In the Game of Strip Poker, There Are No Losers: Part 1

The below article was previously printed in an anthology of essays titled Cultures of the Maker: An Anthology of Subjectivities, Dis/abilities, and Desires, 2013. This book was created in conjunction with the San Francisco Art Institute and Creative Growth, an art center in Oakland for adults with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities.

Figure 1 Aurie Ramirez, Untitled. 2000. Watercolor and ink on paper. 22 x 30. Image courtesy of Creative Growth.

Figure 1 Aurie Ramirez, Untitled. 2000. Watercolor and ink on paper. 22 x 30. Image courtesy of Creative Growth.

Two curious figures with faces painted like Venetian masks occupy a bedroom that is delicately rendered in watery green pinstripes. The fanciful quality of their costumes is offset by the fact that they are only half dressed. Mirroring one another in their long flowing white hair, slim waists, arm tattoos, and shirtless nudity, they sit atop the matching tuxedo tails they have recently shed. In the midst of a capricious game of cards, most likely strip poker, they stare out at the viewer, expanding the space of the interior to envelope me, drawing me into their effervescent world. The setting of the room seems at once an ordinary bedroom and a fantastic theater in a rich, imaginary world. I feel privy to be a voyeur in the space of their bedroom, and my desire to join them is echoed by the left figure, who, with open pants, invites me in with a jaunty head tilt and exaggerated jester smile. At the same time, however, I feel hesitant to invade. The other more stoic-faced figure, possibly surprised at my intrusion, covers voluptuous breasts with a fan of cards. The bedroom is culturally coded as a private space, and the world that this painting opens up is one of unabashed erotic play.

Aurie Ramirez, the Philippines-born artist of this whimsical watercolor world, has a distinct and sophisticated style that brings to life a particular and peculiar cast of characters and settings littered with formalwear, pinstripes, and painted faces, repeated ad infinitum. The flat files of Creative Growth overflow with her watercolor and ink works. Many of her paintings are almost identical iterations representing an intense devotion to her subject matter, which stems from an amalgamation of popular culture references, including 18th-century dandyism, Venetian masquerade, glam rock, and macabre gothic costuming.

Sexual acts and erotic pleasures are recurring themes in Ramirez’s art, and the foregrounding of sex in Untitled, from 2000 (fig. 1), is a playful and productive gesturing to the intersection of sex and disability. Often infantilized, disabled bodies are rarely seen as desiring subjects or objects of sexual desire in the cultural imagination. More often than not, disability is disassociated from ideas of sexual activity, reserving sex and sexiness for abled bodies. When persons with disabilities are understood in the context of sexuality, they are typically regarded as not in control of their own bodies and restricted in both sexual expression and access to sexual experiences, particularly in the context of institutionalization. Often people with disabilities are subject to intense surveillance due to their being regarded as needing protection from themselves and others and/or regarded as displaying inappropriate sexualized behaviors in public.1 As social science researchers Daniel Goodley and Rebecca Lawthorn assert, the disabled-and-sexed body is in many ways seen as an oxymoron.2 Simultaneously associated with both infantilized asexuality and over-sexualized “perversion,” they are represented as lacking and in excess.

Additionally, notions of the “carnivalesque” continue to loom large in contemporary culture’s understanding of disabled bodies and sex. Just as disabled-and-sexualized bodies are culturally coded as both lack and excess, they are also both invisible and highly visible. The non-normative disabled body is at once disavowed and spectacularly fetishized — on sideshow display for public fascination, yet denied agency and subjecthood.3 Recently, critical disability studies scholars have begun problematizing these assumptions and querying what it would look like to consider the intersections of sexuality and disability as potentiality and possibility, rather than sexual lack or excess. Instead of thinking of disabled-and-sexed bodies in terms of deficiency and limit, what if the real limitation was acknowledged as the narrow scope of normative ableist conceptions of sex and sexuality? Similarly, rather than fetishized spectacular objects, what if the gawking stare directed at the “carnivalesque” could be repositioned as an interactive gaze,4 in which extraordinary disabled bodies exercising powerful agency and subjecthood participate?

The “carnival” in Aurie Ramirez’s work does not permit the usual derogatory associations with disability; instead, it is spun into enchanting displays of color, delicate wavering line, and a fascinating array of characters, costumes, and environments. Ramirez’s works do not shy away from the carnivalesque; the sideshow spectacle connotation is conjured and then usurped. Untitled transforms the gawking stare aimed at the fetish object into a desiring gaze exchange that opens up space for an intersubjective interaction between viewer and the work’s desiring subjects. In looking at Untitled, I am made conscious of my own body. As I gaze at them, the figures look back at me with Olympia-like agency and audacity. They involve me in their private, erotically playful space, but the alluring invitation of the left figure and the hesitation of the figure on the right generate a push and pull tension that makes me self-conscious of my participation and voyeurism. This creates a complex relationship with the artwork, and one that relates the bodies of the figures to my own body, and their desires to my desires. The costuming, makeup, and décor form an appropriation of the “carnivalesque” that enhances the desirability of the scene. In Ramirez’s works, the carnival is the material from which alluring, imaginative alternative worlds are constructed.

