The Erotics of Erasure

by Max Tolleson May 31, 2024
Installation view of photos in F Houston

Installation view of “Sheila Forde, Tuomas Korpijaakko” at F in Houston, on view from April 21 – June 8, 2024. Photo: Francisco Ramos

The pleasure of losing yourself in the image foreseen. I rose from my body and went out in search of who I am. A pilgrim of my self, I have gone to the one who sleeps in the winds of her country.

—Alejandra Pizarnik, “Paths of the Mirror” from Extracting the Stone of Madness

What if Narcissus had not died in vain next to the pool bearing his reflection (a reflection he longed to hold but never could), but instead saw in his mirror image an infinite image world to which he belonged? Perhaps, with the frontiers of his ego totally annihilated, Narcissus would not have been in love with himself, but in love with his “self-as-all.” He would not have died from image-love, but instead become creative, pouring himself out into the world, or so thought the psychoanalyst, Lou Andreas-Salomé. (1)

While viewing paintings by Sheila Forde and Tuomas Korpijaakko currently on view at F, I was reminded of Andreas-Salomé’s provocative theory of narcissism; a theory that went against the orthodoxy of her teacher, Sigmund Freud. Because for Andreas-Salomé — who was quite the femme fatale, by the way (she had an affair with Rainer Maria Rilke and was courted by Friedrich Nietzsche; a scandalously staged photograph of her whipping the philosopher and another suitor says it all) — the libido did not act like a one-way street directed solely toward an object of desire. Instead, she thought of the libido as a hyphen or connector that could conjugate and incorporate the individual with the external world in which they see themselves. Forde’s and Korpijaakko’s paintings explore the libidinal drive and its relation to the self-as-all, the self as image in a world made up of image-objects that desire to be desired as much as they resist the desiring gaze.

Detail of installation view of historical errotica

Sheila Forde, “ephemera” (detail), 1987-2024, French matted art print, art postcards, one 1996 love-letter postcard, business cards, photographs, photocopied reference of art and photographs, photocopied reference of book covers and media, one stitched patch, 1996 cinema stub receipt for the film Sense and Sensibility, love potion receipt, receipt for wedding hat, 1996 tram ticket from Prague, printed passage of text from essay ‘The Love of the Wolf’ by Hélène Cixous, archival ink on paper original drawing, oil pastel on paper original drawing, coiled tapestry ribbon and pearl pins from wedding bouquet, butterfly clip, one queen of hearts Ukrainian playing card with ink pen drawn through the hearts, installation dimensions variable. Photo: Francisco Ramos

The art historical linchpin of the exhibition that encapsulates this tension between erotic desire and refusal would be in The Origin of the World (1866), a painting by the nineteenth-century Realist, Gustave Courbet. Forde has given several reproductions of Courbet’s anatomically precise painting of a reclining woman’s vagina pride of place on her wall of ephemera in the gallery, which, like a trail of breadcrumbs, leads us deeper into the mystery of her paintings. Apparently bored by the genre and its penchant for dressing up male fantasies of nude women in the publicly acceptable attire of mythical goddesses, Courbet painted this realistic nude with abundant pubic hair and gave her a title that not only presented her as a rival of the Almighty but united the prospect of a potential lover with that of a potential mother. Face it, the painting seems to say, mothers can lead erotic lives, too. Forde also breaks down the Law of the Father by including a reproduction of a painting of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who has become a feminist icon for her insubordination and refusal to obey her husband. 

Painting of a snarling wolf with blood on its face

Sheila Forde, “in rushes fear,” 2024, oil on canvas, 10 x 8 inches. Photo: Francisco Ramos

Across the gallery hangs autoportrait the change (for Courbet) (2024), Forde’s painting of her own naked body, an homage to Courbet and The Origin of the World’s critique of the male gaze, but with a third-wave feminist twist conveyed most noticeably by the garter set she wears. At once an erotic offering (“for Courbet”) and empowering self-portrait of sexual liberation (according to the press release, Forde began making art after leaving her marriage), autoportrait the change (for Courbet) suggests, in the spirit of Andreas-Salomé, that love is an inward journey of solitude, but one surrounded by one thousand mirrors as if seeming to expand.

