The term “art monster” has been gaining prominence in the English lexicon after being first popularized by the novelist Jenny Offil in her 2014 book Dept. of Speculation. “My plan was never to get married,” she writes, “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” Since Offil’s use of the term, there has been frequent discussion of what defines an art monster beyond “someone big and important and unreasonable. Male, obviously” and whether women can be art monsters, since they too can be opposed to mundanity (childbearing, housework).
In Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), her new book of hybrid cultural criticism and memoir, the writer Lauren Elkin seeks to redefine this term beyond these tensions and to consider women who have liberated themselves from social expectations to be “appropriate, exacting, friendly, and accommodating.” She sets out to create her own definition by applying the term to women artists whose work has a quality of monstrosity: “I started thinking of the art monster as someone who reclaims space for herself,” she writes, “or creates troubling works that make us think about our bodies.” The book opens a discourse on women’s relations to, troubles with and reclamations with (their) bodies in their artwork, and who could be considered monstrous for doing so.
Art Monsters opens with a brief prologue of sorts, titled “The Slash,” on Elkin’s fondness for this grammar: “The slash joins genres, genders, blurs, bends, invites, marks.” Loosely structured with chapters that are sometimes thematic, sometimes not, Elkin meanders from thought to thought on so-called female art monsters, picking up threads, putting them back down. The slashes are a mode that enables Elkin to merge to practice the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality: “to describe the way that the meanings of a work are created not only through our direct experience of it but through its place in a complex web of other works and references.” The book therefore proceeds in a non-linear fashion as Elkin revisits works and experiences new ones, generating dialogues between them and their artists.
The chapter “Carry That Weight” discusses taking up space, titled after the performance piece by Emma Sulkowicz, then an undergraduate student at Columbia University who carried her dorm mattress everywhere to protest the university’s inaction around a student who raped her. Elkin opens this chapter discussing artist Ann Hamilton, who asked her students to carry a 4×8 sheet of plywood to take up more space. Later, Elkin writes of becoming pregnant with her son while writing this book: “I felt caught between pleasure at being socially authorized to take up more space and astounded at how unlike myself I felt as I did so.”
The space a woman takes up, especially in public spaces harkens to Elkin’s prior book No.91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus, which documents her daily entries in the notes app on her phone of her bus commute to and from work; the songs she listens to, the shuffles, motions and positionings of people around her, personal space. In Art Monsters, it’s her pregnancy and social restrictions of Covid that interrupts the narrative and limit Elkin’s movement between seeing art, writing her criticism, and conducting research at libraries.
Though cautious of defining any type of women’s literature, Elkin describes linking as a way through the rich feminist history in art and literature, inclusively: “if there is an écriture feminine, a language of women’s creativity, it may well be in the weave” thinking of it “as a metaphor for women’s mode of telling.” With its intentional lack of assertiveness, Art Monsters also invites the reader’s mind to roam into their own pool of art and literary references. The mention of weaving jolted my mind to the work of Wangechi Mutu, her bronze woven kikapu basket sculptures carrying things from coiled snakes to a gigantic braid of hair, or her film The End of Carrying All, which mentally entwined with Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).
Some of the most pleasurable linkages in this weaving come when Elkin discusses Kara Walker’s A subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, a huge sugar-coated sculpture depicting the mammy figure in a sphinx pose. Elkin turns to the history of the sphinx and depictions of this figure via feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, “she challenges the culture of the city, with its order of kinship and its order of knowledge, a culture and a political system which assign women a subordinate place.” From here, Elkin writes of other figures “on the fringes of society” such as Medusa, and Sutapa Biswas’s portrayal of the Hindu goddess Kali in the painting Housewives with Steak-Knives. This section swirls between women artists subverting and reclaiming these historic heroine figures often seen as monstrous.
Elkin notes, “It has felt critical to think through these issues of monstrosity, of beauty and excess, of storytelling and form, in order to think about how to be female in a body in the early twenty-first century.” But it is in the twentieth-century that many of her examples are culled from, a time when women were first beginning to make art that summoned uncomfortability. Artworks from the seventies feature prominently throughout Art Monsters, a time of much monstrosity amongst women artists, before capitalism took over the art world. Carollee Schneeman’s performance piece Interior Scroll where she read to a gallery audience a text on a narrow scroll addressed to an Artforum critic that she drew out of her vagina. Lynda Beglis’s double page spread artforum advertisement, depicting herself near naked holding a double edged dildo and wearing white sunglasses as a mockery of the pinup and macho.
While Elkin primarily grounds Art Monsters in the works of women artists from the last fifty years, it is Virginia Woolf and Eva Hesse whose work feel the true threads. The book opens with the line “Virginia Woolf has just had an epiphany in her bathtub.” The epiphany, an envisioned book Professions for Women, is later distilled to a speech given to the National Society for Women’s Service in 1931. “I do not think I solved telling the truth about my own experiences as a body,” Woolf wrote, “I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.” For Elkin, this sentiment and “the problem of beauty for feminism” ground the central concerns of her book in considering woman artists as monsters whose work was not pleasing, appropriate, accommodating or taking up a small amount of space.
For Elkin, it was Eva Hesse who pioneered female space. At one point, Elkin describes a photograph of Eva Hesse lying on her couch, weighed down by one of her rope sculptures on top of her, and writes, “Every moment I’m not writing this book, I’m Eva Hesse lying on that couch.” The weight seems to be the idea of beauty, the book releasing some of that weight. Elkin closes the book with her taking a cab to a museum and back during a brief layover in Milwaukee to view Eva Hesse’s sculpture Right After suspended from the ceiling, made of entangled fiberglass cord, like a messy constellation. Seeing it in the flesh, Elkin ponders Hesse’s conception of the piece vs its realization. She quotes Hesse as lamenting: “I felt it needed more statement, more work, more completion, and that was a mistake because it left the ugly zone and went to the beauty zone. I didn’t mean it to be that. And it became for me . . . decorative. That word or the way I use or feel about it is the only art sin.”
Elkin’s book, as stirring as it is, never enters the beauty zone. It remains randomized, slashed-up, not too combed over in reworking, in a word monstrous.