In their twinned dandy attire and makeup, these figures are anything but normative in their performance of gender and sexuality. If penis and breasts are read as the definitive markers of gender rather than as merely body parts, and sexuality is comprehended as hitched to gender, then the viewer might assume this is a heterosexual coupling of a man and a woman. However, the matching long hair, mask-like makeup, slim body types, and dandy attire resist this reading. Dandyism has long been taken up by academia as central to the cultural history of homosexuality. Representing fervent care for appearance, style, and manners, dandyism is hard-earned beauty with cool reserve. Historical personalities such as Oscar Wilde and visual culture representations like the dandies in Paul Cadmus’s 1930’s realist paintings figure the correlation of homosexuality with dandyism. The well-groomed and dapper dandies of Ramirez’s works don identical black top hats, immaculate tuxedo coats, and dainty gloves. Culturally constructed, gender and sexuality are better understood as nuanced spectrums of fluid and unstable identities enacted through performance, as colorful and variant as Ramirez’s watery rainbow palette. The figure on the left’s graceful, reclining posture with crossed legs, fanciful garb, blushing cheeks, and petite waist are rendered no less feminine/effeminate than those of the second person. Their masked faces produce a uniform front, which further highlights the gender performance in which they are implicated.

A normative representation of gender or sexuality is rare, if not completely absent, amongst Ramirez’s works. Her other characters, such as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and KISS-inspired glam rock stars, do not easily fit into stable, heteronormative classifications of gender and sexuality. Rather, her dripping-sex rock stars and extravagant dandies subvert normative gender roles with a juicy indulgence in aesthetic that verges on decadence. Furthermore, Ramirez’s works are a tribute to the multiplicity of erotic desires and pleasures that exists. In Untitled, the invitation produced by the gazing out of the picture plane indicates that sex and sexual acts need not be limited to just two. The left figure beckons while the right figure reluctantly pauses. Sexual desires and practices vary from person to person and can change over time. However, norms of sex are socially constructed and inscribed, and often these leave little room for the many different sexual desires of individual subjectivities.

Just as identifications of gender and sexuality are indeterminate, so also is ability. To assume that this is a depiction of able-bodied characters and, further, to reflect this back on the artist as representing her desire to be abled-bodied and to participate in abled-body sex acts is an assumptive, hegemonic, privileged and able-bodied viewpoint. This is partly an issue of signification. Disability is often visually signified through the physical “support” — wheelchairs, braces, crutches, and canes, such as the internationally recognized symbol for public accessibility of a stick figure in a wheelchair. In this way, disability is represented as a physical impairment affecting the movement of the body and requiring a support object rather than encompassing the full spectrum of disabilities, including those that affect the body less visibly as with individuals who are non-neurotypical, have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/Environmental Illness (MCS/EI), or are hearing-impaired, to name a few examples. The term “disability” encompasses a wide range of physical and cognitive functional differences, and how a person experiences a disability is subjective, contingent upon personal variances such as experience, age, gender, sexuality, class, and race. Additionally, what constitutes disability by law and medical professionals, and how others interpret and police disabilities are constantly in flux. A person might evaluate the disability of someone who parks in an accessible parking space: Does the person look disabled? Is the person disabled enough to “deserve” the parking space? The symbol of the physical support acts as a tangible stand-in for “disability,” while the wider spectrum of disability lacks comparable symbols.

Even recent critical disability studies texts on the intersections of disability and sex, such as Margrit Shildrick’s Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity, and Sexuality and editors Robert McRuer and Anna Morrow’s anthology Sex and Disability, figure disability on their front covers as a crutch and/or a wheelchair. A consequence of this is that critical disability studies is forging productive work at the intersections of sex and disability, but aesthetically this intersection is visually legible as a limited portion of the broad category of disability. Reducing disability to those that include a visual support may perpetuate ideas that sex is only available to those who can think like an able-bodied person, process desire and make decisions like an able-bodied person, but not for those who do not. If different disabilities are differently legible, then what are the aesthetics of disabilities that have no “support”?

In Untitled, the carnival acts as an entry point into scenes of light-hearted sexual play. Though, perhaps, there is the danger of an ableist, normative reading of this work, critically-distanced looking gets tangled up in voyeurism, participation, and longing. Looking becomes something more erotic and interactive. With this invitation, gender, ability, sexual preferences and practices are opened up, and embodiments of differences are something to be celebrated. Ramirez, in her beautiful rendering in flowing, subtle watercolors and ink, creates an imaginary world where erotic desires play out in a theatrical boudoir scene. In this world, everyone is allowed to be a desiring subject or a desired object. After all, in the game of strip poker, there are no losers.

1 Daniel Goodley and Rebecca Lawthorn “Disability, Deleuze, and Sex,” in Deleuze and Sex, ed. Frida Beckman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 90.

