Can I be a feminist and a man? If I call myself a feminist am I still allowed to admire the female body? In the current climate when are my actions considered exploitative?
"There are strong links between Paterson’s photography and portraiture works that speak to issues he perceives in today’s world. To Paterson, celebrity is a facade, a distraction, a selling point, as is the growing attachment between people and materials. In our modern world, status and the acquisition of wealth are seemingly more important than life itself. Politics and education reinforce skewed values and ideas from a young age, creating a culture that fosters obedience and prioritises class and social hierarchy. Paterson’s practice perfectly encapsulates our modern anxieties and fears, showing us exactly what these fears look like in his haunting and intricate artworks, with his visual realisations acting as deterrents, not determinants of what is in store for society."
- Natasha Matila-Smith, 2016
PJ Paterson’s most recent series The Censorship of Eve continues his ongoing exploration and critique of consumer culture and the rise of fourth-wave feminism. His work examines his place within this through the lens of what he calls his “white, middle-aged, man-dom”. On becoming a father for the first time to a son, Paterson’s interest in the visual environment moved on to focus more intensively on the role visual bombardment from media sources plays in the development of toxic masculine culture and in hindering the progression of feminism and equality: “My intention is to open a discourse on the sexualisation and subsequent censorship of women’s bodies and, in particular, breasts, which I feel highlights a disparity between how men and women are treated by society” says Paterson. “Breasts are for feeding babies. At some unknown point in human history the female breast was sexualised. Because of this sexualisation ancient societies in Europe decided they then had to be hidden. Now, we accept that women need to cover-up in public where men aren’t required to in the same way.”
In Western society we experience every day the dichotomy of hyper-sexualised marketing / celebrity imagery versus the sensibilities of puritanical American culture. Women in the public eye are routinely encouraged – almost required – in the quest for media visibility to pose with their clothes off. Yet the resulting images, in particular breasts and nipples, are also routinely censored. “I was struck by the irony of a self-released photo of Naomi Campbell, posing topless as part of the ‘free the nipple’ movement in reaction to Instagram censoring photos of female nipples uploaded to their platform” says Paterson. “Instagram censored the image, of course; and now I have followed suit by censoring my painting… The only person in this triumvirate to want her nipples exposed is Ms Campbell herself. But both Instagram and I have censored her without her input. How does that fit with body ownership? …It is the censorship of a female body part that is totally acceptable to show in a man. How can that not be utterly sexist? Would it hurt us to see Naomi Campbell’s nipples? And would it help us?”
Despite the pervasive influence of the hashtag movements of fourth-wave feminism (#metoo; #everdaysexism; #timesup; etc), the ubiquitous presence of the naked/sexualised female body in public forums has not abated and continues to be appropriated by corporate marketing interests, often under the convenient guise of ‘empowerment’ and ‘body confidence’, purporting to be ‘feminist’ in nature. In this milieu being seen as comfortable-with-my-public-nakedness is critical for women to be successful in the public eye, connoting high self-esteem and well-being, along with desirability. Paterson’s imagery overtly offers satirical presentations of this female ‘hotness’; his depictions of beauty arrive in tandem with sexual availability. Chorus lines of anachronistic pin-ups pose in semi-comic tableaux of coquettish seduction. Alongside, the largest names of supermodel culture bare all for your viewing pleasure – with strategically pixelated nipples to protect their modesty from prurient interests.
Issues of consent and appropriation in the context of Paterson’s use of copyrighted material and images also arise in the artist’s ongoing dialogue of public domain and ownership of copyright versus ownership of visual memory. “As a middle-aged white male, I am in the middle of the target demographic for a large amount of this type of marketing imagery. Since these corporate interests want my headspace to be invaded by these images, and for me to integrate them into my psyche, I now choose to use them in my work.”
Paterson is aware that his own actions in working with these sexualised images may be considered exploitative by some: “The modelling/fashion industry has had its fair share of negative publicity of its own when it comes to exploiting young women on the wrong side of a massive power imbalance. It’s not the individual models involved – they are just part of the huge machine, corporate manufacturing of beauty standards as a commodity. I don’t know if it’s ok for me to appropriate these images to make my comment; or whether I’m adding to a problem. I hope it will become apparent to me through the context and response to the work.”
The 70-year timeline of Paterson’s source imagery, from the 1950s to contemporary social media superstars, highlights the continued ubiquity of the seductress in popular culture. Despite decades of feminist action to attempt to curtail the objectification of women in marketing , ‘hotness’ is still a standard that women are pressured to conform to; promoted as essential, aspirational, and going along with a lifestyle of success - something that can be bought and sold.
“It is hard to see how anyone who buys in to consumer culture can be a feminist – the whole system is set up to maintain a comfy patriarchal status-quo, to make everything seem about buying status and desirability through consuming beauty products and fashion items” says Paterson. “It would be great if we could all opt out…but it’s getting more and more insidious, harder to see, with social media influencers, filters, and Photoshop… We all still want things, and buy things of course; but you have to know that big data and corporations have no interest in your political and social well-being except as far as it can sell the dream to you. And, thereby, their products. You have no value to them outside of that.”