Article by Lucia Love in New York; Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015
Ryder Ripps – “Ho” Installation View, Postmasters NYC (2015); Courtesy of Postmasters
Pervasive market branding of female athleticism is a recent development that is rooted in unprecedented social and political actions of the early 1970s, allowing an active lifestyle to become a cultural possibility. Americans have Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendment to view as a turning point for this change. At its base is a prohibition of discrimination in any federally aided program/institution based on gender. But the subtleties of this statement allowed for the creation of 10,000 athletic scholarships, and the invention of thirty national women’s collegiate championships by 1984, and many more in years to come. Though women first participated in the Olympics in the 1900 games held in Paris (22 women in five sports: croquet, equestrianism, golf, sailing, and tennis – out of 997 total competitors) it was more difficult to build a lifestyle around these activities without the legitimacy afforded to men through proper funding and career support.
One year after Nixon signed Title IX into existence, a seminal exhibition match occurred between Billie Jean (Moffitt) King and Bobby Riggs: “The Battle of the Sexes” where Riggs declared that he could beat any woman at their prime, though he was 55 at this point, Wimbledon victories far in his past. Some other famous quotes of his include, “Women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get” and “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.” And the piece de resistance: “the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.”
King was no stranger to these humiliations throughout her career. They began at age 11 when she was omitted from her team’s photo for not wearing the tennis dress or skirt required for her to compete in her first tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Through her scholastic career, she was not awarded any scholarships, though she had already won her first Wimbeldon Doubles championship by the time she was enrolled in LA State school. Her average winnings for consistent victories was $1,500 to men’s $12,500 for the same events. This marked the beginning of a series of rebellions on her part which included creating her own sports magazine, and her own tennis tournaments sponsored by Phillip Morris.
Later came the spectacle of entering the Houston Astrodome for the Battle of the Sexes match on a gold chair held by boys in togas, to meet Riggs in a yellow jacket with “Sugar Daddy” embroidered on the back. He was flanked by babes (Bobby’s Bosom Buddies) in a rickshaw. King approached Riggs with the gift of a baby pig, he handed her a giant lollipop, and she then proceeded to hand him his own ass. After this victory, she received endorsements from Adidas sneakers, Wilson tennis rackets, Colgate toothpaste, and Sunbeam hair curlers, she founded a women’s players union with this money, and a nonprofit advocacy group for women in professional sports.
Since then we’ve seen Clara Hughes become the only human being to win multiple medals in both summer and winter Olympics for cycling and speed skating. We’ve also seen Mia Hamm make 158 career goals in international competition, which is more than soccer fans have seen from any other player. Victories like this have opened up the possibility for all women to pursue competitive lifestyles in any sport/ situation, whether male dominated or not, and this has been reflected by an increase in popularity for a general streetwear fashion that allows for smooth transitions from office to gym. Fashion always runs parallel and occasionally influences major social changes as a symbiotic relative to activity and philosophy. Women are no longer being fined for not appearing in skirts, or being attacked for gestures like running in the Boston Marathon (something that happened to Katherine Switzer for being a woman interested in running before it was allowed for her to do so), they don’t have to wear girdles, or wire frame bras, or high heels unless it would make them feel sexy. Lycra, spandex, and cotton blends are as much a part of women’s liberation as any judicial change or famous figure.
Through this shift in consciousness aided by market forces, over a short 40 years, we’ve been able to more fully articulate wardrobes for the health, wellness and sport-oriented to a point that consumers are awash in a cacophony of slogans, songs, and commercial clips of women jumping over things, just to sell us a spectrum of seemingly equivalent leggings, sneakers, etc. The market has become so glutted that we turn to personable spokes people to help us make healthy and informed decisions based on their research and seeming authenticity.