2 In using the term “disabled-and-sexed body,” I am following Daniel Goodley and Rebecca Lawthorn in order to indicate the intersections of disability and sexuality — how the two are acting together — and the embodiment of these two things, which are culturally coded as unrelated. This, however, is not to say that there is a disabled body that is not sexed or that sexuality cannot be expressed as asexuality. See their article “Disability, Deleuze, and Sex,” in Deleuze and Sex, ed. Frida Beckman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 89-105.

3 See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. Sharon L. Snyder (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002), 56-75.

4 For further reading on the “stare” in relation to photographs of disabled bodies see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, ibid. Garland-Thomson theorizes the visual rhetorics of the unmitigated stare at photographs of disabled bodies as an intense form of looking that absolves the viewer of responsibility, produces disability as absolute difference, and manifests the power relations between subject and object.

FEATURE Part 2: Viktoria Modesta, prototype for the future?

The screen goes black. The music has stopped. A slow tapping sound like an ice pick on a window alternates with the sound of footsteps, as a white stage and the legs of a performer come into view. One leg is bare, a conventionally sexy woman’s leg ending in a towering heelless shoe. The other is less expected: rather than flesh and bone, there is a sleek black blade, a dark stalactite beginning at the knee and ending in a dangerous point. The spike taps and slices across the glassy surface of the floor producing the sound of a knife dragging across a plate. Scintillating, yet eerie. A dark and thrilling walking-dance has begun. Its dancer, Viktoria Modesta, punctuates the choreography with stabs at the icy floor, shattering the surface wherever the point of her spike prosthetic leg connects. It’s an appendage but also a weapon, and the result is fiercely beautiful.

Screen Shot from Viktoria Modesta "Prototype" music video,

Screen Shot from Viktoria Modesta “Prototype” music video,

Modesta’s music video, Prototype, features multiple vignettes that represent ideas of rebellion, difference, sex, and general bad-assery. A TV cartoon Modesta reminiscent of Betty Boop inspires a young girl to rip the leg off her doll and use the toy to repeatedly stab another doll, all to the horror of the girl’s mother. A boy carves “VM” into his desk, while, in another scene, Modesta enters the room with a prosthetic that flickers and buzzes to life like a fluorescent light surrounded with moths. A smug Modesta is detained by uniformed men resembling Nazis, who interrogate her for being a symbol of the people. They show her a photo of a man who has his leg cut off (possibly self-inflicted) making a peace sign.

Screen Shot from "Prototype", 2014

Screen Shot from Viktoria Modesta’s “Prototype”, 2014

The dance-walk at the end of the video eventually escalates into a full fledged ballet, tutu and all, with Modesta hanging from wires (a kind of disappointing ending to the ravenously lovely dance-walk scene, in my opinion). Then, the video ends with the words “Born Risky”, the name of the ad campaign created by Channel 4, who funded Prototype. The video was first aired during an ad break for the X Factor, estimated to be seen by approximately 10 million viewers. Not surprisingly, it went viral soon after, often posted with taglines like “Forget what you know about disability” and “World’s first bionic pop star.” Modesta is (as far as I know) the first pop star proudly flaunting a disability.


Screen Shot from "Prototype", 2014

Screen Shot from “Prototype”, 2014

Just as with Modesta’s Swarovski crystal leg debuted at the 2012 Paralympics, the final product, the music video, is far less important than the ideas produced around it.  Prototype (which may or may not be a good song, depending on your musical preferences) attempts to capture ideas of rebellion, difference, and risk. On the up side, the video brings positive visibility to people with disabilities, and, furthermore, demonstrates that people with disabilities can be sexy and desirable. The lyrics exude confidence and a gaze directed at the future. Modesta declares herself the prototype for a new body, an entirely new human being. She is the “limitless” model from which all things will be based in the future. On a not so up side, in producing and promoting the video as a centerpiece of the “Born Risky” campaign, Channel 4 hopes to capitalize on these ideas and bolster their own image.

Aligning the campaign with the concept of risk, Channel 4 has produced an edgy, yet self-congratulatory advertisement regarding, I imagine, everything they are “risking” by backing an artist with a disability. But is it really that risky for them? Is this video really empowering? Is a video by an artist with a disability going viral reason enough to celebrate? Or, is this just another sad reminder that, despite being 2015, we have only made it this far? One artist. One video.

Some Glances to the Past

Though Modesta is being billed as the first star with a disability in the music industry, this is not the first time that prosthetics and the supports associated with disability have come in contact with broader popular culture; and, she is not the first model/public figure with an amputation to appear in pop culture contexts.

Disclaimer: I won’t even come close to doing the recent history of representation of disabled bodies in popular culture justice here; however, looking briefly back at some past examples where disability appears in pop culture may act as a starting place for a larger, in depth discussion of what exactly is being “risked” by Channel 4 and Modesta (and I hardly think I need to point out that the “risks” of Modesta and Channel 4 are not one and the same).

