Lightning Rod - Saya Woolfalk

Saya Woolfalk is a New York artist who re-imagines the world in multiple dimensions (sculpture, installation, painting, performance and video). She has exhibited at PS1/MoMA; Deitch Projects; Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Studio Museum in Harlem; Momenta Art; Performa09; and has been written about on Art21's blog. With funding from the NEA, her solo exhibition The Institute of Empathy, will open at Real Art Ways in the fall of 2010.

What can we achieve by representing the body in art today?


  1. This is an interesting choice of words. Not figure, not the nude, but the body. I’m wondering if this is subtly readdressing the body-art dialog of the Nineties. To ask “what can we achieve by representing the body in art today” to some extent politicizes the discourse in an interesting way.

    One of the real problems with the Body-art dialog was that it excluded “conventional” figurative strategies. For instance, you could cast the body like Kiki Smith or Janine Antoni or Marc Quinn, but if you were a renderer like Bob Taplin you weren’t even part of the conversation. You could represent the body in photography and video like Matthew Barney and Nayland Blake but not in paint at least not until Yuskavage and Currin came on the scene.

    I’d like to think that this dialog has opened up since then and that this question might lead to a re-examination of some of the really complex and personally challenging aspects of this dialog. Can notions of beauty, cultural conditioning and critical awareness be addressed through deeply informed painting and sculpture? Instead of viewing these issues through the screen of technology and de-skilling, what would happen if the entire history of complex pictorial strategies were applied to them?

  2. Great to hear your thoughts Peter, and yes this is what I am thinking about. One place I see this happening is in the work of artists who show at the Studio Museum in Harlem ( Many of these artists make deeply informed work that attempts to address the complex history of pictorial strategies. Just to name a few, artists like Kehinde Wiley (, Barkley L. Hendricks (, and one of the current Artists-in-Residence Mequitta Ahuja ( all have deep stakes in representing the body. They think about past and present forms and address how these forms shape how we see one another in the world. Then they re-purpose those strategies for contemporary needs.

    I would be fascinated to hear how people at NYAA, many who represent the body, think about the power and potential for their images.

  3. i think if the body is represented correctly, fore xample through appollonian ideals, we may achieve the once lost morality of the Renaissance.

    However, if the body is misrepresented through immorality, such as in media and pornography, we can make society return to the savage animal instinct state.

  4. we now live in a society that makes million dollar movies like "american pie" or "the virginity hit".

    where people like lady gaga or lil wayne are considered great artists but are really agents of misinformation, spreading mediocrity and shame.

    a society that ridicules the body as a temple and the power of sexuality, tuning our spiritual frequencies to the lower chakras.

    This time, the revolution will not be televised - it will be painted. Who is with me?

  5. For me the representation of the body is a laboratory for recreating the biochemical reactions caused by the psycho-neurological attachment process. As babies we look to the faces and bodies of our primary caregivers and understand the world and our own feelings through the changing expressions our mothers (or sometimes fathers) make. It has been put forward that all our body systems (endocrine, respiratory, etc.) program themselves based on physical input from our primary caregivers within the first 2 years of life. We not only model our own expression and behavior on what we observe but we also experience the release of all kinds of chemicals in our bodies when we see various features and actions repeated in all sectors of life, including figurative art. The interaction a person has with a representation of a human body reproduces all these reactions and can change the physical and mental state of the viewer very quickly.

  6. yes women still are not free and this is 2010. No. And why? What is the crime women have comitted? Our desire to Love and be sweet and free mankind from war...yet all human oppression is related back to exactly what they sing....Women are in chains beaten, bruised for wanting love. why, the most gentle creature on earth must be made into a crimanal is the question? even animals dont do what man does to woman! Please free us. These chains hurt and are so heavy for me, my mother and us all.

  7. With some of these comments I am not quite sure how seriously the person commenting takes their position, but, it does seem that many "types" of posts have emerged from my initial question: a comment about what is "ideal vs not;" a proposal for an alternative to counter a dominant form of representation; a speculative science of image making and how it can biochemically influence human beings; and an example of one political agenda that has not completely achieved its objectives in the present.

    These are all important types of thoughts to have as as artists who represent the body. The images and objects we make are gateways to other realities and I believe it is important to consider: 1) who the bodies are that you represent; 2) how you represent those bodies; and 3) what those representations will mean in culture. A powerful tool for communication is to understand the implications of the reality you propose.

  8. What can we achieve by representing the body in art today?

    My first response was to think “what is achieved by representing the body ever?” and my answer would be: well...empathy.

    As for today specifically, I find that a being temporally or culturally self conscious—as opposed to working for some notion of “eternity” however much like hubris that may seem, is toxic to artistic creativity. The body hasn’t evolved since art appeared in history and I think most of our body-related anxieties and ecstasies are also universal and thus not temporally bound. We struggle to achieve some kind of unified peace between our physical and mental existence. We struggle to accommodate desires which make us want to act antisocially among our group. We struggle with growth, maturity, parenting, decline and death.
    Images that reflect these concerns interest us...give us a safe venue to scrutinize our desires and anxieties.
    Of course, there are trends, attitudes, politics and narratives specific to a time and place, but the first two are reflected in an artists output without having to insert it intentionally. As for the second two, if one make a pieces about a particular contemporary social issue, it will be relevant for a second and maybe in fashion for a minute, then out of date forevermore. Whether responding to the human condition versus the cultural condition right here right now is the mark of being a responsible or irresponsible artist, I suppose one could debate.

    As for the three subquestions posed:
    who the bodies are that you represent;
    I can think of only a two choices. Its either a projection of the artist him/herself or the representation of some “other”. The danger of the former is sickening narcissism and the danger of the latter is propaganda, exploitation or kitsch. But if the representation is empathic, these traps are avoided. When representing bodies, one hopes they be of individuals—of believable people with inner lives. This goes to the heart of the issue of all representation—it must be somehow analogous to life itself or it insults its own subject and become “merely” an image, “merely” an object....and fails to transcend its own narrative, materials etc.

    2. how you represent those bodies;
    Aside from media and technology, which is so much special effects, I refer to the idea again of empathy.

    3. what those representations will mean in culture. A powerful tool for communication is to understand the implications of the reality you propose.

    I’m not sure I agree. I think this either takes care of itself or it comes across as didactic and stilted. Second of all, I don’t think its actually possible have this type of objectivity. One is only guessing and hoping, at best. I don’t think one should be an ignoramus, but intuition trumps intellect often enough in artists that I am not sure this type of “knowledge” has any real use other than as a discussion point.

  9. this got me thinking about panni malek's (the fellow) paintings. what is she trying to say by representing the female body the way she does?

    to me it looks like all her figures are bound
    by many cultural idioms. I can somewhat empathize with these characters and feel that they represent in
    some ways what women are feeling today worldwide.