Query: The Un-Gendered Brushstroke

Is the brushstroke so hopelessly entangled with male subjectivity that the female painter cannot, unless she is willing to adopt at least a partial male subjectivity, make a gesture with a brush? Does she have to invent a feminine brushstroke? Or, might it be possible to un-gender the brushstroke?

die Lautkraft des Mensches/the loud-strength of the human
2018, oil on dibond, 80 by 120cm

“I had asked myself, in a depressed mood: Is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks?”

Laura Owens

Shirley Kaneda, in her 1991 essay “Painting and Its Others – In the Realm of the Feminine” proposes a “feminine” abstract painting that disregards the gender of the maker in response to a “masculine” one.[1] She describes gender differences in painting in relation to responses to the sublime: “The masculine response (to the sublime) is conceptual, as if “knowing” or explaining improved the situation. A “feminine” view is no more or less optimistic than the masculine, but the response (to the sublime) is from a sensuous perspective.”[2] She characterises the masculine as being aligned with reason and the feminine as aligned with sensation. This dualism has been existent in Western thinking since the ancient Greeks. It became strengthened when Descartes declared the fundamental difference between mind (aligned with reason) and body (aligned with irrationality and sensation) [3]. Kaneda continues her explanation:

The perfect examples of this difference are Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, both of whom addressed the sublime, one in a “masculine” way and the other in a “feminine.” While Newman address it from a purely intellectual perspective and Rothko from a “romantic” one, … – for Rothko, existence was ephemeral, for Newman it was hard and opaque. …one chooses to objectify it (masculine) and the other chooses to be engulfed by it (feminine).[4]

Is to create a feminine brushstroke to counteract the existing masculine one, the right solution? A hierarchy that places reason above sensation is certainly something that needs to be critically questioned and finally abolished. Yet, if I accept the claim that the feminine aligns with the sensual and the irrational, then I accept the tradition that bars me, as a woman, from rationality and reason. Leaving reason and Laura Owens’s idea of the inherence of mark-making ability to be aligned with the masculine and their opposites with the feminine, even if we manage to make the irrational equal to the rational, the sensual equal to reason, the passive equal to the active, the domestic equal to the public, even if we make them all perfectly equal, aligning them with a specific sex is going to be harmfully restrictive. So, if I then say that I include the masculine traits of rationality and action in my being, they will always remain alien in me, other than my sexual nature.

before the song crumbles
2017, oil on aluminium, 180 by 125cm

We must finally and fully accept that the tradition that aligns the masculine to reason (and action, power, dominance, strength, the public) and the feminine to the irrational and sensual (and passivity, receptivity, being a helpmate, weakness, the domestic) has been superseded. It has been unmasked as wrong, like other long-held traditions, such as the idea of the flat earth, and shown up as a mere relic of culture.

Claiming sensuality, claiming irrationality, claiming the domestic, claiming emotion and making them positive attributes may be a powerful, affirming act but this should in no way have anything to do with gender. If we allow these to be feminine we also allow their opposites to be masculine and so, inadvertently uphold the regime that bars women from reason and finally even mark-making.

die Strömung der Lautfreude/the stream of loud-joy
2018, oil on aluminium, 50 by 100cm

Imagine we have just unlinked all the above-mentioned traits from their traditional masculine and feminine roles. What do we do now? Do we create a “new feminine”? and a “new masculine”? Do we find new words to describe them, a new positive feminine and a new positive masculine? This would solve nothing. If we describe woman as strong, what of that female who does not feel strong for whatever reason, is she less of a woman? Any such essentialist definitions of masculine and feminine are always going to be restrictive and sooner or later become instruments of oppression.

I advocate a radical non-essentialism and this demands that we see subjectivity itself as non-essential, as never fixed by any character trait but always in flux, subjectivity as a continuous, ever-changing stream[5].

As such I would like the words “feminine” and “masculine” to disappear completely and we each meet ourselves and others with an ever-open attitude, fully acknowledging the ever-changing quality of subjectivity.

We can have forceful, gentle, hesitant, powerful, strong, caring, fluid, solid, rational, irrational, sensual, thoughtful, decorative, bare, hard, soft, bright, dark, pink, brown, blue, red, ochre, turquoise, liquid, dry, thick, thin, runny, coarse, delicate, delicious, sensuous, brutal, compassionate brushstrokes … but none of these must in any way ever be equated with either “masculine” or “feminine” but instead be just things that may arise in any being of any sex.

Art & artist statement by Nadja Gabriela Plein


[1] Kaneda, Shirley ‘Painting and Its Others – In the Realm of the Feminine’, Arts Magazine Summer (1991)

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Lloyed, Genevieve, The Man of Reason (London: Routledge, 1993)

[4] Shirley, p. 60.

[5] Plein, Nadja Gabriela “The Intentional Brushstroke” 2019, http://www.nadjagabrielaplein.co.uk/writing/

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