"The Empowered Woman" Vogue 1995 by Helmut Newton, featuring model Nadja Auermann

“The Empowered Woman” Vogue 1995 by Helmut Newton, featuring model Nadja Auermann

Fashion has long demonstrated a fascination with disability and augmentation of the body through supports. Many designers have taken inspiration from and created fashion pieces out of the brace, for instance. In one image from Helmut Newton’s famous editorial photo shoot “The Empowered Woman” for Vogue in 1995, model Nadja Auermann’s left leg is encased in a complicated and violent looking brace while she leans gently on a cane. For French Vogue in 2008, Catherine McNeil had a beautiful and distressed model in a wheelchair located in a cold, empty industrial setting, evocative of a parking garage or, more objectionably, an insane asylum. In 2010, David Bailey did a photo shoot similar to Newton’s with Abbey Lee Kershaw for i-D Magazine. These examples of fashion sampling disability continue to inspire (at least in the case of Newton) as well as stir arguments surrounding the impact of such representations by the fashion industry.

model Abbey Lee Kershaw by David Bailey for i-D Magazine, 2010

model Abbey Lee Kershaw by David Bailey for i-D Magazine, 2010

In all these cases (and there are plenty more), the disabilities shown are not real disabilities experienced by the models, which brings us to other relevant examples of the model, Paralympics record-setting athlete, and double-below-the-knee amputee, Aimee Mullins. In 1998, Aimee Mullins, was photographed by British fashion photographer Nick Knight for Alexander McQueen in a special issue of the London magazine Dazed & Confused. In one photograph from the issue, Mullins is dressed in a structured basket-like skirt and a wood fan jacket. She is seated on the ground with her artificial legs before her and her head resting on her palm. Like a lifeless doll, she is a storefront window mannequin. Her prosthetic legs are covered in dirt and grime, and the partly chipped red nail polish on her “real” fingernails is reflected in the partly chipped nail polish on her artificial toes.

Amy Mullins photographed by Nick Knight for Dazed and Confused

Aimee Mullins photographed by Nick Knight for Dazed & Confused,1998.

While Aimee Mullins has often been praised in the media, a variety of disability scholars, including Vivian Sobchack, have criticized Mullins for her complicity in questionable representations of her own disabled body.[1] While she has arguably increased visibility for bodies with disabilities in the public sphere, the ways she has done so, scholars argue, may have detrimental effects, perpetuating stereotypes and furthering the fetishization of disabled bodies.

In her book Fashion At the Edge, Caroline Evans discusses this image in relation to her argument that the image of the model-turned-mannequin is a death-like figure that haunted the runway in the 1990’s and continues to reappear in contemporary times. She states of the image of Mullins,

“The picture evoked a run-down mechanical doll, the ghost of the past wound down and come to a halt, appropriately frozen in the deathly gaze of the camera.”[2]

The image of the model as doll is not a new one, as Evans points out. This reduction of real female bodies to lifeless dolls decked out in high fashion clothing is ironic in its portrayal of the fetishization of the female body and the fetishization of the garment as commodity. A doll is uncanny for its mimesis of the human form. The familiar is made strange at the realization that the doll is lifeless and unnatural, an object to be used, played with, and easily replaceable. The real female model-turned-mannequin is made into a spectacle and commodity, an object to be bought and sold like the clothing she models. As a mannequin in the store window, she is only a support for the garment. In fact, she is of less value than the highly coveted fashion items on her body. Mullins, in the Knight photograph, stares blankly into space. She is lifeless, and her artificial legs further the doll and mannequin association. The dirt on her prosthetic legs, her lifeless stare, and her mussed hair are troubling. She might be either the victim of some crime of sexual violence or a broken toy thrown out to the curb. Or both.

Aimee Mullins in MAtthew Barney's Cremaster 3

Aimee Mullins in MAtthew Barney’s Cremaster 3

Marquard Smith argues that Mullins contributes to the “technofetishism” of amputees, particularly in her performance in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 film. Throughout the film, she rotates through a variety of prosthetic legs, including a pair of clear plastic legs. This form of fetishization is an obsession with technology and progress and links it directly to the body in an extreme way. Technology is already grafted to the body in many different ways, from pacemakers to smartphones, from the most inexpensive prosthetic body part to the most expensive and advanced. However, Mullins here switches pieces of her body at will, choosing the ideal set of legs for every situation. According to Smith this technofetishization distracts from the recognition that many people with prostheses do not choose to be without a body part, that wearing prosthetic limbs can be uncomfortable for long periods of time, and that even the best prostheses have limitations.[3] Mullins’s rotation through multiple legs is also a part of her everyday life as she changes between the C- legs used for running (which Mullins calls her “Cheetah legs”) and her ‘everyday’ passing legs (which she terms her “Barbie legs” or “pretty legs”). If the erotic fetishization of Mullin’s body is still in doubt, one must look no further than her leggy “Barbie legs,” which make her an above-average five foot eight inches and require a two inch heeled shoe in order to be able to walk. According to her prosthetist,

These are my fantasy legs. With a single amputee, it’s easier to get an artificial leg to look like a sound leg. But when you’re making two legs, it’s twice as much work. But there’s twice as much freedom, because there’s also no reason why you can’t make them absolutely identical and ideal. Aimee offered me an opportunity to produce the perfect female leg.[4]

His admission (Yes, he’s male. Surprised?) could be straight out of one of Freud’s notebooks. Excitement and sexual desire is thinly veiled, if veiled at all. Playing God, he creates the object of woman just as he fantasizes. He can bring his sexual fetish to life and construct the ideal, his very own Barbie doll with long, perfect, symmetrical legs.

