Artist Karen Finley wants your sexts. Or more specifically, she wants to draw them. Her latest intallation, on display from May 23 to 26 at the New Museum, will show paintings and sketches that she has created based on photos that viewers text her in real time.
"There’s an out-of-proportion sense of shame with sexting," Finley says. "If you have a phone, then there’s some type of an erotic or sensual exchange happening. How much might be different for everyone? But it is happening."
Finley is also trying to rethink traditional notions of portraiture. All artists learn to draw the human form from nude life models. So why not draw the human form—or take inspiration—from sexts? She points out that a hundred years ago, people would commission the Hudson River painters to draw their portraits. "I’m taking that long-held tradition and placing it within today’s social media and trends," she says. "And maybe society can come away a little bit less squeamish about the human body."
Finley in her art has never been squeamish about anything. A few decades back, she posed half naked and smeared herself with chocolate to protest misogyny, and her work has tackled subjects from AIDS to abuse to family trauma. In the early '90s, she was one of four artists whose National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants were revoked because their work was thought to undermine "general standards of decency," according to a new congressional statute. Finley and her colleagues have spent decades fighting for artistic freedom. She is now part of the NEA 4 in Residence, which is the New Museum’s way of celebrating these once beleaguered artists.
Anyone can commission a sext-based work from Finley. When you sign up, the museum will give you a private phone number to Finley’s phone. (She’ll be using a loaner phone from the museum.) You will then have 10 minutes in a private space during which to send your images. She will use these images—or, if you prefer, written texts— as inspiration to create a drawing or painting. These will then go on display at the museum. When the exhibit ends, you can take your work home. The entire process is anonymous, and you must be at least 18 to participate. Prices range from $200 to $500.
Finley has done the sexting exhibit once before at the Miami Art Fair and was surprised by how creative the sexts were. "People who are thinking about the pictures are thinking about composition," she says. "You have this shape of the phone—the screen. You have to think about how [the image] will look." She says one woman sent a picture of her toenail. Other images were quite abstract. "There’s nothing at all creepy about this," she says. "That was a big surprise for me. It’s fun and festive."
Theoretically, some of her pictures might not even be that sexual in nature. "You’re not guaranteed what I’ll draw," she says. "It’s an interpretation, not a photo." But, she added, "No one’s been disappointed."
[Karen Finley Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders]