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Look,  See:  Maia  Horta’s  Little  Acts  of  Voyeurism  

Maia  Horta  posts  selfies  on  Facebook.  There’s  nothing  unusual  about  that,  except  for  the  
fact  that  in  her  selfies,  Maia  doesn’t  project  her  ‘best’  (most  photogenic)  face;  does  not  
perform  the  most  glamorous,  popular  ‘self’  that  is  so  often  implicit  in  the  trope  of  the  
‘selfie.’  Rather,  we  see  an  array  of  invented  personas  that,  whether  photographed  or  
painted,  are  charged  with  painterly  conventions.  But  equally  striking  is  the  fact  that  in  Maia’s  
staging  of  self,  facial  hair  plays  a  big  part:  beards,  moustaches,  lashes  that  rim  the  lips  in  
provocative  simulacrum  of  vulvas.  And  if  this  were  not  enough  to  make  one  think  of  the  
morphological  analogies  between  faces  and  genitals,  Maia  often  underlines  that  upper  
orifice  by  stuffing  something  into  it  (banana,  cigarette),  or  sticking  something  out  of  it  
(bubble  gum,  tongue.)  Not  so  much  an  allusion  to  oral  sex,  it  is  as  if  the  whole  act  of  coitus  
were  shamelessly  performed  upon  another  bodily  stage.    
These  preoccupations  with  the  visible  markers  of  gender  identity  –  with  the  making  visible  of  
polymorphous  gender  identity  –  are  rehearsed  and  reiterated  in  Maia’s  paintings,  which  
concern  themselves  with  the  relationship  between  looking  at  art  and  looking  at  bodies,  and  
in  particular,  looking  at  naked  female  bodies.  In  this,  she  partakes  of  a  powerful  lineage  of  
feminist  artists.  Since  the  late  1960s,  makers  of  art  in  this  lineage  have  explored  the  
metaphors  that  are  issued  by  the  naked  female  form,  and  the  particular  evasions  (from  fig-­‐
leaf,  through  coy  hand  or  drapery,  to  depilation,  literally  shaving  away  the  evidence  of  
messy  under-­‐parts)  surrounding  female  genitalia.  The  relationship  between  the  vagina  and  
disgust  –  a  relationship  that  is  implicit  in  so  much  visual  culture  –  has  always  been  at  the  
heart  of  these  critical  works.    
For  centuries,  naked  male  bodies  (from  the  Greek  kouros  on)  tended  to  armour-­‐like  
containment;  women’s  were  soft,  undulating,  and  owned  this  cut  place  that  was  neither  
fully  internal,  nor  entirely  external,  a  rupture.  This  is  how  art  historian  Lynda  Nead  put  it:  ‘If  
the  female  body  is  defined  as  lacking  containment  and  issuing  filth  and  pollution  from  its  
faltering  outlines  and  broken  surface,  then  the  classical  forms  of  art  perform  a  kind  of  
magical  regulation  of  the  female  body,  containing  it  and  momentarily  repairing  the  orifices  
and  tears.’1  Historically,  with  male  artists  as  the  predominant  actors  in  the  field  and,  until  
the  twentieth  century,  men  as  the  presumed  or  idealised  spectators,  the  female  nude  
became  the  space  of  regulation  by  culture  over  nature,  and  ways  of  papering  over  that  

                                                                                                               
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 Lynda  Nead,  The  Female  Nude:  Art,  Obscenity  and  Sexuality,  London:  Routledge,  1992,  p.  7.    