Aimee Mullins & Matthew Barney in Cremaster 3

Aimee Mullins & Matthew Barney in Cremaster 3

In these cases, Mullins exemplifies the dangers of the fetishization of female amputee bodies and merely reducing disability politics to an increase in visibility. Compared to the performance of Modesta, Mullins seems trapped as a pretty, yet agency-less object put on display for erotic fascination. Knight’s fashion photograph of Mullins fixes the model/athlete in a free-floating environment in which only her doll-like figure is available to the consuming eye of the viewer. The camera freezes the moment in a timelessness and empty space. Mullins’s vapid stare suddenly is unsurprising, as she has nothing to gaze upon. Her body is bent within the four walls of the photograph, trapping her in a small, confined box akin to a padded room in a psych ward. Like a doctor peering through a one-way mirrored window or a door peephole, the viewer’s position is one of control, a gaze she cannot return.

In Barney’s Cremaster 3, the various characters she plays have limited mobility due to the fantastic proportions her prosthetic legs are taken. As a half cheetah, half woman, Mullins lounges on a nondescript white ledge like a science experiment. Her thin, rubberized cheetah legs, contrary to the fantasy being produced here, jiggle around limply, betraying the fact that movement is difficult. No doubt a reference to her “Cheetah Legs” that allow her to run races and win medals, the images in Cremaster 3 are ones of sexual availability, exoticism, and scientific specimen rather than active agency.

A Prototype for the Future

This is not to conflate mobility with agency, or cinema as less (or more) problematic than photography. And, it’s easy to see how these arguments can be made against Modesta, including the technofetishism of switching prostheses. The media fascination with Modesta is deeply entrenched in the cultural fetishization of disabled bodies. The fetishization of the female form, in which woman is reduced to body part or parts, particularly genitalia, is so prevalent in the history of image-making that it seems completely commonplace and normal. Therefore, as women with disabilities, Mullins and Modesta are doubly in danger of being fetishized. In many ways, images of Modesta could be argued to represent the fetishization of female amputee bodies, making it clear that any representation of a marginalized body is in danger of being swallowed up by patriarchal cultural conceptions. Specifically, images that represent disabled bodies in any sexual way can be dangerous, and some scholars advocate for a strategy that avoids any such eroticization. Just as some feminists are against pornographic representations of women while other feminists are in favor, valid opinions lie on both sides of the spectrum of the argument with regards to representations of female amputees and fetishization.


By James Stroud

Additionally, the sexual fetishization of amputee bodies is a paradox since disabled bodies are often negatively viewed in our culture as sexual lack – often infantilized (implying asexuality) and/or viewed as unsexy. In this way, strategically done, erotic images of female bodies can assert the sexualities and beauty of bodies of amputees. Modesta embraces the uncanny and makes it her own.

I would argue that comparing images of Mullins with those of Modesta reveal significant differences in representation, such as context, that produce a different sense of agency. For instance, in a series of portraits by James Stroud, some of which appeared in Bizarre Magazine and one of which is now part of the National Portrait Gallery collection, the scene is one of voyeurism: Modesta, completely nude, stands at the bathroom sink adjusting her hair. Without prothesis, her leg is propped up on the edge of the sink for balance as she uses both hands to get her architectural hairstyle in order. She does not engage the viewer’s gaze directly. The black and white photography by a male photographer softens and romanticizes the scene. And, her conventionally beautiful and thin form makes her an object of sexual desire. However, despite the possible dangers of representation in these elements, the image also presents a scene of mundane activity. On the sink sits a large, black toiletry bag. In the corner leans a practical cane, reminding the viewer that despite her beautiful and graceful pose, everyday life can be uncomfortable and demanding. Her below-the-knee amputated leg is a focal point for the viewer. Neither hidden away or extravagantly brought into the limelight by an alternative limb, the leg acts as a site of difference rather than lack or spectacle. Stroud’s photograph is one of beauty, strength, and everyday life.

Screen Shot Viktoria Modesta "Prototype"

Screen Shot Viktoria Modesta “Prototype”

Prototype relies heavily on fashion, spectacle, and attention-drawing alternative limbs, rather than on the mundane or everyday. In many ways, it’s sensational and in others it’s far from perfect. I’m still not even sure I like the song. But, it is a prototype, revealing a complex set of issues and questions surrounding representations of the bodies of female amputees and, more broadly, disabled bodies. As a prototype, hopefully there will be more to come from Modesta and others emboldened by her flaunt-it approach. I feel as though I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of these ideas and issues, but they are invaluable to begin thinking and conversing about disability in a more public sphere. With her killer black spike leg, Modesta has created a space to begin that dialogue.