Adrianne Ho is one such figure with her site sweatthestyle.com and social media presence that promotes health through a constant stream of tips, motivation, and romanticized images of her bicoastal life, where the sun is always shining on her as she finds new ways to boost endorphins between business meetings. She is not viewed as falling victim to any male humiliation for her desire to stay competitively fit. In an interview with Yale Breslin for Jay Z’s Life and Times she is asked: “You’ve managed to find a unique niche in a space that is already cluttered. What do you think it is about your platform that has made you stand out?” to which she replies “I think the cultural climate is shifting. Active is the new casual. People want to work out, eat healthy, feel good, and look fashionable while doing it. Sweat the Style is the leader in that movement. Mixing streetwear and high fashion with an athletic sensibility is a reflection of the times. Every product, recipe, and workout regime created, endorsed, and promoted by Sweat the Style represents quality, authenticity, and style. My goal is to create a 360 degree experience.”
Aside from the fact that this woman is her own entrepreneurial entity, it is striking that she has become a symbol of a lifestyle that was unimaginable one lifetime ago. Not only is this an acceptable view of women, it is desirable. Active wear companies are racing to accommodate women’s fashion as seen in the new Adidas campaign StellaSport: For Action Girls, where the designer Stella McCartney has forgone her usual flowing flowery drape tunics and beaded clutches, for a collaboration in the realm of hoodies and sweat bands. Their advertisement for this project features a multilingual track of female vocals with English that states, “123 ascend to the next level. Whichever console you play, no matter how many hours a day… I could win at any game, whether a boy or a girl or super computer. It’s often said, I should get some girly hobbies instead, but the thought fills me with dread – I’m not into sewing, baking, dress making, not eating, bitching, submitting.” This competitive self assured attitude is a common trait shared in the language of Sweat the Style copy. Adrianne Ho mentions, “I was a tomboy growing up and I was always out running around and fighting with the boys.”
This confidence is what figures like King were striving to foster in women: a sense of capability, and esteem. There is an underlying pressure to perform consistently that comes along with being any sort of public figure, however. For King it was a feeling that if she lost to Riggs it would “set us back fifty years”, and for Ho it seems if she is depicted with a jelly donut she may loose the ability to inspire change with her Supreme hat + Nike sneaker combo. She wants people to feel empowered through physical action, mentioning that “sitting at a computer for any longer than 5 hours is just as bad as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes!”
The post-marxist writer Pierre Klossowski addresses the symbolic figure of a person who creates themselves as a facet of their capitalist endeavors, to be an “industrial slave,” detailed in this excerpt:
“As soon as the corporeal presence of the industrial slave has fully entered the composition of the assessable output of what she can produce – her physiognomy being inseparable from her labor – the distinction between the person and the activity of that person becomes specious. The corporeal presence is already a commodity, independently of and in addition to the commodity this presence contributes to producing. Henceforth, industrial slaves either establish an intimate relation between their corporeal presence and the money this presence brings in, or else they substitute themselves for the function of money, being money themselves: at once the equivalent of wealth and the wealth itself.” (from Living Currency)
In this world view, it is impossible not to submit to the structure that facilitates dissemination of these personal brands, so we are receiving a message from the content of these health blogs that we can be independent, living out a dream that began decades ago, while catering to a structure that allows us to continue signing to each other with what ever is in/on our tote bags.
In the pursuit of freedom that has not yet been conceived successfully, many thinkers have attempted both to define the servitude to systems of wealth production and circulation that demand a consistency of self/product to curtail the spontaneity of our existence. What at first began as a positive movement towards a new expression of agency has now become the newest fodder for an all pervasive social control, as Adrianne Ho mentions, “a 360 degree experience”.
This is an incomplete portrait of the subject which inspired Ryder Ripps’ “Ho” painting series, and a section of the history which leads to highlight her as a unique figure in today’s culture, worthy of feminist debate. These paintings have inspired forceful vitriol from the online feminist community who have claimed that the work does not merit enough attention to be on view as a solo show at Postmasters. As Paddy Johnson wrote in the close of her succinct throw down article for Artnet News: “Mostly, though, there’s nothing there; Ho is just a pretty girl, and if she’s produced extraordinary poses, Ripps hasn’t identified them. Perhaps mediocrity is partly the point – mainstream culture requires a lot of conventional packaging – but what significance could this possibly hold? With all the pre-existing banality out there, we certainly need a more discerning and critical eye than Ripps brings to his subjects.”