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orifice  revealed  the  overriding  power  of  culture  over  nature,  materialised  as  the  mastery  of  
the  male  gaze  over  the  female  body.      
Simultaneously,  however,  the  female  nude  offered  the  ultimate  titillation  by  providing  
spectators  with  a  glimpse  of  the  site  of  prohibited  viewing,  a  small  prospect  of  big  danger,  of  
which  the  notion  of  the  vagina  dentata  was  merely  the  hyperbole.  And  when  such  male  
artists  (from  Courbet  through  Picasso  and  Dubuffet  to  de  Kooning  and,  with  greater  
theoretical  knowingness,  Marcel  Duchamp)  began  prising  open  women’s  legs,  exposing  the  
concealed,  bringing  the  inside  out  into  the  open,  metaphors  spilled  out:  for  Courbet,  the  
cunt  was  nothing  short  of  ‘the  origin  of  the  world’  itself,  exposing  how  easy  the  oscillation  
between  revilement  and  idealisation.  It  was  when  feminist  artists,  and  in  particular  
performance  artists  (Shigeko  Kubota’s  Vagina  Painting  of  1965,  Valie  Export’s  Genital  Panic  
of  1969  and  Carolee  Schneeman’s  Interior  Scroll  of  1976)  began  to  explore  the  vagina  as  a  
site  not  of  (Freudian)  lack,  but  of  confrontation  and  creativity  –  breaking  the  mould  that  
identifies  seeing  and  making  with  masculinity  and  being  seen  and  posing  with  femininity  –  
that  the  sexual  politics  of  vision  came  to  be  more  fully  exposed,  so  to  speak,  and  explored.  It  
was  also  no  coincidence  that  such  feminist  performances  prioritised  touch  over  sight,  since  
historically,  sight  has  been  so  burdened  with  male  agency.  
Rather  than  eschewing  a  relationship  with  the  gaze,  Maia  throws  herself  into  the  arena  and  
explores  it,  explores,  not  least,  the  possible  collusion  of  women  in  the  binary  structure  of  the  
scopic  regime:  in  John  Berger’s  famous  equation,  men  act  and  women  appear.2  What  Maia’s  
works  bring  into  the  equation  is  a  curiosity  about  Berger’s  formulation;  a  curiosity,  in  short,  
about  the  relationship  between  such  historically  and  ideologically  freighted  occlusions  and  
displays,  and  that  other  form  of  viewing,  generally  considered  more  benign:  the  gaze  that  is  
enlisted  in  the  production  of  art.  An  art  that  addresses  itself  to  the  eyes,  and  that,  in  some  
ways  like  pornography,  produces  pleasure.    Maia  explores  the  ways  in  which  curiosity  and  
pleasure  are  intrinsically  entailed  in  a  scopic  regime  that  underlies  not  only  the  production  
of  art,  but  also  its  circuits,  the  passage  from  studio  to  the  marketplace,  from  marketplace  to  
museum,  where  nicely  dressed  women  and  men  peer  earnestly  at  the  strip-­‐tease  of  
women’s  bodies.    
It  is  perhaps  no  coincidence  that  two  of  her  exhibitions  have  taken  place  within  the  small,  
exposed  stage  of  a  shop  window,  that  traditional  site  of  display  and  temptation,  where  

                                                                                                               
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 John  Berger,  Ways  of  Seeing,  London:  BBC  and  Penguin  Books,  1972,  p.  47.    