This is the 2nd part of a two-part feature on Modesta. Read Part 1 here

[1] Vivian Sobchack. “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality” in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Eds. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 33.

[2] Caroline Evans, Fashion At the Edge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 188.

[3] Marquard Smith in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Eds. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 63.

[4] Vivian Sobchack. “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality” in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Eds. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 34.

ROGUE REVIEW: New California Sculpture at Ever Gold Gallery

If Joey Enos and Tamra Seal represent New California Sculpture, as the title of their Ever Gold Gallery shows suggests, then the future looks bright. Literally bright. Like ultra ow-I’ve-singed-my-eyeballs bright.

Both artists play with shockingly vibrant hues that create a luminous alternate reality in the gallery space. The intense artificial colors seem to drip and melt, glow and flare. In the case of Seal, color and light enhance the otherworldly cinematic feel of the work. Enos’s hues, on the other hand, add to the cartoonish character of his pieces, swallowing up the many elements of each sculpture with a homogenous, plague-like frenzy. The two artists are an interesting complement to one another, and I get the sense that at any moment two separate and distinct portals might open up in the middle of the white gallery wall: one to a Toontown and the other to a Forbidden Planet.

New California Sculpture at Ever Gold Gallery, November 21st – December 19th, 2014. Image borrowed from

New California Sculpture at Ever Gold Gallery, November 21st – December 19th, 2014. Image borrowed from

The exhibition, New California Sculpture, resonates tactilely as well as visually. The soft foam textures of Joey Enos’s sculptures beg to be poked and smooshed between fingertips, while Tamra Seal creates minimalist 3D echoes of 2D Technicolor worlds, echoes that evoke old-school movie special effects, staged lighting, and sci-fi props. The works of both artists flicker between the familiar and unfamiliar. Seal’s are radiant, graceful, and almost optimistic in their otherworldliness, while Enos’s pieces are inviting and enticing one second, slightly unnerving and uncanny the next.


Joey Enos, New California Sculpture at Ever Gold Gallery, Nov. 21-Dec. 19, 2014. Image by Amy Mutza.

Walking around Enos’s sculptures is like touring a defunct version of the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. A freestanding hot pink sculpture is a nearly blinding sentry in front of a boarded up wall of neon green, which could be the entrance to a radioactive mineshaft. Smaller cornflower blue assemblages are displayed on a matching cornflower blue shelf, like a mantle full of trophies or prized tchotchkes. One of them, a wooden bat hanging on a stand, has vicious nails sticking out of its end like the weapon of some Warriors-esque street gang. It’s positioned to be easily grabbed and put to use (maybe I’ll test it out on the next visitor that stands too close to me). However, it’s only slightly more menacing than a sports fan’s oversized foam finger, or something Tom and Jerry would use to bop each other on the head in the mock violence and violent mockery of TV cartoons.

mmm...look at that delicious California sculpture.

mmm…look at that delicious California sculpture.

Enos’s works act as assemblage: smaller objects–here a small wooden bat, there a rubber tire–are pieced together like found objects to form larger mixed media sculptures. However, the raw material for these sculptures is uniformly polyurethane foam fabricated with faux textures, like wood and chicken leg (that’s a texture, right?), without concealing the pillowy nature of the foam material from which they are made. Coated with monochrome enamel paint, the pieces have a finish that a friend of mine aptly described as “store-bought birthday cake” with thick, glossy layers like icing and airbrushed highlights. The colors and textures lend the artworks their cartoonish appearance.

still from the movie Forbidden Planet

In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty, noble race of beings who called themselves art writers.

In contrast, Seal’s work is like a journey to an alien planet transmuted from the cinematic screen into a three-dimensional space, albeit in abstract ways. Light and color play a large role in her work, and together they form a phenomenological experience that is luminous. Seal’s acrylic tubes are not, scientifically-speaking, luminous in and of themselves; but, through the use of artificial and natural lighting, they glow as if the source of their own light. Accompanying the sculpture, the two-dimensional photographs are a careful cataloging of her light and color experiments with the three-dimensional tubes. Across the gallery space, twin moon rocks mirror one another, grounding Seal’s otherwise ethereal pieces with their solidity.

In Seal’s artist statement she describes how cinematic imagery like flying saucers and a childhood spent seeing things differently, i.e. blearily, have influenced her artwork:

“Being nearsighted since childhood, without glasses lights appear to me as overlapping simple-shaped colored orbs or bright crystals. I combine found objects of those shapes with my fabrications, turning each of them into a metaphorical character whose relationships with each other dramatize a minimalist narrative.”

The minimalist nature of her work acts as a distilling process that starts with cinema and, culling subject, object, and narrative, leave behind only shapes, colors, and light, feelings and impressions.

