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Finding: Source Material in the Archives of American Art

Joan Semmel

In the early 1970s, painter Joan Semmel reacted to finding herself surrounded by images of objectified women in all sorts of media, from pornographic magazines on newsstands to old master paintings in museums. She became active in feminist art circles in New York City and took up painting erotic subjects. This body of work made visible sexual pleasure from a woman’s perspective. Part of her process was to photograph intimate angles of her own body, often with the aid of a mirror. “For me, the mirror was a tool, just like the camera is a tool. It’s a way of getting the image, and I couldn’t always be looking down at myself, so how could I get the rest of it?” Semmel explained in a recent interview.

Semmel’s self-portraits span decades. For each new painting, she crops segments of her source photographs with masking tape and ink to create the desired composition. The affective authenticity of her aging body contrasts the idealized and often retouched representations of women prominent in American culture.

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