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desire  and  consumption  are  played  off  against  each  other  within  the  embracing  parameters  
of  a  capitalist  economy.    The  artist  described  Art  Lovers,  shown  at  the  Soapbox  Gallery  in  
Brooklyn,  New  York  (2012),  as  a  ‘voyeuristic  experience  of  sorts.’  It  consisted  of  a  series  of  
small  oil  paintings  hung  in  random  grid  formation  within  the  shallow  area  of  the  gallery  
window.  Interspersed  with  portraits  of  female  icons  such  as  Virginia  Woolf  and  Sylvia  Plath,  
were  images  in  which  the  act  of  looking  (at  art)  is  the  pictorial  event  that  we  (spectators)  
watch.  In  each  painting,  a  viewer  seen  from  the  back  is  portrayed  regarding  a  well-­‐known  
work  of  art  in  which  a  female  nude  explicitly  displays  herself  to  the  spectator’s  gaze.  As  
secondary  viewers,  we  are  enlisted  to  witness  these  acts  of  witnessing  in  a  motion  of  
identification  with  the  viewing  figures  in  the  pictures.  That  these  viewers  are  both  male  and  
female  highlights  the  extent  to  which  women  spectators  are  recruited  to  occupy  and  collude  
with  the  position  of  desire  traditionally  associated  with  the  (heterosexual)  male  spectator.    
The  small  scale  of  the  works,  while  presenting  practical  advantages  to  the  artist  (she  
transported  them  to  New  York  in  a  suitcase),  also  served  to  invite  viewers  of  the  exhibition  
to  closer  examination.  This  invitation  was,  however,  frustrated  by  the  transparent  pane  of  
the  shop  window  through  which  the  works  were  seen,  teasing  the  viewer  into  a  proximity  
that  is  visual,  but  not  tactile.  In  this  way,  the  theme  of  the  exhibition  was  replicated  and  
refracted  by  its  form:  titillation,  invitation,  frustration.    
In  these  paintings  of  ‘art  lovers’  peering  directly  into  the  offering  revealed  by  women’s  
parted  thighs,  the  allusions  to  existing  works  of  art  multiply:  so  we  have  Gerhard  Richter’s  
‘Betty’  looking  at  a  menstruating  girl  from  a  Pipilotti  Rist  photographic  print;  a  male  figure  
lifted  from  a  painting  by  Belgian  artist  Michäel  Borremans  gazing  at  Duchamp’s  Étant  
Donnés,  or  another  figure  from  Borremans,  this  time  a  woman,  peeping  into  the  cunt  
displayed  in  a  painting  by  Lisa  Yuscavage.  In  Happy  Wife,  Happy  Life  (2012),  a  drawing  by  
Swedish  artist  Jockum  Nordstrom  is  being  looked  at  by  a  figure  from  a  painting  by  his  wife,  
Mamma  Andersson.  And  in  Origin  of  the  World,  a  female  spectator  resembling  Maia  herself  
watches  a  video  by  Pipilotti  Rist,  which  in  turn  references  Courbet’s  provocative  Origin  of  the  
World.  Photographers  at  the  Museum  (2011)  and  Babes  at  the  Museum  (2011)  both  gently  
satirise  the  appropriative  and  mimetic  behaviour  of  museum  visitors  performing  the  act  of  
looking.  All  these  small  paintings  are  rendered  in  a  consciously  awkward,  deadpan  style  that  
references  the  art-­‐historical  painting  academy  more  than  it  does  the  trendy  idioms  of  
electronic  media.  Maia’s  paintings  enter  into  a  stylistic  conversation  with  a  loose  group  of  
painters  that  includes  John  Currin,  Mamma  Andersson,  Marlene  Dumas,  Lisa  Yuscavage,  

 