We have become sensitive as a culture to the way images of women are viewed and consumed. We’ve come to expect a refined development of thought surrounding image manipulation, especially of female subjects. Ripps’ response to this debate is that these photographs sourced from Ho’s online empire have been manipulated by photo retouching tools used on a daily basis to shift reality through advertisements. “The liquify tool is used to make people look flawless in fashion. I’m using it to make her look more real. There’s a forced realism in the way she presents herself online, and I wanted to accentuate that through these warped gestures. It’s uncomfortable to know what happens. When the shot in Holy Mountain zooms out, and you have to see all of the camera equipment. Hold that pose for a constructed reality. We can be witnesses to this discomfort, pain, or tension between the mediated image and the actual event, and what it means to be human throughout this process.”
We have also become sensitive to why an artistic statement may be manifested as a painting. As the artist states, “I think it’s a weird obsessive ode. The way we present ourselves is something I think about all the time, and Adrianne Ho does this on a professional level. Her images are constructed to fit within her marketable ideals. On a screen she is 4 inches tall, you can’t be confronted in the same way, your emotions are removed from the digital interface. But with a large scale painting, there is a physical imposition, an assertion without malice.”
This language seems innocuous enough, but still leaves a question of why an artist must literally smear the image of a woman’s face in order to have a conversation about a structure of control. It’s also curious that we find the action akin to violence itself, instead of something that has the potential to inspire violence, which seems to be a real possibility in this case. Liberated first world women feel ownership over the production of their own images, and demand theory behind the supposed machismo of Ripps’ digital ab-ex gesture, likened to the transformation of deKooning’s women into abstracted monsters, but crossed with a uniformly flat Koons factory finish: the epitome of banal. They are more calculated and illustrative than deKooning’s savage release of emotion, yet the amusing thought of literally poking a stranger’s face on a tiny screen to create an abstraction reads a bit like Bobby Riggs attempting to call out Billie Jean King. It’s funny! Has Adrianne Ho responded to these pokes yet? It’s all part of the theatre of consequence.
Ryder Ripps – “Punch” (2013), oil on canvas 72 x 72 inches (183 x 183 cm); Courtesy of Postmasters NYC
These forms of spectacle can become rifts in culture that allow for large scale debates to happen, for temperatures of acceptance to be measured, or at least for some Andy Kaufman style laughs to occur when checking up on how many death threats the artist has received. The conversation around these works has whipped itself into a perfect storm, taking into account privilege, identity, consumer culture, free speech (and who would have guessed it) painting. Ripps has received a threat of another painting show, an ode to himself and his persona. The artist explained, “I received a message from someone who said ‘I’m going to do a series called Ripps where his dick is really small and his head is huge.’ – “I thought that was great! I’ll actually model for that. I’m not even kidding, not being coy, I’d be totally flattered. But I wouldn’t agree with them putting a Swastika on my head (for instance). I don’t agree with that kind of social construct.”
With this invitation, the conversation becomes more complex. What was once a clear cut infraction on moral taboo, transforms into a questioning of where our boundaries should be in relationship to the products we turn ourselves into. Reality looses its narrative clarity as history spills into current actions, and we present constructs to offer a supposed leg up to each other, only to have this offering become another tool of market control.
“I think some venues give people the green light to be hateful. ‘This is amoral and I am MORAL.’ That dynamic is dangerous especially in art. If you don’t like the art, talk about that.”
I, for one, just want to see Ripps and Ho play a tennis match.
Lucia Love is a freelance writer and painter currently residing in Brooklyn. When not toiling away on a revival of the Dilbert comics, you can find her walking the hallowed halls of the Koons studio avoiding having to paint the classics. If you like what you’ve read here, friend her on Facebook or go to lucialoveart.com