Tamra Seal. Image from

Tamra Seal. Image from

The title of the show, New California Sculpture, may be a bit hefty, and possibly implying that a comprehensive combing of the California art-scape was undertaken to find the newest and best contemporary artists working in sculpture. The move, however, is a strategic one. Ever Gold is positioning its exhibition and, thus, these two artists, on a trajectory that links the future of California sculpture style with past California sculptural traditions, specifically So. Cal’s finish fetish based in car and surf culture and the raw trashy aesthetic of the Bay Area’s Funk Movement. If Enos’s work is inspired by the bizarro boho detritus assemblages of the Funk Movement layered with a slick outer enamel coating of finish fetish, then Tamra Seal’s work is akin to the light and space artists of the 60’s and 70’s, such as Larry Bell and James Turrell. It’s a bold move for a two-person exhibition in a petite space, but an interesting one nonetheless. Thankfully, the work of these two artists is not flattened under the weight of the title’s bravado.


FEATURE Part 1: Viktoria Modesta, sparkling model of empowerment?

Today is the final day of the Sochi Olympics, for which there has been, as with all Olympics, non-stop media coverage, much of it repeated ad nauseam. This Olympics has been chock full of controversies (and of course Internet memes), much of which puts Russia and its politics in the bright–but not so hot–spotlight. So in honor of the winter Olympics, but with an awareness that there’s nothing I can bring to the Olympian banquet table that you aren’t already sick of reading, this article is about something else. 

Modesta Closing Ceremony_WinterAt the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games held on September 9th, while Coldplay crooned to a lengthy mashup, performers acted out an enormous spectacle representing the four seasons. At the center of the winter segment was Latvian-born model, singer, London fashion icon, and infamous nightclub host, Viktoria Modesta, who played the role of the Snow Queen. Bathed in blue light, Modesta appeared inside a giant icicle cage on a pedestal while ice skaters maneuvered around her. Released and lifted out, twenty-four year old Modesta then danced and strutted around the ice in sky-high heelless platforms by Natacha Marro, a prickly blue costume by Michael Sharpe, her signature architectural hair style, and a Swarovski Crystal-encrusted prosthetic leg.  Though not the first glamorous and intentionally-conspicuous designer prosthetic worn by Modesta (she also has a “speaker leg”), nonetheless, her performance garnered intense media attention in the days proceeding and following the ceremony due to the debut of the crystal leg, made by The Alternative Limb Project (ALP).

Modesta_The Snow QueenCovered in glittering crystals, mirrored glass shards, strands of silver beads, pale pink studs, and connected by an iridescent steel bar, the prosthetic is the baroque limb of a futuristic posthuman body. The iridescent bar acts as an exposed bone in the center of the prosthetic, as if many layers of flesh, tissue, and ligaments have been cut away to allow the viewer an intimate view of the construction of a shin. Strands of beads cross the gap like ligaments dangling in the separation of the two parts. The crystals and glass shards create a glamorous and sparkling surface texture, but the lack of smooth, warm skin is simultaneously fierce. This is the limb of an ornate cyborg, at once beautiful and delicate, cold and dangerous.

Swarovski Crystal Prosthetic

The creator of Modesta’s glamorous leg and the director of ALP, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, studied and worked as a sculptor in prosthetics for television and film special effects before beginning her own prosthetics company. The company specializes in hyper-realistic prostheses that blend into the body and what Barata terms “alternative” limbs, which are meant as works of art “reflecting the wearer’s imagination, personality, and interests.”[1]

While the media attention on Modesta circled around the international event, the articles produced on the performer focused almost entirely on Modesta’s personal history and unusual appendage. The Paralympic performance was often a one-line mention that acted more as an update of Modesta’s current activities than as a larger context explaining why she and the crystal leg were receiving the spike in interest. The media emphasized her position as both a model and an amputee, Swarovski Crystal Prosthetic_detailserving as an object of both fascination and inspiration at the realization that the beautiful body and the disabled body are not necessarily mutually exclusive. No doubt the attention was at least in part related to the rarity of an individual, a beautiful woman no less, drawing attention to a prosthetic and, thus, to her disability. Rather than concealing her amputation, Modesta makes a fashion accessory of it and flaunts it.

Narratives surrounding people with disabilities often follow the tract of either helpless object of sympathy or inspirational hero who has overcome a challenging disability. While stories of heroism can draw positive attention to people with disabilities, the positioning of amputees, for instance, as “missing” limbs in search of ways to overcome this “lack” furthers a negative discourse around disability. Exemplifying this concept, Bethany Stevens, self-proclaimed “uppity crip scholar-activist and sexologist,” describes feelings of internalized ableism and self-loathing she had as a teenager:

[My mother often] assured me some wonderful man would, at some point in the far off future, be able to see past my disability and see me as attractive and brilliant. I didn’t know then that it is absolutely ridiculous and ableist…to suggest someone would see past what would become a core part of me.[2]