Forde’s other two paintings in the gallery are shown side by side, like a pair: one, a wolf whose blood-stained fur insinuates a fresh kill, and the other, a woman in the midst of smearing red lipstick across her face. Combined, they capture the essence of a passage from Hélène Cixous’s essay “Love of the Wolf” that Forde has adhered to the nearby wall, which describes the primal fear and threat of violence that lurks beneath the surface of sex and seduction.

Blurry painting of two nude figures in embrace

Tuomas Korpijaakko, “Limbo,” 2024, oil on canvas, 10 x 8 inches. Photo: Pierre Le Hors

Sex, minus the seduction, is presented full on in several of Korpijaakko’s paintings, but where one might expect to find titillation, one encounters instead an erotics of erasure. These paintings, which were inspired by pre-internet publications of amateur erotic personals, use their source material as an opportunity to imagine identity as something fluid, shared, and erotically fulfilled. In Limbo (2024), nude bodies have been blurred to a point beyond identification; it is not only unclear what sex the figures might be, but exactly how many figures there are altogether. In Blue (2024), directly adjacent, two bodies are more clearly identifiable, but here their distinctions are canceled by cool blue oils that envelop both of their bodies, the bed upon which they perform their sex act, and the entire room in a primordial ocean of blue energy. Of the trio, however, Double (2024) conveys the erotics of erasure most profoundly by presenting two women touching one another intimately, but whose bodies have been cropped to convey only their midsections. We are then inclined to think we are seeing the same woman twice, caressing her mirror image. This last painting is similar in some ways to Pablo Picasso’s Two Nudes (1906), in which the narcissistic gesture is connected not with vanity but with the body doubling, dissolving and ultimately occupying a pre-Oedipal space of possibility where “woman” has not yet been defined by “man.” Limbo, Blue, and Double very much exist within the territory of narcissism, but it is Andreas-Salomé’s narcissism, which implies a primal wholeness prior to ego development and is represented by bodies whose identities are in flux and boundaries are porous, perhaps even non-existent. 

Painterly painting of the detail of a woman's face

Tuomas Korpijaakko, “The Human Face,” 2024, oil on canvas, 10 x 8 inches. Photo: Pierre Le Hors

Nowhere else in the exhibition is this narcissistic disassembly rendered more palpable than in Korpijaakko’s The Human Face (2024), a portrait which, according to the press release, was made by way of innumerable faces rendered, then wiped away, then rendered again, their presence visible only as an illegible miasma of ghostly pentimenti. The result is not a human face but a multitude of faces that coalesce into a singular form, the “self as all,” the previous and potentially future selves that brush across the canvas surface. Screen (2024), which displays an otherwise banal view of an air vent the artist sees when they are on their therapist’s couch, captures the artist’s own moment of private disassembly. However, this moment of mental undressing flowers quite nicely into the nearby 10,000 Dreams (2024) in which Korpijaakko renders a sea of luminous white faces in a darkened movie theater, all staring at the same screen but presumably forming their own unique mental images. With these paintings, one might say, the artist has poured out their private visions into an aquifer of imagery that provides — like life-giving waters — the potential for an imagined community and a transition from individual to collective identity.

Questioning and reckoning with the contours of the self and its operations within a symbolic economy, which Forde and Korpijaakko have carefully done, seem like something we could all benefit from these days. I might even suggest that understanding the boundaries and reverberations of oneself within the world is fundamental to keeping this social circus called life on planet Earth from going completely off the rails. 


Sheila Forde, Tuomas Korpijaakko is on view at F in Houston through June 8, 2024. 


1.  Karla Schultz, “In Defense of Narcissus: Lou Andreas-Salomé and Julia Kristeva,” The German Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2 Knitting the Connections: Comparative Approaches in/to German Literature, Spring 1994.

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