I just noticed in mainstream media as well as pornography there’s a huge lack of female perspective and cunnilingus. Basically anything that caters to female sexuality. It reiterates that sex is about men and their pleasure. I wanted to explore the female perspective and, more specifically, a female fantasy and what that looks like. I decided to use cunnilingus because it’s a very female centered act and then use a very literal female perspective to focus on the guys, not the woman.
Can we talk about pubic hair for a minute? The Dream Come True series has a variety of, um, hairstyles represented. What’s in a hairstyle?
I tried to capture diversity in the pubic hairstyles, that’s something I was taking into account because everything you paint is going to have weight to it. For the series, I’m using found images and there’s a lack of diversity of race as well as pubic hair out there, from a female perspective, so it was a little limiting. Working with what I could find I tried to pair up the different guys with different styles to a degree as well.
How did you choose which celebrities to include in the series?
It started off as mainstream heartthrobs in American culture, which is why they lack some diversity because most of our heartthrobs are still white men. And then after the election the direction changed a bit. I kind of decided to take on Obama within the broader theme of what women want, as opposed to just the sexual fantasy. And then after Obama I did Prince and Damien Hirst. I think for Prince, he’s a sex symbol but he’s more a symbol of freedom of sexuality… And then Damien Hirst, that’s more a commentary on being a female in the art world.
The series is ongoing so I’m not sure what I’m going to do next, but I am liking the idea of them standing for more than just a sex symbol.
What challenges have you faced being a woman producing female-centric art?
There’s many. I often worry about being pigeon-holed because I am creating work that deals with sexuality and I worry that is going to make me be taken less seriously.
But I’m making work that is supposed to cater to a straight female audience and often the response is pretty positive, that women can really connect with the work, and that makes me really happy.
It has really helped me out that art has become more mobilized through social media, which I think is really interesting. It’s really changed the role of galleries and art dealers and allows me to have a broad reach, which at the end of the day is what you want as an artist.
I can’t help but notice that most of your subjects (save for a few) are white men (and women). Is this intentional? In what ways are you engaging with race as well as gender in your art?
I use a lot of found imagery, so that’s part of it—reflecting the lack of diversity in media and our cultural taste when it comes to male heartthrobs. I do think a lot about portraying race. With my A Dream Come True series, I got a lot of people saying it could be more inclusive as a series. I think there are two sides: I am commenting on the lack of diversity and I’m addressing a very specific thing, which is gender. I’m also careful as a white woman not to objectify minorities, men or women… it’s a combination of my experience being limited as a white, middle class women but also that there’s a history of sexualization and objectification of black men and women that I am careful to not breach.
What’s next for you?
We shall see. I’m still painting. I just finished a self portrait for the year so that’s exciting for me, because it was a larger piece and I think I may to more large scale pieces this year. I have a show coming up later in the summer that I’m excited about, a podcast, all these random little pieces… it’s good.
For more on Alexandra, click here.