Betty Tompkins’s paintings were once considered so obscene, the French wouldn’t even let them into the country. Her ‘Fuck Paintings’ – extreme close-ups of photorealistic genitals – were seized at customs in 1973 and denied entry for their ‘vulgarity’. Betty couldn’t catch a break among her peers in the 1970s feminist art movement, either. Many criticised her work, seeing it as an objectifying play into patriarchal hands. Body politics might have been popular then, but this was the wrong kind of politics. The wrong kind of radical.
It would be 30 years before dealers recognised that she was trying to subvert the objectification of pornography, rather than replicate it. In the early noughties, Betty got her second coming. ‘Fuck Paintings, Etc’ is her first ever solo London exhibition. And what a show it is: enormous depictions of full-on penetration and vivid greyscale labia fill the entire gallery.
This kind of aggressive, intensely sexual display is largely given to male artists who are then lauded for it, like Andy Warhol’s ‘Sex Parts’ or the perversity of Paul McCarthy (though Marlene Dumas and Celia Hempton have produced their share of brilliant erotically-charged paintings). It’s thrilling to see a woman claiming this space with such graphic art. Betty is still making the ‘Fuck Paintings’ today and there’s a mix of old and new on show here (the more recent capturing a shocking lack of pubic hair).
It is unashamed, but the world at large doesn’t allow them to exist without shame. Four paintings are overlaid with the vile comments women experience in their exterior and interior lives (‘she’s difficult to work with’, ‘who will ever love you if you look like this?’).
The genitals are slightly out of focus, as though seen through a vaseline-smeared camera lens. Though it’s described as ‘photorealistic’, they play with abstraction, forcing you to look – really look – at the sexual organs in front of you. They got through customs this time, but they still have the ability to shock. Betty might not be the ‘right kind’ of radical, but if this show proves anything, it’s that she just doesn’t give a fuck.