“Arm candy,” “sugar tits,” “butterface” — most of us have heard these names and phrases and others like them, directed towards women. These figures of speech are so innocuous, often cloaked in casual humor, they’re rarely given a second thought. However commonplace, for women on the receiving end being labeled a “trophy wife” or “arm candy” can be both objectifying and insulting. But what would happen if these phrases were interpreted literally? In her latest exhibition, Words For Women, at Gallery 151 in New York City, photographer Anna Friemoth does just that, showing us, in colorful, daring satire, just how absurd gendered insults are.
Words For Women is a wondrously vibrant collection of photographs, showcasing not only Friemoth’s aptitude for portraiture and keen eye for design, but also her sense of humor and adventure. The photographer’s models, including sometimes Friemoth herself, are set against stark backdrops, the stages upon which they act out their assigned “roles.” For “Butterface,” an elegant, graceful Friemoth smears an entire stick of butter across her cheek, the light expertly reflecting its greasy surface. In another photo she appears stiff and stoic, decorated head to toe in silver streamers, acting the part of a “trophy wife” in the most literal sense. Also on view at Gallery 151 is another series by Friemoth titled 10 Commandments, in which she artfully and provocatively breaks biblical edicts. In a photo titled, “You Shall Not Take The Lord’s Name In Vain,” for example, Friemoth dons teased hair and bright red lipstick. In her grip floats a heart-shaped helium balloon that reads, “God Damn” in bold white text.
For Friemoth, 26, satire was key in getting her point across in a way that would resonate with her audience. “I want people’s attention for more than three seconds. Both 10 Commandments and Words for Women deal with heavy subjects,” she wrote in an email interview with Women in the World. “Humor eases tensions and makes things more accessible, while satire kind of demands your attention. It brings you in and makes you look closer.” Indeed, Friemoth’s delicate mix of artistry and irony make work a delight to engage with, each photo as equally refined as it is rebellious.
Friemoth also has a background in design — color is crucial to her practice — and she finds inspiration in her everyday surroundings in New York City, where she currently works and lives. “Inspiration can come from a simple item at the dollar store,” she wrote. “I was passing by one on Nostrand Avenue the other day and there was a big basket full of brooms with different colored bristles that combined at the top in a rainbow of colors. Something simple like that can excite me.”
In her studio, where she works with friends and acquaintances as models, set and prop design are paramount. So far she’s amassed three closets and many suitcases of clothing.
Words For Women will be Friemoth’s first solo exhibition in Manhattan, a major accomplishment for any photographer, let alone a recent graduate. Over the past few years, her work has garnered international acclaim, having been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and published internationally in France, South Korea, China, and London. She comes from a fascinating line of artists that spans three centuries, among them her mother, photographer Penny Gentieu; her grandmother, Audrey Gentieu, a portrait painter and her great-great-great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, who drew civil war encampments while he was a soldier. “I learned about photography from watching my mom on shoots but really fell in love with it after studying graphic design at a summer program at Rhode Island School of Design,” Friemoth wrote.
As for the insults directed towards women that Words for Women spotlights, Friemoth proves how ridiculous, and ultimately unnecessary they are. Though they may not raise many red flags when spoken, seeing them through Friemoth’s eyes stops us in our tracks. “I really just want to get people thinking. In Words for Women, I offer a new perspective by challenging the viewer to a lighter yet satirical interpretation on something ugly,” she wrote. “I hope to provide an “oh yeah” moment when the viewer draws the connection between the words and the image.”
Words for Women will be on view at Gallery151 through March 18, 2016. Words for Women was made possible by the generous support of Michael Namer & Alfa Development, and organized by Anna Gritsevich of Wallplay.