Naomi Fisher , Ladies 2/13/2004 (Friday the 13th of February) , 2004
ink on vellum, 42 x 30 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Fine Arts, New York
I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
from “Salome” by Ai
I’m in love with red. I dream in red.
My nightmares are based on red. Red’s the color of joy. Red’s the color of all the journeys which are interior, the color of the hidden flesh, of the depths and recesses of the unconscious. Above all, red is the color of rage and violence.
from My Mother: Demonology by Kathy Acker
The color red, in various shades and hues, courses through nearly all of Naomi Fisher’s recent drawings and photographs. Dazzling crimson, vibrant scarlet, and rich ruby dominate Fisher’s palette and mingle expressively alongside their equally alluring chromatic cousins orange and pink, resulting in a luridly intense yet beautifully lush color scheme that conjures up thoughts of lipstick and blood, two of femininity’s most identifiable and interrelated signifiers.1 Further underscoring the feminine reading of these images is Fisher’s portrayal of alluring female figures. Enmeshed in fantastical environments of riotous tropical vegetation, Fisher’s “ladies” (as she calls them) are seemingly in symbiotic union with the nature that engulfs them. Leaves, branches, blossoms, and vines merge with the figures and intertwine with their clothing, creating a dense tapestry of decorative patterning that impedes the detection of where one entity begins and the other ends. The female embodies nature in Fisher’s drawings—she is Mother Nature incarnate.
The Mother Nature that Fisher portrays is not the benevolent, nurturing, life-giving host that epitomizes essentialist theories about women. Instead, her protagonists are strong, seductive, vengeful, violent, and, in some cases, downright terrifying. Fisher dispenses with the notion that women are frail, gentle, and pure—along with flowing locks, come-hither expressions, and beguiling poses, they brandish knives and swords, a juxtaposition that arouses and violates visions of women as mother, lover, and comforter. With bleeding eyes that both mesmerize and disturb, Fisher’s protagonists gaze defiantly or seductively at the viewer, daring one to enter the psychosexual space of the rapacious, femininely charged Eden. In an adventure of self-definition, these ruthless young female predators aggressively attack conventionally assigned roles.
The emancipated, tough-girl image portrayed in Fisher’s work exemplifies a larger shift in the media representation of women today. While powerful female characters have been occasionally represented in film, literature, and art in the past, tough women are currently in vogue as proven lucrative media commodities.2 From Gwen Stefani to Le Tigre, Laura Croft to Catwoman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Xena Warrior Princess, “grrrl power” represents a powerful new image of womanhood—one that is skilled, smart, self-assured, and even violent, but which also retains femininity and overt sexuality.3 In this new media model, the heroine is not afraid to use her feminine charms for personal gain, and she is just as likely to punish (or kill) those who presume her sexuality is on display merely for their gratification. Not unlike the subcultural fetish figure of the dominatrix, this feminine force exploits social and physical power along the axis of gender.4
Fisher’s women subscribe to this current media image, but also cogently refer to a more historical female archetype that is both strong and sexy—the vampire—and her subsequent incarnation as the vamp or femme fatale. A complex and intriguing image of threatening female sexuality, the vampire simultaneously evokes desire and fear. In all of her forms, she strives to satiate her ravenous appetites at the expense of her prey. Sexually enticing to men and a symbol of empowerment for women, this female character was (and remains) extremely popular. As the classic vampire actress Theda Bara observed in 1917, “Women are my greatest fans because they see in my [role as] vampire the impersonal vengeance of all their unavenged wrongs. … I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feministe.”5
When one considers that female vampire films have flourished at key historical moments in feminism (particularly around the turn of the 20th century and then in the 1970s), it is not surprising that Fisher has adopted and updated this figure as her poster girl for today’s grrrl power.6 Drawing corollaries between the ladies that inhabit Fisher’s works and female vampire characters seems inescapable. In both, desirable figures dominate whose actions are charged with violent sexuality. Indeed, the vampiric act itself—which involves the violent, forcible exchange of bodily fluids—suggests rape (although in cinema, it is rather often portrayed as an erotic, not entirely unwelcome deed). In Fisher’s photographs from the Backyard series, one could argue that the vampiric Mother Nature has assaulted her female victims as they lie lifelessly in beautiful but smothering foliage. Facedown in a firecracker bush or engulfed in palmetto leaves, her victims are positioned in ways that evoke disturbing thoughts of sexual transgression. Fisher completes this scenario of vampiric transformation in later photographs and drawings. In these works, Mother Nature has transformed once-innocent young women into alluring woman/nature hybrids who thirst for the blood of male victims. Their bloodlust and their quasi-sexual consumption of the male truly serve a feminist end: female sexuality is no longer a vehicle for male pleasure; it is now liberated, self-sufficient, and a lure to trap and destroy the vulnerable male. Fisher seizes upon this sex-equals-power idea in her fierce and erotically charged images.
Fisher tempers her terrifying seductresses by incorporating elements of camp, including the clichéd sublime sunset and seascape, glamorous and ultra-feminine fashions, outrageous earrings, and cutesy woodland animals. Such additions not only mitigate the gore factor of the works, but also connect them to the realm of popular culture from which they first arose. Not surprisingly, Fisher based some of her works on characters and scenes from B horror movies (such as Juan López Moctezuma’s 1975 cult classic lesbian vampire film Alucarda) and modern fiction (such as the wildly imaginative works of feminist novelist Kathy Acker). In addition to film and literature, Fisher’s nightmarish heroines also spring forth from her dreams and imaginative musings (“the red unconscious,” according to Acker), as well as from female figures in art history, religion, and mythology. Embodying the lineage of female power and violence, Fisher’s women evoke Medea, Medusa, Judith, Eve, Salome, and Joan of Arc as much as they do Lorena Bobbitt and Aileen Wournos.
Humor/solemnity, attraction/repulsion, life/death—these are but a few of the operative dichotomies that Fisher uses to construct tension, ambiguity, and ultimately, magnetism in her works. Unapologetically residing in the embattled juncture between violence and beauty, Fisher’s photographs and drawings challenge the viewer’s assumptions about female sexuality and how it is couched in terms of nature. Fisher points to a new kind of feminism for a 21st-century Eden—one that is raw, red, and utterly delicious.
1. The application of lipstick creates red, moist, and glistening lips that simulate the engorged and blood-flushed appearance of the aroused female sex organ.
2. For more information on the topic of media representations of tough women see the following texts: Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); Sherrie A. Inness, ed., Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and Jacinda Read, The New Avengers : Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000).
3. For an extensive discussion of the importance of Xena: Warrior Princess in altering female stereotypes, see Inness, Tough Girls, 160–76. Also see Sharon Ross, “‘Tough Enough’: Female Friendship and Heroism in Xena and Buffy,” in Inness, ed. Action Chicks, 231–55.
4. For a discussion of the dominatrix model in popular culture, see Jeffrey A. Brown, “Gender, Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and Comic Books,” in Inness, ed., Action Chicks, 47–74.
5. Theda Bara, interviewed in Theatre Magazine (June 1917), 246, cited in Andrea Weiss, Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992), 98.
6. At least forty films about female vampires were released in the first decade of cinema, and the 1970s saw an explosion in the popularity of lesbian vampire films. See Read and Weiss for historical discussions of the female vampire film.