As Stevens notes, to hope for a romantic partner who could see beyond, or overlook, her disability would be a disavowal of a large, indivisible part of her identity and the way she experiences the world. Critical disability theory and disability activism (also referred to as “crip activism”) emphasize that to focus solely on the ways that people with disabilities represent an oppressed minority and to pose disability as the “odds” to be “overcome” is to re-inscribe the already pervasive views that disability is something to be cured and those with disabilities are objects of pity and lack. Scholars and activists, such as Margrit Shildrick, seek not only to record the oppression of communities of disabled bodies, but to show how disability represents a different, extraordinary embodiment and interaction with the world. They reframe lack as potential. Shildrick demonstrates in her work how disability productively challenges limiting normative paradigms of embodiment and can, instead, offer up an expanded model of identity.[3]

Viktoria_Modesta2Barata uses her skills to create hyper-realistic prosthetics as well as alternative prosthetics. Catering to the wearer through a wider range of available options serves as a critique of cultural, scientific, and medical discourses that insist that amputees use prosthetic limbs solely to mimic the “normal” body.  According to Barata, “By just providing people with realistic prosthetics, you’re kind of encouraging them to fit back in and telling them there’s no alternative.”[4]  The technology of prosthetics continues to advance toward the goal of mimesis: prosthetics that look and move like real limbs in order to act as replacements and effectively hide the wearer’s disability. To assume that all individuals with amputations want to look “normal” is an ableist assumption. The crystal leg operates as the reverse of this by drawing attention to the differently-abled body and marking the site of what is culturally coded as “lack” as positive difference, and, in Modesta’s case, an iconic fashion statement.

Modesta’s aesthetically beautiful crystal leg can be viewed as an example of extraordinary embodiment and a positive affirmation of disabled bodies. By wearing a prosthetic as an object of fashion, Modesta flaunts her difference as something unique and worth showing off. Her sparkling crystal leg is a spectacle of empowered choice that disrupts the negative spectacle of disabled bodies as objects of stares. The site of lack becomes a site of potential – if Modesta can wear a leg completely engulfed in crystals, then the possibilities for prosthetic embellishment suddenly seem endless. Furthermore, Modesta has the ability to accessorize and augment her body in ways unavailable to able-bodied people, and she can switch out her leg for different occasions like changing shoes or jewelry.

However, it would be far too easy and reductive to say that Modesta’s pride in her difference is a model that should be taken up by all people with amputations. The crystal leg is not meant for practical, everyday use. Besides having an impractically high heel that would make walking any distance difficult, the very ornate, decorative nature of the crystal-covered leg means that it would not handle daily wear-and-tear as well as more commonly used prosthetics made from durable materials like rubber, steel, wood, and foam.

ALP is an extremely specialized and high-end company, which produces only a few, handcrafted prosthetics at a time with each estimated at costing upwards of $26,000. Insurance companies Swarovski Crystal Legtypically don’t pay for alternative limbs, which are still a new phenomenon and, in the crystal leg’s case, one that emphasizes ornamentation rather than practicality. Because of this, people are often required to pay for the costly custom-made prosthetics out of pocket or procure sponsorship, as is the case with Modesta’s Swarovski Crystal leg. This means that alternative limbs are a luxury item, inaccessible to most.

Artificial limbs used for everyday purposes are costly to make as well as maintain on an annual basis. Many people have difficulty covering the costs of having a limb custom made and fit as well as regularly visiting one’s prosthetist for repairs and maintenance. An average and basic prosthetic leg can cost between $10,000 and $15,000, while the more premium carbon fiber prostheses cost between $40,000 and $50,000.[5]  Without insurance these costs exceed the point of financial burden and become an impossibility to anyone but the wealthier classes. Insurance companies have also been known to deny individuals coverage for newer, more expensive technologies on the basis of the individual’s age and the assumption that an older person probably would not need the maximum comfort, speed, range of motion, etc. that technology and money can offer as, say, a young athlete would.[6]

Additionally, prosthetic limbs are commonly understood to serve two functions: greater mobility and the ability to pass as an able bodied person. It is easy to see how these two basic functions open up a bevy of other functions that extend beyond the physical into the realms of emotional and psychological. The motivations, needs, and desires to wear prosthetics are experienced in subjective ways, varying person to person and context to context. The ability to pass, as disability scholar Vivian Sobchack asserts, is a point of pride for many amputees, and the circumstances under which an individual desires their disability to be visible or concealed vary greatly. Visibility, according to Sobchack, should be on the individual’s terms, and pleasure can accompany both the concealment and the revelation of one’s amputation and/or prosthetic.[7]  Subjectivity and context mean that the politics of disability cannot advocate for only one side – either visibility or concealment, alternative limb or realistic limb – but must accommodate both.


[2] Bethany Stevens, “What I Would Tell My Teenage Self About Sexuality,” from Crip Confessions: Rants of a Crip Sexologist (December 2011), (accessed February 9, 2013).

[3] See Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity, and Sexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2009).

[5] Vivian Sobchack. “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality” in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Eds. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 33.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] Ibid., 31.