The May covers of Vogue and Mademoiselle tempt our gaze into the shady caverns between voluminous mounds of smooth flesh, into glossy wonderlands of ideal body parts on parade. Artist Sharon Guy wants us to admire breasts too, but her standards for what qualifies as admirable are somewhat less exacting than Vogue’s.
With the help of “collaborators” gathered by word of mouth and through an ad in Windy City Times (“Bodacious Breast Bonanza!”), Guy cast more than 80 pairs of breasts and put them together for a show at the UIC’s Gallery 400 as part of her thesis for her MFA degree. Most of Guy’s breasts belie a greater obedience to gravity than the ones you’re used to seeing bared in public.
At the exhibit’s recent opening (in a building that once housed a bra factory) guests circulated in a mammary forest, the pairs hanging from wooden poles. Guy wore a cast of her own breasts barely covered by a tasteful black blazer. The mold hung by a cord around her neck like a talisman. Various collaborators posed beside their casts as a photographer dutifully snapped souvenirs.
Like the cryptic utterings of Jerzy Kosinski’s gardener in Being There, the significance of Guy’s artistic statement depended on the beholder. One elderly viewer, a grad student in industrial design, deemed the exhibit “obscene,” a denigration of the sacred. “I’m curious why women would expose themselves like that,” he said, adding “but I would feel the same way if there were a whole bunch of jock straps with men’s penises of various sizes on display. I think that sex is a private, loving kind of thing. This kind of display takes away the love.”
For Bonnie, a 20-year-old sculptor and a collaborator, the breasts on display represented forbidden fruit, tempting her to cop a feel. “I definitely have an urge to touch them and to pick them up,” she mused. “I really like objects in general, the whole idea of touching something that you’re not supposed to.”
Paul, an architecture student, focused on Guy’s system of cataloging: she had stamped birth dates onto the breast casts. “The breast experience has been almost literally mummified. The pun is ‘mommified.’ The representations of the breasts both are absolutely sexual and have everything to do with our birth dates. But is the reducibility of the birth date still a phallic symbolizer like the name that’s given by the parent, especially the father parent?”
Denise, a 32-year-old undergrad, was drawn into the collaboration after facing a health scare. She recently had biopsies on a couple of lumps in her breasts. While waiting for the results–they turned out to be benign–she realized reluctantly that her sexuality was rooted in her breasts. That experience made her open to the idea of having her breasts cast, and she even suggested her three daughters get cast; they went along with it for art’s sake.
Using Guy’s technique, Denise cast the children at home and then gave Guy the casts for her show. Denise feels the process strengthened her bond with them. Megan, her 12-year-old, agrees. The intimate interaction with her mom broke through barriers raised during adolescence. “I’m not used to my mom with my shirt off,” she said shyly.
Denise had trouble locating their sets. During the hunt she remembered a question once asked of husbands on a game show. Would they be able to recognize the shape of their wives’ breasts if they had been used to mold Jell-O for a party. “They all said yes. That came to me as I thought, I can’t even identify these and say they are mine.”
Paige, a 26-year-old dancer, found her breasts quickly. Unlike many of the collaborators, who compared themselves to each other, Paige compared her breasts to the way she remembers them looking. “I can see with the shape that I’ve lost my strength. I used to teach dance and my whole upper body was much stronger. It tells me the state of my health.”
Guy’s feminist-theory professor Sandra focused on the dehumanization of the female body in advertising and went on from there. “You just see legs or you just see breasts. And men will often describe themselves as ‘I’m a tits man’ or ‘I’m an ass man.’ ” She frowned with disgust. “It’s not like men are capable of being excited by the whole woman–her body as well as her mind. This is ‘I’m a tits man.'”
Nancy, a photo student and one of Guy’s collaborators, said “What you bring to the piece is 80 percent of what it means.” She called it a comment on the breast as an object of commerce. “Everywhere you look, breasts are used to sell things. They come separated from ourselves. For me it’s taking back this particular part of your body, which is so objectified.” Nancy adorns her nose and ears with dozens of delicate gold rings.
Bonnie the sculptor echoed the photographer’s sentiment. She said objectification of women is a daily issue in her Wicker Park neighborhood. “Sometimes men will make lewd comments and I’ll feel real uncomfortable and that bothers me,” she complained.
Guy admits that notions of “objectification” and “commodification” influenced her. But she wonders how to discuss these issues without in turn perpetuating them. She took the lead from a highly successful contemporary artist. “Even Barbara Kruger has talked about commodification of the female. Yet her art ends up getting commodified.” So Guy printed up 30 black T-shirts with an image of a breast cast emblazoned on the front. During the opening one of Guy’s male former students hawked the $15 shirts like a cigarette girl. Guy sold three of her five works for hundreds of dollars apiece.
Guy’s husband David wore the shirt and said he noticed a couple of people sneaking a guilty peek. He was dismayed to discover what happened when he caught their gaze. “As soon as you make eye contact with them they look someplace else.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, Michelle Litvin.