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Michael  Borremans,  artists  who  more  or  less  explicitly  probe  the  boundaries  between  high  
art  and  more  vernacular  (or  even  kitsch)  styles  and  sentiments.  
In  the  series  Posh  Lust  that  followed  Art  Lovers,  Maia  focussed  more  closely  on  forging  links  
or  contiguities  between  the  displayed  nude  in  western  art,  and  the  commercial  circuits  that  
lead  from  studio  to  auction  house,  circuits  that  run  between  private  and  public  spaces.  If  the  
studio  is  traditionally  a  place  of  solitary  activity  and  possible  poverty,  the  auction  house  is  a  
location  of  ‘posh  lust’,  where  desire  (the  desire  to  own  works  of  art)  is  dressed  in  very  
expensive  clothes.  These  are  small  oil  paintings  on  gessoed  paper:  a  dry,  close-­‐pored,  matt  
surface.  The  formats  are  panoramic,  the  handling  is  looser,  brushier,  more  evocative  than  in  
the  previous  series.  The  works  are  packed  with  art  historical  allusion,  in  the  forms  of  
paintings  at  auction  houses:  in  She  Works  Hard  for  the  Money,  Manet’s  Olympia  (a  work  
that,  it  is  fair  to  say,  is  unlikely  to  ever  enter  the  auction  house  again)  vies  with  works  by  
Georgia  O’Keefe  and  Dürer:  both  the  Manet  and  the  Dürer  are  iconic  works  in  feminist  
theorisation  of  the  scopic  regime  entailed  in  the  display  of  the  female  nude  to  the  male  gaze  
in  five  centuries  of  western  painting.  In  How  Come  You  Never  Go  There,  Gerhard  Richter  
meets  Boucher,  while  in  Some  Like  it  Hot,  the  artist  focuses  on  headless,  splayed  nudes  by  
Rodin  and  Duchamp.    
 Underpinning  the  project  is  a  conceptual  framework  that  harnesses  Maia’s  readings  around  
the  art  market  (with  special  focus  now  on  the  auction  house  and  on  gender  discrepancy  in  
sales  of  art)  to  her  ticklish  fascination  with  image  appropriation  on  the  one  hand,  and  with  
the  extent  to  which  the  eroticised  female  body  adds  value  to  works  of  art  on  the  other.  The  
series  was  granted  further  consistency  by  the  fact  that  the  titles  were  borrowed  from  
popular  songs  to  which  Maia  listens  while  painting,  bringing  to  the  completed  works  an  
allusion  to  the  process  of  their  production  in  the  studio.  The  full  cycle,  from  studio  work  to  
commercial  circuits,  is  thus  covered  in  these  tiny  works.  
In  Valise  (2013),  the  artist  reprises  all  her  themes  and  concerns,  with  a  knowing  wink  at  
Duchamp’s  Boîte  en  Valise,  in  which  the  celebrated  dada  anti-­‐artist  vexed  the  conditions  of    
‘original’  and  ‘reproduction’  that  are  so  essential  to  the  positioning  of  a  work  within  the  
system  of  the  art  market.  Duchamp’s  miniaturisation  of  his  entire  corpus  into  a  deluxe  
edition  of  photographic  reproductions,  served  –  like  a  travelling  salesman’s  valise  –  as  a  
showcase.  For  Duchamp,  that  showcase  became  a  portable  museum.  In  this,  Duchamp  
operated  a  sly  critique,  both  of  coherent  artistic  (monographic)  identity  and  of  the  uses  of  
photographic  reproduction  in  the  service  of  the  archival  systematisation  of  works  of  art.      

 

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Maia’s  Valise  too  is  a  compendium  of  her  previous  works,  each  reproduced  on  a  matchbox,  
thus  paying  homage  to  Duchamp  as  conceptual  precedent.  Like  Duchamp’s  valise,  Maia’s  
allow  us  to  explore  the  notion  of  scopic  control  facilitated  by  the  miniature,  and  the  illusory  
satisfaction  it  produces,  the  satisfaction  of  complete  knowledge.  One  glimpse  affords  us  an  
entire  body  of  work:  in  the  context  of  quick  consumption  that  characterises  our  times,  what  
could  be  more  apparently  satisfying?  With  her  customary  wry  humour,  Maia  gathers  
together  diverse  cultural  references  entailed  in  the  object  ‘matchbox’  (and  that  includes  
Hans  Christian  Anderson’s  story  ‘The  Little  Match-­‐Seller’  and  Aki  Kaurismaki’s  film  The  
Match  Factory  Girl),  while  ironically  allowing  that  the  low-­‐value  matchbox  reproductions  of  
her  works  might  serve  as  ‘souvenirs  for  the  fans.’  In  this,  as  in  Art  Lovers  and  Posh  Lust,  Maia  
implicitly  but  relentlessly  pits  the  notion  of  market  value  against  the  subjective,  personal  
value  with  which  individual  viewers  invest  works  of  art,  whether  in  the  original  or  in  
reproduction.    
In  Maia  Horta’s  production  of  works  outside  of  the  studio,  whether  collaboratively  or  in  the  
social  media,  there  is  an  impish,  derisory  wish  to  explode  and  undermine  not  only  gendered  
expectations  and  viewing  conventions,  but  also  the  market  conditions  that  facilitate  and  
sponsor  these  positions.  But,  significantly,  in  her  studio  practice,  the  artist  remains  faithful  
to  the  traditional  medium  of  painting  in  order  to  probe  the  structures  –  at  once  spectatorial  
and  commercial  –  that  sustain  the  value  of  painting  in  the  marketplace.    
 
Ruth  Rosengarten  ©  2014  
 
 
 

 

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