Linda Stein: Gender and Sexuality in Art
Posted on: 25 February 2022 by Georgie Whittock, VG&M Visitor Services Team. in 2022
To celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month in February, this blog recognises the work of the American artist Linda Stein, and the influences upon her art having grown up during the time of LGBTQ+ struggles.
“… [I had] a longing to write and record… my journey to let it all hang out on the page in order to relieve my stress… it always had the effect of calming my nerves, easing my depression and making me feel less lonely and hopeless…”
‘Profile Collage 443.010’ from Stein’s Profiles series. (Image used with permission from the artist).
Linda Stein (b. 1943) is an award-winning feminist artist, writer, and educator, and founded the non-profit organisation Have Art: Will Travel! Inc. which offers programs to address a variety of issues, including victimisation and oppression. She currently lives and works in Manhattan, East Hampton and Cambridge MA, and previously worked near to the Twin Towers, and consequently was displaced following the events of 9/11.
“… My shame was visceral and intense… I must tell no one, I must hide it from every living person I know, I’m totally despicable…”
Many people within the LGBTQ+ community experience various negativity throughout their lives, whether personal feelings, particularly shame, or verbal and/or physical abuse and negative expressions from other people. In the United States, the decriminalisation of homosexuality took place between 1962 and 2003 (see footnote), and although it was not illegal for females to be homosexual, it was still heavily stigmatised by society. Linda Stein uses her feelings and personal experiences within her artwork.
“… These faces I’m drawing look back at me in disgust. I have to make sure they can’t see me. I’ll turn the face from frontal view to profile. I’ll begin just below the eyes…”
While Stein was growing up, the word homosexual was used “in hushed tones and jokes”, amplifying the conflicting feelings arising from being gay, with the view from society that being gay was wrong, particularly as it was seen as a “mental disease by the psychiatric association”. Her artwork began with pencil sketches of faces but as she struggled with her feelings, she saw these faces with a different perspective: they looked back at her with “disdain” and “disgust”, and that she did not want them to see her or the potential for them seeing her. This influenced the development of faces without the eyes: some drawings having the top part of the head but without eyes, and many variations of the face beginning from the nose but angled differently.
‘Profile Landscape 438.081’ from Stein’s Profile series, held by Siemens Collection. (Image used with permission from the artist)
Another interesting influence upon Stein’s artwork is the fluidity of gender, particularly having drawn upon this before the increasing publicity of genderfluidity within the past few years, especially with the growing acceptance and integration within society. What defines femininity and masculinity? is one question she uses to influence her artwork, using the prominent icon of Wonder Woman to emphasis blurred boundaries of gender. The DC comic character Wonder Woman, a female with the masculine traits of strength, is depicted in a “bathing suit” implying the sexual appeal of femininity, and, particularly in the early comic portrayal of the 1940s, fights justice (a masculine trait) without killing (empathy, a feminine trait). Some of her sculptural artwork can also be seen as fluid because of the movement and ability to wear the items, having been used in the Body Swapping performances as part of her exhibitions, including Knight of Courage 655 & Silver Knight 666, both of which feature Wonder Woman on the designs.
‘Knight of Courage 655 & Silver Knight 666’ from Stein’s Body Swapping series. (Image used with permission from the artist)
Stein merges stereotypical gender differences into the sculptures of the Knights of Protection series to form androgynous figures. From looking at the figure, one would assume it was female due to the small waist and large hips, though the armour would be deemed to be masculine. Not all figures have breasts, which furthers the masculine appearance of the female form, to create the androgynous identity. They also seem to draw inspiration from her previous profile artwork, as the sculptures lack a head, implying still the prevention of the person seeing who they are protecting, removing any sense of negativity from the protector to protected. Further to this, their lack of arms and feet minimise any interpreted physical negativity from it to the protected – they cannot hurt me, only protect me.
‘Knight Adagio 573’ from Stein’s Knights of Protection series, now held in the Victoria Gallery & Museum. (Image used with permission from the artist)
Breaking the binaries and boundaries of gender, the Gender Scrambling series confronts body-image and removes the stereotypical limitations of gendered appearance. The series draws together the influences on other series as well, profiles beginning below the eyes, genderfluidity and androgynous image, and protection. Stein depicts well-known people, such as Barack Obama, in clothing of the opposite gender, as well as using the androgynous identity influence on other figures in the artwork.
Gender Scrambling 776: Astaire, Rogers’ from Stein’s Gender Scrambling series, prints are now held by Victoria Gallery & Museum. (Image used with permission from the artist)
Last year the Victoria Gallery & Museum team was pleased when they received the sculpture Knight Adagio 573 from Linda Stein’s Knights of Protection series, as well as a set of the Gender Scrambling series of prints. This was generously arranged through Mr Raymond Learsy, under the auspices of Have Art: Will Travel! Inc. The VG&M team are currently working on an exhibition featuring these artworks for later next year, so definitely something to look out for!
Quotes are from her Below the Eyes: Sexuality and Averting the Gaze lecture organised by the University of Durham on Thursday 20th January 2022, as Stein recalled her life through the diaries she kept.
Footnote 1: ILGA World: Lucas Ramon Mendos, Kellyn Botha, Rafael Carrano Lelis, Enrique López de la Peña, Ilia Savelev and Daron Tan, State-Sponsored Homophobia 2020: Global Legislation Overview Update (Geneva: ILGA, December 2020). Page 100. Available at: https://ilga.org/state-sponsored-homophobia-report